Director: Anurag Basu
Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Katrina Kaif, Saswata Chatterjee, Saurabh Shukla
Early on in Jagga Jasoos, a mysterious new patient meets a little orphan boy who has grown up in the hospital. The boy has a crippling stutter, and has rarely ever said a word. The gentle man explains to him the idea of singing out his thoughts instead: the left side of the brain is logical and supports speech, while the right side is crazy and creative. The boy should use the right side to speak. To communicate. And, therefore, sing. And soar – converting prose into poetry, silence into music, expression into feelings, stories into clownish fairytales and ideas into colorful action.
Convert humans into believers, he perhaps wants to tell the boy.
This is also, in a way, what the director wants to tell us. He is going to use that right side to narrate a seemingly straightforward story. He is going to sing out his script to us. It won’t tell us things as much as it touches our hand. He has done it before, but not in this literal sense. And it has been illogical and strange, and occasionally beautiful and transcendental. The audiovisual undercurrent of passion has defined even Anurag Basu’s pre-Barfi dramas: the doomed Kites had a haunting sound of madness to it, while Gangster had a monochromatic, lilting darkness to its unhinged spaces.
And lately, that passion has acquired a light to it. It’s the happier kind of madness – the kind that envelops his vision more than the stubborn singularity of his characters.
There’s something about the way Basu dreams. You get a sense that he isn’t forced to dream. His vivid cinematic canvas isn’t merely a desperate reaction to the truths of this bitter world. His version of magic realism is global and regional, inspired and derivative, real and innocent, organic and scattered; his manner of storytelling isn’t just another overly inventive or franchise-centric reincarnation of disillusioned realism.
He thinks on a purely sensory level – of adults willfully occupying a child’s dreamscape, populating an environment full of visual entendre, haphazardly organized choreography, colour-coordinated hues, circus-like chases and unevenly quirky narratives. The sounds, the whimsical imagery, the Broadway-musical language, the Chaplin-ish milieu – they all belong to the sort of aesthetically aspirational universe that makes me love the movies. They make me want to be a movie.
There’s something about the way Basu dreams. You get a sense that he isn’t forced to dream. His vivid cinematic canvas isn’t merely a desperate reaction to the truths of this bitter world.
They make me believe that even when I forget how to dream honestly, I could just enter this hopelessly hopeful world where fantastic beasts like Amélie Poulain, Walter Mitty, Ishaan Awasthi, Murphy Johnson and Max Records coexist together beneath one gingerbread roof. The cultures are many, but their soul is one.
Jagga (Ranbir Kapoor), too, lives here. He probably shares a custom-made bunk bed with Murphy (Barfi!) in one room. Both of them have partaken in farfetched adventures kick-started by a parent (Saswata Chatterjee as the father figure, in Jagga Jasoos) in peril. They have perhaps grown up sharing tales about these times in Darjeeling, Kolkata and, now, Ukhrul and Mombasa. These tales, as they often do, start with giant clock towers and boarding schools, tiny beginnings hijacked by broad thrills.
The problem with Jagga, though, is that he wants to do everything. He wants to say so much. He wants his story to have more, and go places, and go into exotic sunsets across continents, in order to straddle a younger, vaster genre. And his stutter manifests itself into a chaotically cute film bursting with ambition and voice, but missing the love. As a result, he feels he must build on and outdo the inherent artfulness of Barfi! – more in scale and reach than compassion and nature.
He wants to find his nutty old man – a personal journey that is tonally relevant on its own – but he also has to save the world to achieve the same. This save-the-world part is unfortunately not an awkward afterthought or footnote; it’s a full-blown track that steps into puddles, skirts across cartoonish spy games and tiptoes around heightened comic-book-paneled narratives of illegal arms rackets, double agents, murderous cops and two-headed kingpins (that’s right).
It was always going to be messy and perhaps intentionally clumsy, especially because Jagga, as a device, belongs to the literary imagination (a desi Tintin of sorts) of someone as uninspired and wooden as Katrina Kaif (as “investigative journalist” Shruti Sengupta, whose accent has of course again been justified with an annoying London-return background). But a lot of this film’s otherwise-luminescent treatment details feel forgettable because of the presence of a “heroine” not even in the same stratosphere of talent as Ranbir Kapoor. Kaif is actually narrating this story almost as a stage performance, based on her experiences with an enigmatic teenage detective, to a roomful of kids. There’s a lot of her we have to hear. And see. She is designed to make a difference.
With her on the run with him for more than half the film, it’s hard not to mentally equate her character’s trademark cloddishness with the declining relevance of Kaif’s lead-acting career. Whenever she has another funny accident, I found myself laughing not so much at Shruti’s travails but Kaif’s ability to keep derailing a flow of events that should have rested squarely on the shoulders of Kapoor – or perhaps a more competent artist like Alia Bhatt or Priyanka Chopra.
There’s also a clear reluctance to her chemistry with Kapoor, which might or might not work in context of their non-romantic, unrequited relationship. Again, I might be subconsciously thinking about Barfi!, and so much of its misfits-unite theme that got lost in translation here. Because the fact is that a predecessor that primarily trusted its emotional instincts has already defined our biased perceptions of Jagga’s identical landscape.
For instance, there’s a lovely little scene in the beginning that serves as a base for junior Jagga’s curious nature. Across lyrics and sounds, again, we see him noticing a heart with two names carved into his school bench. He secretly invades the student files and identifies the address of the now-old couple. The man, who now visits his dead wife’s grave every week, sees the bench transported to his garden. He sees their names. He is overwhelmed by this memory. Little Jagga looks on, a do-gooder par genre constraints. A rescuer of humanity.
I can imagine Anurag Basu, like most of us, getting very inspired by a similar scene from French visionary Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie. This moment is a fleeting one. It made me want to feel the same way many times over the next two hours again. It suggested the enticing possibility of Jagga operating on this intimate level of cheer.
It fitted perfectly into the heart of a plot dominated by a brave misfit simply determined to find his long-lost father; or perhaps of India’s finest young male star, determined to identify a cluster of balanced sensibilities that may reward his consistent leap of faiths. Naturally, he’d affect destinies on the way, knowingly and subconsciously. And naturally, his failures – even as they entail participation in a bloated, good-natured snapshot of studio-powered eccentricity – will endure as strongly as his successes once did.
For a country that has virtually built its legacy of cinematic expression on the foundation of amplified song-and-dance grammar, it’s odd that making a sprawling, conventional musical is considered a huge risk. It took eleven years for anyone to dare in mainstream Hindi cinema, after Shirish Kunder’s misunderstood Jaan-E-Mann (2006).
Basu and Kapoor might have made the mistake of dreaming with their eyes open this time. But it isn’t a fatal one. It’s a passionate one. It’s spectacularly committed and, most of all, hopes for another day.
Whether it’s a sequel (especially after the notoriously troubled production delay) or a soul sister, I want more of this. I want cinema to look like the movies again. We spend too long trying to feel like adults. And in the pursuit of trying to dissect the “coherence” and legitimacy of modern-day dreams, we might have forgotten that we need a little more of Jagga, and a little less of Jasoosi.