In a caustic review of the 1997 film Con Air, Anthony Lane noted that the script spent so much time building up the film’s villains—by having the other characters go on and on about their unfathomable wickedness—that it was a letdown when we actually got to see these supposed embodiments of evil. Their personalities didn’t justify the fuss.
I had a version of the same complaint about Mudassar Aziz’s Happy Bhag Jayegi, a goofy comedy in which a young Amritsari woman named Happy flees her wedding and accidentally ends up in Lahore. Throughout the film, we are told how kooky and resourceful this heroine is—such a pataaka (firebrand), so endearing it’s impossible not to fall in love with her. This notion is the bedrock of a frank, guy-to-guy talk between her Sad Sack boyfriend, Guddu, and the young Pakistani politician, Bilal, who is smitten by her. All that’s missing is a congregation of turbaned bards singing Happy’s praises in flowery verse in the background, while the main characters speak her praises in flat dialogue in the foreground.
Unfortunately, this conceit doesn’t work when the viewer has to engage with Happy herself, as a real person rather than an abstraction. In fact, she vanishes altogether for a chunk of the film’s midsection—the professed reason is that the character has been kidnapped, but it felt more like the writers had discovered Diana Penty wasn’t up to the task of creating the sort of heroine that Kareena Kapoor Khan did in Jab We Met.
In fairness to the actor, the script doesn’t do much to flesh out Happy. She has the outward trappings of personality, but it’s surprisingly easy to lose interest in her, so the hosannas ring false. “Uss mein tum se aur mujh se kai zyaada taaqat hai (She is much stronger than us),” one suitor solemnly says to another, a line that should warm the cockles of anyone who wants our cinema to be self-consciously progressive and feminist, but one which makes little sense in this context.
One can speculate that the “Happy is missing” scenes fit the character’s symbolic function in this border-crisscrossing story: Here are India and Pakistan, two countries forever at loggerheads, but the regular people in both places are exactly alike (sweet-natured, bungling imbeciles, if this film is to be believed) and they want what people everywhere do—some “happy”. But how to find it?
So, one way of looking at this film is to think of the protagonist as a cipher or, to use Alfred Hitchcock’s term, a MacGuffin—the little detail that drives a plot, but which the viewer doesn’t have to be particularly concerned with. For example, in Notorious, the MacGuffin was the uranium ore being hoarded by Nazi spies in wine bottles: a plot device which facilitates the playing out of the complex, intense love triangle that is the truly compelling thing about that film. The love triangle (or love pentagon) in Happy Bhag Jayegi is far from compelling, but the little vignettes involving the supporting cast are: Piyush Mishra as a nervous Pakistani policeman who hates the idea of India but loves many things Indian (including Yash Chopra); the marvellous Jimmy Shergill, who is making a screen career of being ditched by women with inexplicably poor taste in men, as the irritable Bagga; Kanwaljit Singh as the patriarchal father who—in the style of John Wayne in The Searchers (1956), bent on killing his niece because she has been “despoiled” by becoming one of the Indians— wields a gun and swears murder, but returns to being soft old daddykins in the end. Such engaging sideshows surround the film’s MacGuffin-like heroine and her bland leading men.
Of course, it’s a problem when a character becomes a cipher not because it was intended that way, but because of a flaw in execution. An example was last year’s Dolly Ki Doli, in which the con woman Dolly was meant to be vibrant and lovable and draw the viewer’s sympathy, but ended up as a blank slate, thanks largely to Sonam Kapoor’s vacant performance in the lead. Something comparable happens in Happy Bhag Jayegi, and I think a more avant-garde (and more fun) film might have gone with this trick: Don’t show Happy at all; construct the narrative in such a way that we know she is there, a flesh-and-blood person with this story moving around her, but we never see her (maybe a few ghostly glimpses of a salwar-kameez-clad figure—the film plays with that idea in a different context). Here we sit in the hall for 2 hours, but she eludes our eyes, in much the same way that brotherly happiness and harmony have eluded India and Pakistan. Meanwhile, the rich pageant of humanity in both countries—crooks, spurned lovers, buffoons—can fumble about in a wild goose chase, never finding their Happy, but doing their own thing and entertaining us in the process. That could have been a super film.
Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world. Jai Arjun Singh tweets at @jaiarjun.