Director: Varun V. Sharma
Writer: Varun V. Sharma
Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Rani Mukerji, Siddhant Chaturvedi, Sharvari Wagh, Pankaj Tripathi
Cinematographer: Gavemic U. Ary
Editor: Aarif Sheikh
It’s difficult to “review” something like Bunty Aur Babli 2 in isolation. How can one be constructive about it? What does one say? That it’s a semi-enjoyable, ultra-predictable, low-stakes comedy about a series of swanky scams? That it’s a foolproof formula? That the actors look like they’re having a fun time? That all a con-artist movie needs is a silly script, a sillier budget and a cast capable of having a fun time? That Gully Boy’s Siddhant Chaturvedi is a hoot and probably the next big thing in Bollywood? That mainstream movies about characters who take risks end up playing the safest of all? That the Robin Hood motif is an easy and apolitical copout? That, overall, it’s all very pleasant and undemanding to look at? Bunty Aur Babli 2 is watchable by virtue of not being unwatchable, but then what? Is there more beyond a harmless, fruity and occasionally entertaining evening at the movies? Can a film like this – unlike its predecessor – work in 2021 despite an average soundtrack?
Those are a lot of rhetorical questions for an opening paragraph. Or any paragraph. But that’s just the nature of the beast. They say you’re not supposed to “overthink” a movie that doesn’t aspire to be ground-breaking cinema, which is fair enough, because con-comedies are little more than giant acting showcases. One can only take the loophole-filled plot with a pinch of salt (and on a bad Friday, some lemon and tequila). If good-looking protagonists can pull off multicultural disguises – Sikhs, Tamilians, Maharashtrians, Arabs – with aplomb, then there’s not much else to seek really. Newcomers Siddhant Chaturvedi and Sharvari Wagh do that, as do old hands Saif Ali Khan and Rani Mukerji to an extent. And any supporting cast that features Pankaj Tripathi, Rajeev Gupta, Prem Chopra, Gopal Datt and Brijendra Kala is bound to create oxygen out of thin air. By extension, watching any Hindi film turn into a glorified Maganlal Dresswala raid is bound to be a crowd pleaser.
Apart from the obvious superficial fluff, I believe there’s more to Bunty Aur Babli 2 than meets the eye. For starters, it is smart enough to be both a sequel and a reboot at once. The film takes forward the universe of Shaad Ali’s hit, Bunty Aur Babli (2005): Rakesh (Saif Ali Khan, replacing Abhishek Bachchan) and Vimmi (Mukerji) are now a middle-aged couple way past their catch-me-if-you-can prime, living the ordinary life their younger selves had rebelled against. And it’s also a new-age update: Kunal (Chaturvedi) and Sonia (Wagh) are pretenders to their vacant throne, conning the corrupt under the Bunty-Babli brand. This naturally triggers poor Rakesh and Vimmi, the ‘copyright holders’ but also addicts on the verge of a relapse. The two get hired by the only person who knows their true identity, Inspector Jatayu Singh (Tripathi), to track down the remakes and reclaim their status as the OG duo. This is a nice little riff, given that Bunty Aur Babli 2 comes from a film industry notorious for plagiarism and “uncredited inspiration.” At some level, this is also a studio spoofing itself for starting a cottage industry out of self-referencing its own classics.
This meta duality – the tussle between tradition and modernity, old and young – is a recurring trope in YRF movies, or more specifically, Aditya Chopra-written stories. Think DDLJ, Mohabbatein, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, or more recently, War. (Nostalgia often wins, even when it doesn’t). Bunty Aur Babli 2 goes a step further and satirizes this duality; the plot literally hinges on identity. The (juvenile) heists themselves, or the twists, are not the point. The contrast between the two generations – and ideologies – is played to self-effacing humour. The interval shot, for instance, is a split-screen showing Kunal and Sonia using shot glasses at a pub on one side, with Rakesh and Vimmi drinking whiskey at their terrace on the other. A chase sequence on Holi, a familiar trope, features the creaky older actor using force and the younger one using flexibility. Most of all, the older couple’s marital spat – the mandatory dramatic moment in a perfectly light movie – revolves around the fat-to-fit 40-something husband ogling at girls half his age. Again, a nice riff on another notorious Bollywood practice.
What Bunty Aur Babli 2 does lack, though, is the social significance of the original. The Jaideep Sahni-written movie was primarily a black comedy on India’s flawed job market: Bunty and Babli are noble emblems of “jugaad,” that old Indian euphemism credited to an ability to hustle against a broken system. The sequel is clumsy in its staging of the Kunal and Sonia backstories – there’s a voiceover, a sappy scene or two, and finally a last-ditch monologue. Sonia’s ambition – to fund her own food app company – and their envious glances at the 9-to-5 life feel like last-minute afterthoughts. Most Hindi comedies (and action thrillers) lack texture, and this one is no exception; the personality of the real world is flimsy because the makers appear too satisfied with their fictional people. The writing, of course, diffuses every other serious scene with a one-liner, almost as though the film were too immature to act grown-up for a second.
Yet, it’s not a total deal breaker. At one point, the young couple take a luxurious holiday to spend some of their loot. Much to my utter shock, Goa is their choice. Given this is a YRF production, I was expecting Greece, Switzerland, Cape Town or at least India’s recent lockdown favourite, the Maldives. It feels like a refreshing change of form, where the script follows the character rather than the film: you can’t take the middle-class out of the robbers after all. But then most of the second half takes place in the richest of rich playgrounds, Abu Dhabi. Out come the bikini bodies, designer dresses, caviar, Lamborghinis and seven-star suites. Old habits die hard. Until Saif Ali Khan’s Rakesh Trivedi – who’s out to scam the scammers – tells a hired actor to stay away from the food on show. “I’m paying you 500 dirhams already,” he pleads, while obsessively rationing the budget of his plan. The joke lands. A wealthy actor is playing a man who is pretending to be a billionaire who is actually worried about money. Somewhere in between, a studio embraces its own duality. Old masala is recycled and a newish flavour emerges.