I’ve always been fascinated with going back to certain artists’ earlier works and revisiting their films from time to time. Somehow, I’ve always felt that it helps one notice more keenly the echoes and promises of a great actor or director, while also being deeply inspired by their work. If that artist is someone like Ranbir Kapoor, that predilection of mine comes even stronger.
2009 was the year that made Ranbir Kapoor a star, turning him into a household name. There was Wake Up Sid, Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani and finally Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year, which had released towards the end of the year. All these films were released in a time frame of 3 months. The one that marked a late release date on the calendar, also remains the actor’s most overlooked film till date.
Ranbir Kapoor plays Harpreet Singh Bedi, a viscously disciplined 21-year old who struggled with grades throughout college. He rides a bike (Scooty Pep to be precise) that his sweet grandfather (Prem Chopra) has literally surprised him with. They have ideal middle-class values—“give us a good life of honesty and truth,” his grandfather prays in front of their God. Harpreet decides to join the corporate world, while he charmingly reminds people around him “number kam hai, dimag nahin”. But when he does enter the computer-assembling and servicing company, AYS, he is shocked by the reality of sales business where unethical practices, unrealistic targets and selling products with high markups go hand-in-hand with profits. Everything, including the customers, is just seen as numbers. There’s a glassed-in area where the office manager, Sunil Puri (Manish Choudhary) who undermines his employees to motivate them, lives. The rest of the office is given over to the salesmen, with despair in their eyes. We also have a colleague, Nitin Rathore (Naveen Kaushik) – he makes sharp observations but he also insults others in order to feel superior. There’s also the comic-relief of Giri (D. Santosh), a computer-assembler who surfs porn through the night and sleeps in the office by day. Chhotelal Misra (Mukesh Bhatt) is one of the most memorable peons I’ve seen in Bollywood. The film, written by Jaideep Sahni also has two surprisingly well-written female characters. There’s Koena (Gauahar Khan), an ambitious married receptionist and Sherena (Shazahn Padamsee), Harpreet’s love interest. He comes across Sherena as a client at work, then later bumps into her at a party, where they drink in the bathroom. Yes, that’s how ordinary the film feels. There’s no crazy and flashy dance sequences in a bar filled with glamorous people here. This is a simple, easy to watch film about corporate greed, with themes of hardship, kindness and above all: human dignity and spirit thriving over materialism.
Harpreet Singh soon finds himself unusually out of place at AYS. It doesn’t take long for him to realise that the company is more concerned with polishing their logos than caring enough for corruption brewing behind their own desks. His character is the exact antithesis of the ‘greed is good’ dictum. Soon, he starts a new rivalry startup of his own, with a 5-member team. The film surprisingly has enough banter and intriguing supporting characters. But more than anything, it’s the effortless charm and ability of Ranbir that carries the role. I had discovered this film very late, wondering why it flew under everyone’s radar back when it came out. Rewatching Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year in 2021 gave me an even better perspective, not only of what everything looked like 12 years back, but of the world we live in today. The film works like an aphorism in these growing times of capitalism. As the world’s gradually coming out of the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic, it asks us to remember something that Harpreet heartily says to another character towards the film’s climax- “business number nahi, business log hain – sirf log.”
Shimit Amin, who also directed two other solid films with Ab Tak Chhapan and Chak De! India, makes sure that his minimalist approach works to its maximum here. Like the latter of the two films, this too is an underdog story. Thankfully, our Sikh protagonist is never reduced to a caricature; he’s not someone who would break into bhangra every few minutes. There’s some great, and more importantly, correct use of handheld camera in the film. Amin doesn’t bombard his film with unnecessary songs or slow motion shots, which might be the reason behind its miserable performance at the box office back then. This makes me wonder, what would a film like this, one that claims to be unconcerned with the numbers on paper, look like in terms of its earnings in 2021. The film stands out from the rest of Bollywood kitsch and klutzy hijinks that the industry was busy churning during that decade.
One of the fundamental rules of storytelling to make the audience root for a protagonist, is to constantly beat the hero to the ground. Throughout the film, screenwriter Jaideep Sahni does an excellent job of making us root for Harpreet by constantly placing him in challenging scenarios. This is further translated and enhanced by the Ranbir’s performance. The film makes sure to tug at our heart strings whenever the big reveals come, however predicable they might be.
Through Harpreet, Ranbir being the perfect salesman, sells us his performance convincingly without flinching. It might not be the actor’s finest performance, but it was one that solidified his persona as a versatile actor who had the range of connecting with millennials in a unique way. It’s my favourite character the actor has played, probably on par with Ved from Tamasha. Harpreet till date remains one of the most original characters I’ve seen in a mainstream Bollywood film. After Rocket Singh, the actor went for different and even more challenging roles, adroitly conveying his angst and emotions, all with an effortless charm. Looking back at the actor’s distinctive filmography which kicked off around 13 years ago, shows us his brilliant acting prowess. How long will we have to wait for your next performance to leave us in awe, Ranbir?
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.