In 2007, Sagar Ballary unleashed the first Bheja Fry on an unsuspecting public. Released with minimal fanfare and with no head-lining star power to drum up advance interest, Bheja Fryturned out to be a highly unexpected critical and box office hit. Bheja Fry introduced the lovable low-watt tax collector Bharat Bhushan (Pathak). Bhushan secretly yearns to bank on his equally low-watt acting-singing “talents” to break into showbiz while chasing down upper crust tax cheats in a refreshing comedy of errors. Four years later, Ballary and company return with Bheja Fry 2 (BF2). This time there was sizable fanfare that included an actual publicity budget. BF2, while intermittently engaging, alas, is just not as funny.
Returning to the same fertile premise that made the first installment of Bheja so appealing, Pathak retraces his Bhushan alter-ego. Paired with his mumbling sidekick and fellow tax collector M.T. Shekharan (Suresh Menon), the duo land a mission to nail Ajit Talwar (Kay Kay Menon), the philandering, notorious tycoon widely suspected of avoiding taxes by creating shell businesses and complicated off-shore tax havens. When Bhushan wins a game show, his award includes a free cruise. The cruise brings together a motley crew of passengers. In addition to Bhushan and Talwar, there is Shekharan, who disguises himself to catch the tax cheats and also Ranjini (Lambha), a stage manager who Bhushan takes a shine to. As luck would have it, Bhushan and Talwar end up being stranded together on a deserted island.
As interesting as the first Bheja Fry was, it turned out to be uncannily similar to Francis Veber’s 1998 French comedy The Dinner Game. In the first round, Ballary and Pathak did a commendable job of slapping together a comic commentary that exploited income and class differences. Having overcome those social boundaries in the first round, what is left this time is simply regurgitating the same set-ups. There are innuendos galore, and the eye-popping, matter-of-fact use of certain choice cuss words that are barely one or two plugs shy of the Hindi equivalent of the four-letter universal English expletive. What is also distracting is that Kay Kay Menon, while terrific at histrionics, is not so good at comedy.
Pathak’s deadpan comic timing is remarkable. Pathak’s Bhushan character is in the same vein as Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean incarnation—dedicated to his job, well-meaning, asexual, and utterly clueless. Pathak also did a decent turn in the lesser known 2009 comedy Straight, where he played a “unisex” London restaurateur whose precise sexual preference becomes the driving point in the lives of all those around him. BF2’s extended island scene, involving a pair of red men’s underpants and references to male nudity, almost appears to pay homage to Pathak’s Straight persona. However, these interesting footnotes are not good enough to add a third dimension to what is mostly a two-dimensional script. This may matter little. With how success gets defined in Hindi films, Bheja Fry may turn into a franchise. Bheja Fry: The Prequel and Bheja Fry: The College Years probably won’t be far behind.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.