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Review: Rajma Chawal is comfortably dumb

By Sreehari Nair
Last updated on: December 13, 2018 16:37 IST
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'Wasn't there a single person below 30 in the whole production team? I wondered aloud at different points in the narrative,' notes Sreehari Nair.

While watching Leena Yadav's Netflix film Rajma Chawal, I had a hard time shrugging off memories of those Indian pop music videos of the 1990s and the early 2000s.

Quite clearly, it is not other films that Rajma Chawal is competing with, but that time in our grainy past when Alisha Chinai got her dream man delivered to her in a box.

Or when song-stories were regularly thought up with an intention of showcasing Palash Sen's talent for 'losing the girl' and smiling through the process. (It must be a sign of artistic evolution that in our movies now, this particular character type is often played by a very irritated Jimmy Sheirgill).

Where else would a Suneeta Rao track that hinted at topics such as pubescent love and child abuse, where else but in morally confused India would such a song be turned into an iconic dandiya number?


Rajma Chawal comes with many of the virtues of the Indian pop art of that period (the Piyush Pandey advertisements to go with the music videos) and, justly perhaps, with many of the same bad habits.

So, while the film rather brilliantly captures the spirit of small-town India, there's also an unbearable amount of moral simplification here.

There's the problem of progressive ideas being chewed up by middle class sentimentality.

And there's naïveté mixed with some genuine moments of beauty.

Rajma Chawal may be seen as a tribute to those scared Indian artists of two decades back: ones who would frequently threaten to make trips to the high art tradition, their wagons filled with great production values, and who then, would abort the journey midway, and try selling you a packet of toothpaste.

Yes, like the works of those half-artists, Rajma Chawal too is comfortably dumb. And the film's dumbness can be traced most evidently in its central conceit.

A widower, who is also a casually authoritarian father (Rishi Kapoor as Raj Mathur), creates a fake Facebook profile with the picture of a stunning looking girl, only so that he can open up with his uncommunicative son, Kabir (Anirudh Tanwar).

You would be right in reading this adventure of Raj Mathur's -- of using the façade of 'female sexuality' to speak about his own old man's loneliness -- as something truly creepy.

But to Leena Yadav, as it was to a whole generation of ad film-makers and music video directors, this is the kind of idea that screams GOLDMINE!

And so, Yadav takes the dumb central idea and mounts Rajma Chawal as handsomely as those pop artists. (If she didn't believe so wholeheartedly in the dumb conceit, we may have ended up with something shoddy -- but that's not the case here).

The opening bits are clipped in a way that really works; the sudden lopping off of scenes -- with faces often abandoned in the middle of a sentence -- gives the film a pulse and helps it work up a style.

The voices and noises float in and out of sequences (much like how we experience sound in real life) and people cut into each other's smart quips to unfold their personal brand of wisdom.

Cinematographer Donald McAlpine sees Old Delhi with the curious eyes of an outsider, and he seems to be bringing to us image after image without editing 'discovery'.

You can feel McAlpine's glee in a shot where houses are shown to be almost huddling together, as the camera offers a Falling Angel's View of water tanks, dish antennae, and papads being kept out to dry in courtyards.

That shot arrives steaming and we see how humans in these neighbourhoods survive: by ceding authority to their lifeless counterparts.

Leena Yadav takes McAlpine's images and, working with editor Thom Noble, she varies the rhythm of the scenes.

A dopey sequence of naked mannequins being paraded through a crowded lane is followed by a quick shot of Rishi Kapoor carrying a commode on his lap.

You are given a break from a boisterous wedding procession and taken straight to a dinner table scene where the loudest noise you hear is the grinding of disgruntled teeth.

For a while, Rajma Chawal does feel like a trashy novel, but one where attention has clearly been paid to how each sentence is crafted.

Plus, there are those moments of unexpected humour.

As his son Kabir gets ready to leave the dining table in a fit of rage, Rishi Kapoor as Raj Mathur orders the young man to sit his ass down!

'You won't be the one to always leave the table. It's my turn today!' says Mathur Sr, before storming out of the room, looking like a Dickensian uncle in a nightrobe.

Would it be an overstatement to say that we are living in the golden age of great fat actors?

