'What we have here is a director who understands how people fight, but has not a clue about how they make love,' points out Sreehari Nair.
The seduction techniques of those grumpy, old Malayali uncles from a generation past have always been a matter of great curiosity for me.
How exactly do these petulant, needlessly fussy, hairy men who spend entire lifetimes not bothering to even give their women a look, let alone talk to them well, magically transform into Sons of Aphrodite behind bolted bedroom doors?
What happens at night to that cranky chittappa who's forever evading his wife during the day? What secret brew of love powered this seemingly passionless couple to produce five children (not to mention the three abortions)?
In Harish Vyas' film Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain, the aforesaid category of Malayali men gets a Varanasi Twist.
Yashwant Batra (Sanjay Mishra) of Batra Niwas -- the film's 'sleeping hero', as he calls himself -- is a self-hating man who viciously projects his hate onto those closest to him: His wife Kiran (Ekavali Khanna) and daughter Preeti (Shivani Raghuvanshi).
Like those Malayali uncles, Batra believes that keeping his feelings bottled up is his true claim to manliness. (One look at the portrait of his dead father, and you know where Batra gets his misapprehensions from).
Kiran's modern family does not think much of Yashwant Batra (and with good reason) -- it is one of those submerged, two-way family bitternesses that stay submerged for years and bubbles forth through crevices, least expected.
Any talk of paying Kiran's family a visit is enough to tighten Batra's gonads. And when his daughter Preeti argues with him, he proceeds to bring in his wife: 'See... she's talking your language.'
Here's a man who feels he has not achieved much in life and so the domestic game is for him to win!
When this crankmeister courteously shames his wife, all the while referring to her as 'Aap', you'll be tempted to say, 'Why can't he just call her a bitch, and get it over with?' But that straw of decency, you soon realise, is his weapon, and he will keep returning to it.
In the course of Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain, Yashwant Batra's wife and daughter leave him and he turns into a man, empty on the inside and lonely, outside.
This is Baghban for the 'non-society' types.
Harish Vyas does not quite know how to build a joke or direct a sequence so as to sock home its emotional content (in movies, usually, every scene has an arc, but Vyas seems clueless about how to shape his scenes).
He has, however, observed domestic squabbles from close range and understands intuitively the constant shifts of power that accompany such eruptions.
Now that's not a minor talent to have, especially when staging a family drama, and whatever charm Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain has, it owes to this talent of Harish Vyas'.
When Kiran brings home a t-shirt and Preeti enquires, 'Whom is this for?' the mother coolly replies, 'Well, I don't happen to wear t-shirts.' (How else would a mother of the house react to a question she deems pointless?). And when Yashwant Batra is forced to try the t-shirt, the price tag juts out of him like a thought balloon.
As he sips his Blenders Pride, Batra pauses between his small notes of irritation to bellow, 'Make sure you grind the onions well into the chicken gravy.'
A boring post-office job; a wife whose family hates him; and a chicken recipe that can go wrong: How many more things can one self-hating man worry about, in one sitting?
So you almost forgive Yashwant Batra for his casual bellowing. Almost.
Motiveless and winding, Batra's passive-aggressive Karate is actually worse than domestic violence and Harish Vyas seems to understand the silent humiliations that wives like Kiran suffer every day -- so much so that they become immune to it.
There are scenes of her trying to make conversations with a husband whose response is to turn his head in random directions.
There are passing shots of Kiran searching for a compliment and Batra adjusting his shirt's collar and walking away.
There is a moment between this 'cold couple' after their only daughter's wedding when Kiran waits for Yashwant to offer some solace and he doesn't know the first thing about that ritual.
Fascinatingly caustic as he is, 'How do you solve a problem like Yashwant Batra?' And this is the question that Harish Vyas tries to answer and fails miserably at.
Men like Batra maybe work better as sad poems than as protagonists of feel-good, slice-of-life motion pictures.
The tension in Batra Niwas is of a Strindbergian pitch, but Harish Vyas wants to set a Basu Chatterjee movie inside this household.
And so he crafts a second half where all we're asked to care about is whether Yashwant will win Kiran back.
If the first half of Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain is an investigation, the second half is a non-entity -- full of emotional hand-me-downs, poorly mounted gags, and incessant character-breaking.
I wish they had announced the halfway mark with the title 'Brain Fade,'(even Sanjay Mishra starts behaving as if in a Rohit Shetty film post intermission), but Ekavali Khanna somehow holds the picture together.
Khanna is luminous as Kiran, the housewife with too many calculations running inside her to respond completely to Batra's pettiness. (The rigours of daily life are her defence mechanisms.)
You can sense that Kiran's more up-to-the-minute than her husband just by the way she moves, and if she still lets him wind his old alarm clock, Kiran also knows when to take off his gramophone stylus and make him listen to her music with total attention.
With Kiran as his opponent, Yashwant Batra can try, but never win at the domestic game: Her failures make his successes seem punier in comparison.
Caught in this battle-of-sexes are Preeti and Jugnu (Anshuman Jha), whose love story is supposed to act as a contrast to the loveless marriage of Yashwant and Kiran, but is so devoid of heat that it makes you miss Kiran's resilience and Yashwant's grumpiness.
Anshuman Jha, who still can't get the inflections in a piece of dialogue right, is not an actor to be trusted with cheesy lines (he makes them sound cheesier), and neither can he bring to his scenes a natural force of personality.
Jha's Jugnu is the fluid man that Sanjay Mishra's character is supposed to learn from, but Mishra's giving all the acting lessons.
He glides over small behavioral patterns such as raising his eyeglasses to read, or plucking the leaves of a tulsi plant as he talks.
He trusts the viewers to find the link between his two unfinished sentences, and when he says, 'I thought my wife knew...' he almost becomes a speaker for an entire generation of verbally incomprehensible husbands.
Director Harish Vyas got started on Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain with his focus firmly on the subject of soft domestic abuse.
However, he doesn't realise that the problem he is documenting is far more potent than the story arc he falsely constructs to give the film a dramatic structure.
Remember Chekhov's wisdom? 'The duty of an artist is not to solve the problem, but to state the problem correctly.'
As if to give Chekhov rashes, every time Vyas tries to 'solve the problem', he ends up adding more schmaltz to it, and the movie then tastes like bad medicine.
Pankaj Tripathi makes his first unsavory cinematic appearance as Firoze -- a husband whose goodness is so pre-calibrated that Tripathi gets to discover nothing between the scenes.
I kept wondering if Tripathi could not save Firoze, who could possibly have? And yet, it's Harish Vyas' lack of feeling for mush, for sentimentality, and for easy resolutions that pops out in such flaccid characterisations.
Vyas does capture moments of hurt, complexes, day-to-day banalities, and marital confrontations with certain deftness.
When his people torture each other, they seem alive, but it's their caring for each other that come off as artificial sweeteners.
What we have here, I guess, is a director who understands how people fight, but has not a clue about how they make love.