We have stopped making adventure films. As I conclude this sentence, I think not just about Hindi-language or Indian films specifically but also all films in general; when was the last time, for instance, when you saw a truly memorable adventure film, from, say, America, England or anywhere else in the world, playing in cinema screens? All we have are those ballyhooed "superhero" films mushrooming into what they call "franchises". Many millions of dollars are spent in whisking away good actors from worthier film parts in worthier films and in creating the requisite quantity of fireworks and faraway planets; they each look the same as in the previous film but will still keep an entire audience lulled deceptively by the expertly handled ballyhoo. The behemoth studios earn back their millions, the audiences have been served their mediocre but comfortable food and rather mysteriously, everyone seems to be happy, including many critics too.
What's missing, tragically, is an adventure film, as opposed to the many "action" and "adventure" films that get released every few months, that truly takes the film-going public to places that they have never ever dreamed of and on a merry trail, either a treasure hunt or a wild goose chase, that always springs surprises at every step, either pleasant or puzzling. It does not help that our meaning of "adventure" has changed dramatically too. Our heroes are no longer charismatic men or women who could amuse us as much as they could hold us in thrall with their exploits – even James Bond, a man who could wear his wry wit as comfortably as his well-tailored suits, has become a brooding and oddly asexual man. Deconstruction of popular myths of heroism is a compelling thing on its own – some of the world's greatest authors like Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene had mastered this and yet they never failed to entertain their readers too. In the case of our films, all we are left with is a very forced deconstruction of these heroes and the spectacle no longer feels special or spectacular enough.
Which is why Jagga Jasoos, a film that came almost five years ago and which immediately failed to draw enough crowds, deserves to be celebrated as that rarity – an adventure film not merely intended to thrill the young and the innocent (which it does, I think, better than most superhero films or any film specifically tailored for this section of the audience) but which also, unexpectedly, flashes many a glimmer of an inconvenient truth that the more knowing adults would understand perfectly. With this mesmerising film filled with so many unusual sights and sounds, Anurag Basu, the director and writer, has achieved something unique, indeed – an admirable intelligent film that brilliantly resurrects an irresistible spirit of adventure that was once to be found in films nearly fifty or more years ago and keeps it intact right till the end, while straddling skilfully the territories of pulpy mystery, broad comedy and musical imagination.
Young Jagga, played brilliantly and fastidiously by Ranbir Kapoor, is a fiendishly smart schoolboy with a gift of flawless detection. He is mystified when on his birthday, he does not receive a package from the man whom he calls and loves as his father. He is informed rather apologetically that his guardian has passed away but in just a few scenes, the sharp-eyed young sleuth has already deduced that this is a lie and his beloved but elusive father is still at large. Accompanied by an unlikely and notoriously unlucky companion, he sets out from the hills of Manipur to the kasbahs and veldts of North Africa on a wild goose hunt, even as a certain corrupt policeman is also on his heels.
And that is all you need to know, even as Basu and his writers are so understandably thrilled by the prospect of this material that they build around this simple narrative a sprawling background of arms smuggling, international terrorism and even real-life intrigue that thickens the story and also lends it a topicality that is even rarer in its prescience. There is a lot to laugh at and even sing along to in Jagga Jasoos. Its hero, who naturally lisps, compensates by speaking everything in song. Basu, who also demonstrated a flair for visual comedy in Barfi as well as the recently released Ludo, gives us plenty of sight gags in the tradition of not only Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd but also Monty Python in its stark irony.
The result might feel berserk and overarching; the only major complaint that I could find with this guilelessly charming film was that it was about half an hour too long. But then some storybooks are so entertaining that one does not want them to end, and Jagga Jasoos keeps on surprising and startling the public in almost every scene. The fights and flights are much more imaginative than what we usually find in most expensive films. Murderous knife-throwers, cold-blooded bureaucrats, old biplanes and circus trains, rafts and river caves and even animals as diverse as bellowing elephants and sprinting ostriches are all thrown together, in a melee of peril and near-death escapes that keep audiences of all ages grinning fervently. There is only a single false note, in how the said companion, a sad-eyed but frequently slippery journalist, is played by, of all people, Katrina Kaif, a pretty dame who cannot exhibit an emotion different from wide-eyed incredulity but then, she is intended to be something of a bumbling one. But the actress falters even when given a chance to play a wild card in the proceedings.
Kapoor, on the other hand, is as reliable as ever, effortlessly spontaneous and completely at ease, be it in when he sings out his deductions to the improvised tune of imaginary typewriters or an assortment of real sounds – a samurai film on the television screen and a ceiling fan or when he jumps, sprints and lunges with his natural agility; he even conveys Jagga's solitude and predicament with natural conviction. While Saurabh Shukla is bemusing as the officious bloodhound, who lazes in a sauna but worries about a missing tape, one man frequently threatens to surpass even Jagga in his jaunty bravado. Saswata Chatterjee, playing the mysterious but endearingly butter-fingered father, determined to dig out a damning secret but also pining for his son, propels the story with his own swashbuckling swagger and also lends the adventure with its heart of stirring emotion.
Much has been said about the film's debt to the famed visual storytellers to whom Basu doffs his hat – Herge, Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones films and even our very own Satyajit Ray's fantasy and detective films and stories. I like to believe, though, that Jagga Jasoos belongs even more distinctly to an older and richer tradition of great adventure writing of more than a hundred years ago. It possesses the eye-widening invention of Jules Verne, even the boyish excitement, universal wisdom and enchanting poetry of Rudyard Kipling and when Jagga finds himself in a hut somewhere in the middle of a desert, surrounded by not merely gaping tribesmen but also galloping giraffes, it even reaches the dazzling imagination of Rider Haggard. It's still not too late to rediscover this misunderstood film and give it the love that it deserves rightfully.