NAUTANKI SALAA! Director: Rohan Sippy. Players: Ayushmann Khurrana, Kunal Roy Kapoor, Pooja Salvi, Gaelyn Mendonca. Music: Mikey McCleary. Hindi with Eng. Sub-titles. Theatrical Release (T Series).
The last time that Hindi filmmakers successfully superimposed the broad and bold stroke language of a stage drama onto successful movie comedies was perhaps in the 1970s and early 1980s when Hrishikesh Mukherjee (Chupke Chupke) and Basu Chatterjee (Khatta Meetha) hit gold. That is a long time indeed! For this gimmick to work, the right mix of charm, directorial finesse and comic timing all must triangulate with more-or-less pinpoint accuracy. In a remarkable follow up to his highly successful debut in Vicki Donor, Khurrana partners with Sippy to elevate Nautanki Salaa! by nailing the sweet spot smack in between absurd comedy and absurd love triangle.
Based on Pierre Salvador’s winsome French comedy Apres Vous (2003) with Daniel Auteuil, Nautanki very naturally translates a French comedy of errors into a frothy Mumbai setting. Ram Parmar (Khurrana), who much prefers his stage name RP, thank you, is a semi successful stage actor hawking his trade by plugging himself into the lead in a play celebrating the life of Raavan, the demon king from the Ramayan. RP’s one weakness—or most obvious weakness, if you will—is that he can’t turn away from anyone who asks for help, surely an odd trait to have in a very crowded city. In a moment of weakness—or moral penitence, if you will—RP rescues Mandar (Kapoor), a suicidal do-nothing hanger-on who instantly becomes RP’s shadow, alter-ego, uninvited roommate and chief moocher. As RP’s luck would have it, when he attempts reuniting Mandar with his estranged girlfriend Nandini Patel (Salvi), RP finds himself drawn to Nandini.
Natuanki Saala! yet again highlights newcomer Khurrana’s expanding screen presence. After scoring a sizable critical and box office hit with his debut in the delightful Vicki Donor last year, Khurrana again proves why he is being lauded as a new breed of front lining names. Not only can Khurrana muster decent mid-tempo serio-comic histrionics in front of the camera, he is also equally talented behind the scenes. In addition to the Filmfare Award for Best Male Debut, in a first ever, Khurrana also showcased his vocals with the superb “Pani Da Rang” number from Vicki Donor for which he landed the Filmfare Best Male Playback Singer trophy. In Nautanki, Khurrana does a pretty decent down-tempo turn with “Saadi Galli Aaja,” which he helped write both the music and the lyrics for.
And yet, Nautanki is far from a one-man show. Countering Khurrana’s weight are some amazing production values courtesy of the deep pockets at T-Series channeling their clout behind smartly made smaller movies. The Raavan stage play artifacts are beautifully stark and evocative of the evil king’s ten-headed persona. There is also Kapoor, who made his mark as a flatulent and plumber’s crack exhibiting Delhiite in Aamir Khan’s Delhi Belly. Khurrana and Kapoor together are as delightful to watch as Sanjay Dutt and Arshad Warsi were in the Munna Bhai M.B.B.S franchise. Newcomer Salvi provides the right amount of charm in completing this strange love-triangle while TV-star Mendonca adds just a touch of sizzle as RP’s vampy stage co-star.
A loose, figuratively modern translation of Nautanki Salaa! is, let’s face it, Drama Queen. Since the key word is Nautanki—which instantly evokes cheap staging, unrehearsed slapstick, pancake-make up “musicals” perpetrated as village road shows from the back of diesel lorries with engines suspiciously always-running as if on standby for quick getaways before restless audiences begin hurling shoes or rotten tomatoes (or even worse) at the stage. That just about sums up the spirit of Nautanki Salaa! Here’s hoping that Nautanki Salaa! turns into a franchise of sorts for Khurrana, Sippy and company.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.