As one settles into watching Helmet, the latest Hindi film release on Zee 5, one wishes that its lead actor Aparshakti Khurana had a slightly different voice. Don't get me wrong, but as we watch him here play Lucky, a goofy man-child and a music-band lead dealing with the struggles of his small-town life, we realise that Aparshakti even sounds so much like his elder brother Ayushmann, that one can't help but be reminded of all the 'quirky comedy' films the latter has been a part of over the last couple of years while creating a great niche for himself.
The problem is that now, by 2021, the trend seems to have run out of gas. Helmet is another in the series of these comedies that try to juice out whatever is left in this bankable formula, rather flailingly.
Set in the fictional town of Rajnagar, Helmet centers itself on the tier-two conservatism, (like most other films of this genre), that leads our protagonists to set off on their strange heist-plan – selling stolen condoms to people who do not want to be seen buying them.
It's a rather amusing premise, but co-writer and director Satram Ramani never manages to properly explore the absurdity of it. The narrative is too busy trying to land its standalone jokes and gags, losing control over the film's pace and central idea overall. There is very little energy to the proceedings, especially in the first half, although some of the gags work well.
Helmet thankfully has a bunch of reliable performers in its kitty, who salvage many of its under-whelming comic punches. Abhishek Banerjee vitalises a few scenes, especially the one where he breaks into a Bachchan mimicry piece. Aashish Verma deserves a special mention for somehow turning the jokes on their head, and not be at the receiving end, despite being handed over a character whose deafness is only played for easy laughs. Although Aparshakti performs adequately, the hangover of all the goofy North-Indian boys played by his elder brother over the last few years is hard to shake off.
He delivers the film's funniest sequence though, where Lucky fantasizes about confidently walking to a drugstore, and buying a packet of condoms without any shame – it is both hilarious and telling of the themes film is trying to tackle. But once we enter the 'heist' chapter, the narrative seems to merely go through the motions, ticking all the predictable boxes that fall under this formula, refusing to do anything different. The laughs do arrive occasionally, but they have a very been-there-done-that feel to them.
The film's most embarrassing stretch is unfortunately saved for the end, where we are first subjected to a soggy backstory of Lucky, who makes a puzzling correlation of contraceptives and the emotional plight of orphans in our country. If that did not suffice, the heroine's objecting father (played by Aashish Vidyarthi, clearly wasted in this two-bit), who has obviously transformed by the end, compares the hero's heist to the revolution of the 1942 Quit India movement. This is when the film completely buckles under the weight of its preachy strokes.
Even before that, the film offers tangential commentary on the under-appreciated role of sex workers in our society, and the dire need to channelize the uneducated youth. These attempts feel unearned and half-hearted, especially because of how logically unbothered the film's premise otherwise is, trying to assert that the taboo around buying condoms comes entirely from the fear of social stigma, refusing to acknowledge other social factors that come into it.
There is only one stretch in the first act where a promise of something novel appears, through a peripheral character played by the fantastic Saanand Verma. Verma plays Shambhu, the owner of a medical store, who clearly knows and is knowns by everyone in the mohalla, as established early on. But more importantly, Shambhu exercises great moral authority over everyone, passing on judgemental looks and remarks to everyone over the things they purchase from his store. His scenes are a complete delight, and the film uses his presence very well to symbolise the overpowering fear that even an inconsequential element can create in a conservative society, merely on the account of the guilt and shame that lies within us. If only Satnam Ramani displayed a similar wit in crafting the rest of his narrative, we would have had a more watchable film on our hands with Helmet.