Director: Hansal Mehta
Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Sohum Shah, Hiten Kumar, Kishori Shahane
Simran is inherently a very dark film. It is about a flaky Gujarati NRI lady, a 30-year-old divorcee and hotel housekeeper, whose life spirals out of control because of a sudden gambling addiction. She falls in deep with loan sharks, and decides to rob banks to pay off her debts.
Praful Patel (Kangana Ranaut), its protagonist, is a desperate character. She is difficult to like or sympathize with. She is desperate to break free from her parents, and the stigma of being divorced. She is also funny, but more of a sad, deluded, tragicomic funny – the kind Matt Damon aces as a compulsively lying whistleblower in Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!. Kangana Ranaut, though, misconstrues this brand of funny. She misconstrues it as more of a behavioral-comedy funny, a physically visible funny, which in turn makes it look like she – and the makers – want Praful to be liked. Or felt for. She does goofy, quirky, bindaas, cutesy, awkward, silly and simpleton-funny, trying to take off from she left in Queen (2014).
Simran is a sad tale and not a dysfunctional one; it deserved a little of Aligarh’s bare-boned filmmaking, instead of the mistimed Little-Miss-Sunshine-ish packaging.
But Rani and Praful are completely different characters, with completely different moral compasses. Praful simply cannot be liked; she has a condition that makes her annoyingly despicable to deal with. This is the challenge of choosing a true story to adapt for the screen. Adapting in Hindi cinema means accessibility and accessorizing – none of which thematically works for Simran.
For instance, nothing about Praful’s situation is funny. It is relentlessly depressing. But tell that to Ranaut’s expressions, her deliberate body language and the relentlessly at-odds background score. Suddenly, bank-robbery scenes acquire a clumsy Barfi-ish tone; there’s even some accordion melancholy in the title track that peppers her easy escapes. She runs like a girl not used to running. There is a lot of performance art, at places that didn’t need any.
There’s also insanely loud heist music towards the end that scores one of the most jarringly shot car-chase sequences in recent history. And even this deathtrap phase is made to end with a cultural punch line. The Atlanta cops are almost daft fable-like caricatures. The gangsters are, well, cartoonish. America is sweet and gullible, writers have often told us, until they make monsters out of their guests.
Clearly, the makers insist that something serious can in fact be treated light heartedly. In some cases, this is possible. And effective, even. But Simran is a sad tale and not a dysfunctional one; it deserved a little of Aligarh’s (director Hansal Mehta’s previous film) bare-boned filmmaking, instead of the mistimed Little-Miss-Sunshine-ish packaging. One can almost imagine the music-less, stark landscape of the real-life “bombshell bandit,” Sandeep Kaur. She can’t have been sugarcoated. She isn’t a dark nutty comedy.
Just because her story involves Vegas and casinos and lots of money coming and going, it need not make hers a visually glamorous one. The Queen-journey mandatory-female-hero tracks (“Pinjra tod ke, ud jaana hai”) only add to this inconsistency. There isn’t enough depth, or redemption, within Praful for her to earn this kind of introspective breezy-template music.
In fact, Praful is physically brutally beaten up by a loan shark, slapped by her father and pushed by a hotel manager. She comes unhinged and breaks down very often; she steals and is stolen from. At one point, the “screw-up” music begins just as she is about to be manhandled again. You know, the kind of childish humour that ends slapstick soap episodes. But how can any of this be funny, even if it’s Ranaut putting on her effortful ditzy-belle act? This time, her Sridevi hangover isn’t quite a handful in a production that seems too overwhelmed and thrilled by her presence.
When Praful is at home, warring with her exasperated and typically “Amdavadi” father about money and arranged matches, Simran feels somewhat at ease. He calls her things; she lashes out and makes worse decisions after each spat. Perhaps it’s Hansal Mehta’s natural familiarity with Gujarati roots, or maybe the father (fine actor) is a perfectly aggressive foil to his meandering daughter. When Praful interacts cautiously with Sameer (a superbly lived-in Sohum Shah) – they’re sizing each other up formally, and then informally – these are perceptive moments. But when they fall for each other, even this gets a (romantic) song. What makes it odder is that all the other subplots of her life are put on a backburner to accommodate this event. I see a formula here, instead of a chaotic ride.
To be fair, much of the first half is acceptable, if not completely engaging. The problem occurs when Praful is pushed to the edge. It’s the one scene that has to work. She has lost all her savings, has a meltdown at a gas station, impulsively steals some money, and then realizes with a glint in her eye that she likes the sensation. It’s a complicated feeling. Instead of slowly extending this to something bigger like robbing a bank, Mehta simply continues the same scene; she instinctively stops at a bank and does her thing. In the same breath. The progression is so swift that it totally betrays the magnitude of her crisis. It goes from being a life to a “story” in seconds. Not to mention the mild bank-hating Dhoom 3 vibes, when she returns to the same bank that rejected her loan application.
In case you’re still wondering if Simran and Praful are different people, they are not. Praful chooses her alias because – of course – the iconic climax of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge gives her the idea. It’s an unimaginative gimmicky device, and something any of us could have guessed. It isn’t even needed, because it doesn’t really serve as an alter ego. “Lipstick Bandit” sounds far cooler, even if she loves the attention and notoriety.
This is just another example of unnecessary filmy injection into a deceptively grave tale. One can argue that this entire adventure is about her wanting to “ji le apni zindagi” and break free. She chooses a mainstream symbol, with all its drama and noise. It’s a clunky metaphor. It embodies, in a nutshell, the project’s identity crisis – a tug-of-war between what it is and what it aspires to be. And somewhere between “Praful the film” and “Simran the Bollywood movie,” a fatally self-aware actress might have overcooked her goose.
Watch the trailer of Simran here: