Director: Abhishek Saxena
Cast: Sharib Hashmi, Jyoti Sethi, Nutan Surya
Phullu is one of those infantile, socially (over)conscious films I really wanted to like. In fact, I’m reminded infinitely – not least by the sympathy-inducing, excitable, Raj-Kapoor-ish gait of its lead actor Sharib Hashmi – that I need to like it, and that I shouldn’t distinguish too much between craft and good intent. After all, Phullu speaks about that we mustn’t speak of, an important issue: menstruation, its associated stigmas and the necessity of sanitary pads instead of infection-inducing red cloth used in India’s villages. It speaks about mental conditioning and attitudes, priorities, burdens and responsibilities.
And that’s the problem – it only speaks. A lot. Loudly, musically, dramatically and tackily. Like a roadside tamasha hopelessly unaware of its own humble scale. As a result, it does little by way of the medium employed. There is a fine line between educating and chastising.
Needless songs, television-level background music and a pitch-deaf love story demonstrate a kind of aspirational, operatic Bollywood (or perhaps Sairat-inspired) grammar obviously unsuitable for the mixed mood it propagates. In these cases, it also has to be said that adding all a film’s sounds in post-production isn’t the best idea when it comes to remote atmospheres; the texture, dustiness and taste of the “other” India often get lost in translation.
The titular protagonist is designed as a prototype of the demographic this film targets – rural, uneducated, curious and equipped with a potential awareness-to-solution graph. Phullu is painfully ignorant to begin with, recognizes, learns, practises and then, against all odds attempts to effect change himself. He grows the way the makers want the film’s viewers to. He has a mother and sister who mock him, a new wife reluctantly supportive of him, and an optimistic outlook oblivious of his environment’s frailties.
In short, he is visibly a movie character. The village idiot. There has long been a trend of caricaturing the classic Hindi film underdog into an amalgamation of Chaplin-esque traits – always the simpleton, black sheep, conventionally useless, over-joyous do-gooder, misunderstood, deluded and almost bordering on mental disability – to punctuate that innocence is the saviour in this troubled universe. The Dumbo’s Guide to anything literally uses a dumbo to advertise its basicness. From PK and Bajrangi Bhaijaan to the upcoming Tubelight, from Vinay Pathak’s screen personas to Sharib Hashmi’s own breakout in Filmistaan, the norm has been exploited to simplify overcomplicated Indian issues through the unsoiled gaze of child-like intellects.
There is a lot of irony to be found in the way Phullu's own family consistently reacts to his antics, but humour and self-awareness are not the writer’s priorities
But I’m not sure Phullu merits that kind of accidental hero. It feels like the easy way out, as if there was no way else the filmmaker could make this look like a creative representation of reality. For example, he could have gone from good-for-nothing to lover to visionary inspired by love without having to look like a complete clown.
There are other cameos that serve this purpose and outline his fable-like adventure – an inspired turn by Inaamulhaq as a city-slicking hustler, as well as a fleeting appearance by the late Shivam Pradhan. There is a lot of irony to be found in the way his own family consistently reacts to his antics, but humour and self-awareness are not the writer’s priorities. Somber music dots their verbose outbursts instead.
None of Phullu’s cartoonish traits actually contribute to the strange montages of him getting obsessive and creating his own brand of pads. All we see are rolls of cotton wool, white garments and repetitive close-ups of his perspiring face. This phase could have been a little more coherent or technical if he was “normal” to begin with. But in keeping with a stubborn formula of storytelling, the director misses an opportunity to make Phullu look like more than a glorified public service announcement. It joins a long list of well-meaning social dramas that underestimate the art of audiovisual communication. Choosing the right message simply isn’t enough anymore.
Watch the trailer here: