Making a Case for Katrina Kaif’s Comedies
It is a truth universally acknowledged that when a woman is given less screen time despite her talents, another one must scrounge through her filmography to regurgitate her iconic roles. Before there was (2023) — the latest and underwhelming addition to YRF’s spyverse — there was (2022), (2017), and Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani (2009). These do not lean on Katrina Kaif’s sensuality to lather the film with the oomph quotient. Neither do they fall back on sultry sauna face-offs where two towel clad women (accidentally) strip as they engage in a choreographed brawl that feels more reductive than exciting, thanks to the officious male gaze.
Ragini, Shruti and Jenny, the heroines of Phone Bhoot, Jagga Jasoos and Ajab Prem…, were women who were not hamstrung by their gender. Despite belonging to cheerfully escapist and fantastical storylines, they were heroines with actual jobs — a crucial context which flows into the narrative and informs the dynamics with the key characters (shows how notorious Bollywood is in terms of (not) allotting female characters jobs. Most are likely to be “family members”). In these three comedic avatars, Kaif flitted from parodying those who subjected her to a reductive gaze (Phone Bhoot) to self-effacing sequences of hapless clumsiness (Jagga Jasoos). In a filmography that spans two decades, these films also carry, arguably, the most differentiating and quirk-riddled characters she has embodied (the latter, without any sexist connotations).
Here are five reasons why Phone Bhoot, Jagga Jasoos and Ajab Prem … deserve a rewatch.
Phone Bhoot and Jagga Jasoos are Wildly Misunderstood
Excel Entertainment’s Phone Bhoot (a play of words on phone booth) cast Katrina Kaif as a “bhatakti hui aatma”, a wandering soul, who is collaborating with Major (Siddhant Chaturvedi) and Gullu (Ishaan Khatter) so that several aatmas (spirits) can attain moksha (salvation). What possibly culled the appeal (and economic prospects) of the film was that it grossly overestimated people’s appetite for the comedy they were peddling, which moved from being incandescently stupid to making extremely specific pop-culture references. Yet these purposefully silly and heavily referential dialogues are sharp, and repeatedly pay homage to cinema that came before. They might be indulgent, but you would be surprised how much you love to laugh when a schoolgirl is repeatedly chiding two grown men with a stick as she flies across the room.
Although very different in terms of tone and subject, Anurag Basu’s Jagga Jasoos also had a similar problem of not conforming to mainstream Hindi cinema’s formulaic conventions. Basu opted for an experimental format, where explanations and story details were couched into its songs and a significant portion of the dialogues are sung. It is Tintin-inspired — perhaps it was a bit too similar looking when it comes to Jagga’s (Ranbir Kapoor) hairstyle? — but Jagga Jasoos pursued earnest worldbuilding that also folded in real elements drawn from Darjeeling’s political context, which served as a backdrop for the protagonist’s quest to find his adopted father. Pritam’s soundtrack, the lush valleys of the hills, Kaif’s clumsy investigative journalist, and an original story which was pegged to become a comic is absolutely worth giving a chance.
Humanising through Clumsiness
Since her debut in Boom (2003), Kaif’s beauty has made everyone sit up and take notice of her and it has, for obvious reasons, been a key aspect of the characters she’s played on screen. Some women actors have chosen to deglamorise themselves for roles, but when you look like Kaif, that is probably not a realistic option. Instead, Kaif falls back on physical comedy, using clumsiness to humanise her characters. Foreshadowing her aptitude for choreographed fight scenes, Kaif in Ajab Prem… engages in a series of comical mishaps as she tries to flee her own wedding, often confusing who she is supposed to aggressively nudge out of the car when they are eloping from the wedding venue, the man who is helping her escape, or the goons who are trying to bring her back to the altar. Throughout Jagga Jasoos, Kaif’s character, Shruti, is accident prone, which serves to make her all the more endearing. What is not to love about a great investigative journalist who is also a gorgeous woman and endowed with a strong strain of Peter Parker nerd energy with Bella Swan’s clumsiness?
Much More Than a Beautiful Face
In Phone Bhoot, Jagga Jasoos and Ajab Prem…, Kaif’s characters are not lazily written, flat characters, but rather dynamic women who have jobs, lives and agenda independent of the films’ heroes. In Ajab Prem… she is a teacher and her kindness, outspokenness, education and job background drive Prem (Ranbir Kapoor) to commit himself to becoming worthy of her. In Jagga Jasoos she is a journalist who is looking into the Naxal uprising, which leads to her finding herself embroiled with Jagga and his search for his father. In Phone Bhoot, she is a woman on her own mission and Major and Gullu’s business partner. Ragini in Phone Bhoot, with her queer-coded aesthetic, frequently utilises her sexual charms to convince the two boys to see reason. This had the potential of falling into problematic feminised tropes, but avoiding those, it becomes a deliberate and admiring nod to Kaif’s status of being an iconic beauty (she literally has a Barbie doll made after her). Her character is shown driving the story till the point she gets captured by the arch villain.
They are all Experimental (and Fun)
We’re using the term “experimental” as a contrast to standard, formulaic mainstream films, and not to categorise them as independent films. Ajab Prem…, Jagga Jasoos and Phone Bhoot are made by commercial filmmakers, under the banner of big production houses with (relatively) large marketing budgets, and carry considerably fewer risks, but they’re unlike the regular fare of Hindi movies. Director Rajkumar Santoshi brought old-school slapstick comedy back with Ajab Prem…, one for which the appetite was presumed to have diminished. Even the actors involved with the film were reportedly convinced it was going to be a flop. The film was, however, one of the biggest hits of 2009.
Jagga Jasoos was Basu’s ambitious foray into making a musical. Both the Western musical genre, where a chunk of exposition and context set-up takes place through songs, and an adventure-detective genre, were uncharted territories for Hindi cinema. With its tone and its worldbuilding, the film was an experiment that failed commercially, but it’s still one of the more imaginative attempts at storytelling that we’ve seen come out of Bollywood.
Gurmmeet Singh’s Phone Bhoot mixed Western horror sensibilities with Indian horror and urban folklore. The ultimate concoction was slightly unsettled and distorted. At its best, it crackled with absurd energy, but it struggled to walk the tightrope between eccentric and unhinged. Still there are many moments that would elicit laughs from anyone, especially the scenes with Sheeba Chadha who plays a freelancer chudail and puns like AsSouls.
Juvenile, but Charming
There’s a lot to be said for humour that is unpretentious, accessible and doesn’t take itself too seriously. All three of these PG-13 films are obviously meant for impressionable kids, and in the case of two of them — Jagga Jasoos and Phone Bhoot — they (possibly) want to become their entire personality. Why hold this against the film? Arguably, we need more films and TV shows in our landscape that have that gentle quality of processing a story for children, but are also able to endear themselves to adults with their sophisticated characterisation and worldbuilding.