It's been 20 years since the release of the film that redefined the Indian comedy genre of the twenty-first century – Priyadarshan's Hera Pheri. This cult comedy was based on another classic, Ramji Rao Speaking, a Malayalam film released in 1989. Over these two decades, Hera Pheri's become somewhat of a religious piece of film, the kind that Indian cinema folklore would pass on for generations to come — reminding everyone of Priyadarshan's genre of humourism, Paresh Rawal's sprightliness, and Akshay Kumar's ability to suspend vanity.
We've moved on to a dry comedy landscape now, where boorishness and crass humour is what everyone is subjected to. So if given a choice to watch any slapstick comedy again, I'd choose Hera Pheri, like any other dogmatic devotee of the film. Here's why I believe this film has aged like fine wine.
Priyadarshan has never shied away from directing cast ensembles — even those bigger than the Hera Pheri troupe. But the most memorable ensemble is the Hera Pheri cast — a curmudgeon landlord (Paresh Rawal) and two jobless freeloaders, where one's a shrewd parasite (Akshay Kumar) and the other's a debt-ridden pushover (Suniel Shetty).
Hera Pheri catapulted Kumar into a new style of acting – this film was his unadulterated, pure attempt at comedy. His comic timing in the scenes in which he fights with Suniel Shetty (especially when he ends up throwing a coconut on Rawal's chest) deserve special mention. Hera Pheri didn't just redefine its genre, it remoulded its actors.
A dollop of his comedy would convulse anyone with laughter. That's the kind of character Paresh Rawal's Baburao is. Arguably, one of his best performances, Rawal put on an act like no other in the film — that of a sloshed old man who is as outlandish as his glasses. Baburao is ludicrous but never obscene (A combination difficult to balance even today). Even when he's semi-naked and says, "Jaan pehchan nahi hai kaise uthaunga," to Tabu, the humour always plays on misunderstanding and never holds distaste. Rawal is essentially the film's court jester, at whose expense humour is derived, predominantly whenever his glasses fall off, either amidst a brawl or while holding an automatic machine gun. His caricature remains surprisingly endearing to date.
A relatively poor group of people, looking for employment, scam and con a richer man to make money and live a cosier lifestyle. This is a familiar plot point now. The resemblance between the two films may not be uncanny — Bong Joon-ho's Oscar-winning Parasite is an indictment of social and wealth inequality and Hera Pheri, well, is a comic take on how unemployment can disgruntle people into cheating others. But both films strike a similar chord — the lengths people can go to in order to make money. Seemingly, beyond its comic exterior, there are indeed other layers of storytelling in the film. Maybe this is Priyadarshan's accidental genius, and hopefully, in the coming decades, there may be room for more audacious comparisons with Hera Pheri.