The track by which Filmistaan came to see the light of a wide release provides a stark learning curve in how tortuously slow the path some Hindi films take in production, marketing and screening. First floated as an unknown entry at a film festival in South Korea in 2012 and then going to win India’s prestigious Best Feature Film in Hindi—2012, Filmistaan only received “wide” (which is a relative 450 theaters compared to Akshay Kumar’s Holiday with a 2,000+ theater global rollout) in June 2014. All is not lost. Small-budgeted yet supremely confident in its delivery, Filmistaan is a phenom satire that uses black comedy and the universal draw of cinema, in this case Hindi movies, to spark a mini-détente in a perennially strained India-Pakistan neighborhood.
Struggling actor Sunny (Hashmi) is a buffoon. Not your every day run of the mill buffoon, mind you. He is a gross buffoon, which is like, you know, 144 times more clueless than an average buffoon. Landing a short gig as a director’s assistant for the making of a documentary to be filmed along the far reaches of the Rajasthan desert, a career in movies may, just may, be on the horizon. Tasked with fixing a flat tire on a film crew vehicle late one night, Sunny’s life takes an incredible turn when he is kidnapped and finds himself not only in Pakistan but smack in the hands of Islamist border-runners. When the desert fog settles, Sunny’s captors, who think they have kidnapped an “American” (white) film crew member are just as shocked to learn they have instead bagged a “local” (Indian) victim as the bewildered Sunny is in finding himself in this predicament.
Sunny is placed in the home of a caretaker family whose equally buffoon son Aftab (Inaamulhaq) takes a liking to Sunny. Conjoined by Sunny’s film “connections” —as he boasts to his unwitting hosts—and Aftab’s predilection for pirated Hindi movies, the arrangement blossoms into an unusual bromance. In the nightly desert screenings of pirated Hindi movies, which most often is the Salman Khan breakout hit Maine Pyar Kiya (1989), shown to both bemused locals and irate Islamists, and against odds, a slight shift in the cross-border winds takes form.
Kakkar’s story and direction, seemingly fledgling with a two-dimensional onset, take small stunning turns that easily translate into wider cultural jabs. An Indian border patrol guard refuses to allow filming on “his” territory—which is, by all accounts, a patch of desert sand—comes around suddenly when he is offered to “star” in his own filmed confession about how he flaunts the law. A Pakistani cop secretly craves pirated “special” movies—porn, for the uninitiated—which are all but taboo on both sides of the border.
The abundant absurdities cross both ways. In captivity, Sunny hears a mournful Pakistani song late at night and realizes it is the same tune overlaid by a popular Lata Mangeshkar entry back home. The language he hears and the taste of meager rations he is served under lock is just like what he is used to in Mumbai. If not for the periodic visits by Pakistani cops making their rounds and the sly masterminds behind Sunny’s kidnapping lurking in the hood, this could all be … India!
The acting is wonderfully restrained and, given an unknown cast—highly refreshing. Hashmi and Inaamulhaq make superb first-responder geeks out of their realm and yet perfectly in synch with a silent universal drumbeat calling them to action of sorts. Mishra and Dutt, as two machine-gun wielding good-cop bad-cop captors guarding Sunny, offer a rich peek inside the often self-doubting and self-loathing fundamentalist mind. The movie poster—depicting worship of movies as if they are deities—is one of the best in recent memory.
If newly elected prime minister’s Narendra Modi’s opening remarks can be taken at face value, one can cautiously hope for improved cross-border relations. If Filmistaan has anything to say, and it says plenty in both intended and unintended ways, there may be hope yet for a sub-continental thaw. If the best satire comes from simplicity, Filmistaan is a simple home-run. Don’t miss it!