Think about it. Rishi Kapoor, Manoj Pahwa, Kumud Mishra, Gajraj Rao: Has there ever been a finer assemblage of actors who use their paunches, man breasts, and love handles to give more life to the frames they occupy?

Rishi Kapoor may have even become a greater physical actor since those extra pounds kicked in, and as Raj Mathur here, he lets his Obelix-like frame add a fresh dimension of awkwardness to his character.

Kapoor's storming out of the dining room could have been a straight joke, but here, because portly Raj Mathur always seems aware that he may be spilling over into someone else's rightful space, the display of anger feels like playacting: The scene then becomes silently rapturous!

The really funny bits in Rajma Chawal are all, as a matter of fact, never 'socked' home. There's a running gag, for example, about how Kabir, an aspiring musician and songwriter, keeps meeting bums, who turn out be greater poets than him!

This is all fine, but if Rajma Chawal inherits many of the strengths of our first true wave of Indian pop art, it also cannot help but inherit the shallowness.

No film-maker so 'moved' by the core plot of the film can be expected to discern any connection between young Kabir's growing bitterness and the DNA of his music. And no, Leena Yadav does not feel the need to be this searching.

But how about a little investigation into that part of Raj Mathur's personality that compelled him to go ahead with the rather 'tasteless' plan of talking to his own son, while posing online as a hot girl?

To me, Mathur Sr's this action suggested some sort of a young, lean hustler poking out of the now portly, sweatered body.

In a world of pop music videos and advertisements, the psychological stakes are so low that this sort of an absurd idea would merely have been classified as 'cute'. But in a two-hour long film, the cuteness wears off quickly.

So how about some effort to explore if all that posing as a lady did release the womanly side of Raj Mathur -- a side that he had hidden, maybe even from himself?


Outside its cinematic intelligence and wonderful production values, Rajma Chawal's preoccupation is with highlighting the contrast between generations. And in the process, suggesting that the oldies (who include Rishi Kapoor's circle of trusted friends) are happier because they still eat with their hands.

Again, a potential takeaway, perhaps, from a 1990s commercial for desi ghee which espoused the purity of mother's cooking (or something like that), but it seems schizoid inside a film released in 2018.

Rajma Chawal's readings of generational conflict are so broad that it feels like the fuddy-duddy it wants you to empathise with. ('Wasn't there a single person below 30 in the whole production team?' I wondered aloud at different points in the narrative.)

The dumb central conceit of the film laid out without any exploration whatsoever does not allow even one of Raj Mathur's friends (played by actors like Sheeba Chaddha, Manu Rishi, Nirmal Rishi, Brijendra Kala, Jeetendra Shastri and Harish Khanna) to achieve any fullness of personality.

These fine performers are only expected to stay in the shadow of Rishi Kapoor's character, advise him on matters 'technological', and share a good chunk of his bad taste and poor sense of privacy.

Rajma Chawal, however, seems to have played its cruelest joke on Anirudh Tanwar, and his character, Kabir.

You may have noticed (or maybe not) that mild depression is a feature of many a really funny and interesting person.

Kabir, though, is the depressed yet clueless and uninteresting blockhead in this story -- as bland-seeming on his Facebook profile picture as in real life, where he wears a permanent scowl and sounds weirdly 'electronic'.

The biggest howler in Rajma Chawal is that it allows this truly dull chap to walk away with Amyra Dastur (I don't know why I took this plot turn as a personal insult).

Dastur -- wearing nose rings, leather jacket, tight jeans, and a bar code for tattoo -- is 'alive' in a way that Anirudh Tanwar hardly is.

In their scenes together, she gives to her character of Seher such fluidity and intelligence that she almost inadvertently ends up peddling the film's fundamental mystery: How could such a paragon ever fall for a square like Kabir?

Nitpick we can, but Rajma Chawal is positioned outside such questions of 'artistic depth'.

Leena Yadav is very much like the half-artists of an earlier Indian era: Those deliberate dreamers who had one eye on 'well-defined arcs' and the other on 'memorability' and no patience for anything like 'psychological insight'.

Masala movies may never be cool again (and I am not complaining), but Rajma Chawal is an ode to another kind of 'simpler times'.

When Kabir at the end, after conquering his demons, stares wistfully at some pigeons, he is both Lucky Ali in O Sanam and that little kid, who balanced a halo above his head and went: 'Jalebi!'

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Sreehari Nair