Director: Mainak Bhaumik
Cast: Ritwick Chakraborty, Parno Mittra, Sohini Sarkar, Mir Afsar Ali
From Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, the greatest of minds down the ages have pondered on the one human condition that forever eludes mankind, happiness, arguably the one word most searched for on the Internet, after God and sex! The world wide web has a million and more quotes on happiness. And then there is Mainak Bhaumik’s Happy Pill. It’s by all accounts a noble enterprise – this quest to make sense of what happiness entails – but does a noble enterprise make for a happy film? Well, not entirely on the evidence on display here.
The premise is intriguing enough – the world abounds in unhappy souls. So, what if there’s a pill that makes you happy? That’s what our protagonist Siddhartha (the name is significant – Gautama the Buddha, aka Siddhartha, left the materialistic world in search of the meaning of, among other things, happiness) hits upon. A bright medical prospect at one time, he now runs a sweet shop that his father bequeathed him – none of the fancy ones Kolkata is famous for, but one of the quintessential corner shops that dot this city that has patented the rosogolla. Except that it’s a shop where – as Siddhartha’s friend Pocha-da (Mir in a hilarious turn as a woebegone soul fighting the demons of his failures and the barbs coming his way from his mother-in-law) says – flies outnumber customers by a huge margin.
Siddhartha’s mother is bedridden with some ailment. His sister Rini (a very fetching and nuanced Parno Mitra, in one of the film’s three well-etched characters) is battling complexes arising out of her dark complexion while courting a louse of a guy. Siddhartha himself is unemployed and fast running out of options. As he is barred for life from practising medicine for a past misdemeanour, there’s not much in life he can look forward to. And when his mentor robs him of due credit for his work on a breakthrough treatment for Hepatitis-C, Siddhartha heads for the train lines.
And that is where Happy Pill starts to derail. Lying on the tracks, he sees a child walk out from a nearby slum, pushing a cycle tyre, a ‘picture of unadulterated happiness’. And voila! He realizes what ails humankind. As he explains to Pocha-da, the girl does not know what’s it to be online or offline, is alien to the concept of Facebook or Instagram and does not depend on ‘likes’ to validate her own self. And, genius with chemicals and medicines that he is, Siddhartha hits upon the idea of inventing a pill that will make people happy. He experiments it on his mother. Soon, it’s his sister and then the entire city.
Well, for one, it’s too pat an excuse: does it really take just a glimpse of a ‘happy’ homeless tramp of a child to understand that the world is an unhappy place – and what’s to say that child is actually happy, just that smile on her face? And two, if it’s only a pill that we need for happiness, that’s what counsellors and psychiatrists do for those who can afford such services, and for those who can’t, there’s drugs and alcohol for temporary relief from the woes of the world. As Siddhartha’s happy pill takes off, with Pocha-da selling it at street corners and shady lanes, and then goes on to employ another loser called Ganja to distribute it in shadier corners and lanes, it almost seems like the new ‘trip’ in town. Of course, even at this midway stage in the narrative, one can see the climactic exposition of the symbolism of the happy pill, and that doesn’t quite help the cause of the film. For a make-believe like this to work, the script needed a more whimsical approach, which it lacks.
After a journalist, Indrani (Sohini Sarkar), breaks the story of a city turning happy and coins the name ‘Happywalla’ for the anonymous inventor, business starts booming, complete with a smiley as a logo. But that brings with it its own problems – you see, Siddhartha is not a certified medical practitioner and has no patent on what he is making, he has not gone through the rigmarole of obtaining licences and permissions.
As Siddhartha expounds at length on his philosophy of the happy pill, I for one thought, for a moment, that I was watching a TV promo of the making of the film. Don’t the film-makers realize: I might be unhappy, but I am surely not stupid
The problem with the film is that it’s a mish-mash of too many things. Is it a satire on our obsession with happiness? Is it a moral tale for our times? Is it a philosophical meditation on the pursuit of happiness? Is it a comedy – there are some hilarious lines. The film tries to be all of these and ends up being not really any of it. And as it moves towards the climax, it disintegrates into too many disjointed strands – a streetwise thug called Jumbo out to coerce Ganja into giving away the identity of Happywalla, a ridiculous don who talks in rhyme, Indrani’s break-up with her three-year-old boyfriend in a scene that’s supposed to be funny but ends up flat because it’s stretched way beyond what’s needed, Rini finally standing up to her fiancé’s loutishness and his family’s condescension in a sequence that goes on and on. Even Narendra Modi’s demonitization address to the nation kicks in!
And that interminable stretch after the climactic revelation, when Siddhartha becomes a hero. That drains all the prospect of happiness out of the film. As Siddhartha expounds at length on his philosophy of the happy pill, I for one thought, for a moment, that I was watching a TV promo of the making of the film. Don’t the film-makers realize: I might be unhappy, but I am surely not stupid – I understand what the film is trying to say without the ‘pill’ being shoved down my throat.
If the film manages to pass muster, it’s on the strength of a couple of effortless performances. Ritwick Chakraborty, who was a standout as Michael in Ahare Mon, has an easy elegance about him – a sort of throwback to the disillusioned ‘intellectual’ of the 1970s – that works very well here. And Parno Mitra’s is a performance I took to.
There is a smattering of really funny lines and acute observations of Bengalis, which give a glimpse of the director’s writing skills: Pocha-da likening his in-laws’ place to the ‘dhano-dhanye’ of Bengal (from Dwijendra Lal Ray’s immortal song eulogizing his native soil), except that for Pocha both remind him of impenetrable jungles. An old, bearded man approaching Siddhartha’s shop with the question: ‘Did Gurudev (Rabindranath Tagore) actually buy sweets from here?’ to which Siddhartha responds, deadpan, that he isn’t sure and will need to consult the Rabindra Rachanabali (the bard’s collection of poems and songs)! Pocha’s observation, when they are trying to make a go of their happy pill business, that if only Bengal had made Dwarakanath Tagore (Bengal’s pioneering industrialist and businessman) its role model instead of his grandson, the story of the state would have been different.
But these are few and far between to compensate for the film’s often heavy-handed approach and its pop psychology – talking all night on the mobile phone with a friend as a recipe for happiness, really? (one would have thought that’s the surest way to psychological stress, apart from being a contradiction to Siddhartha’s initial observation on the happy child by the tracks).
And that background score! One reason for the lack of the happiness quotient in our lives is the noise that assails us every moment. Happy Pill is a relentless aural assault on the senses (reminding me of Ram Gopal Varma’s ‘Govinda Govinda’ refrain in the Sarkar films and the violence of his self-indulgent background scores). In a film that is supposedly about finding happiness in a dystopian world, that score is a particularly bitter pill to swallow.