Director: Tushar Jalota
Writers: Suresh Nair, Ritesh Shah
Cast: Nimrat Kaur, Yami Gautam, Abhishek Bachchan
Cinematographer: Kabir Tejpal
Editor: A Sreekar Prasad
Streaming on: Netflix
If Munna Bhai M.B.B.S., Lage Raho Munna Bhai, Maharani, Madam Chief Minister, Rang De Basanti and Hindi Medium walk into a bar together, get smashed, forget each other's names, fail to pay the bill, vapourize all cultural and film-making nuance within themselves, refuse to commit to any single genre, find a cardboard time machine and transport themselves back to '90s Bollywood to emerge as one tone-deaf social dramedy, the result would still be a film infinitely better than Dasvi. Dasvi feels like the kind of movie that will scold you for cringing at it, or for not leaving your brains at home (which is ironically where it will stream). It positions itself as the sort of low-stakes comedy designed to guilt-trip the viewer for 'misreading' humour as jarring mediocrity.
Just to be sure, ten minutes into Dasvi, I convinced myself that perhaps this is a children's film. Maybe the target audience is different. Maybe watching it through the lens of an infant might work better. Maybe the guileless, shapeless, transition-less and characterless premise – where a corrupt and illiterate Chief Minister of a fictional Uttar Pradesh-like state is thrown behind bars only to be transformed the moment he picks up a 10th standard history book, studies for his board exams in prison, is tutored by inmates and the new superintendent, all this while his meek-mannered wife (surname: Devi, of course) gets power-drunk as the interim Chief Minister – is deliberately fruity. But I was wrong. It's just juvenile storytelling. Dasvi is neither funny, nor moving, nor insightful, nor cleverly self-aware. In the process, it trivializes everything it touches: gender and caste discrimination, literacy, history, politics, dyslexia, marriage, democracy, rehabilitation. It's like a sanitized Adam Sandler comedy gone wrong, which is saying a lot, because Adam Sandler comedies are wrong to begin with.
If Dasvi were a student, it would be a classic mugger that memorizes every comma without understanding the logic. For instance, we've seen all sorts of back-to-school movies, where goons hit the books in unorthodox ways. There's an entire portion in which the CM, while studying history, starts to imagine himself in famous moments of India's freedom struggle. He rescues Lala Lajpat Rai from a mob; he walks with Mahatma Gandhi on the Salt March where he's asked if he's a journalist; he hands Chandra Shekhar Azad a gun when he's under siege behind the tree. The problem is this montage isn't supposed to be a parody; it's an expression of a perfectly sane adult absorbing knowledge. For mathematics, a fellow inmate (named Ghanti) teaches him by using political references and numbers – I'm not sure how he learns the concept of probability like this, but he just does, because the film wants to be cool about it. He then keeps calling Ghanti a 'bhagwan,' which would make sense if this tied into some sort of in-joke, but no such luck. He learns English and tenses by listening to Harsha Bhogle's cricket commentary, and so on. The execution is so half-hearted and derivative that it feels like the adult leader is written as a receptive baboon rather than a human.
Abhishek Bachchan is nothing if not a striver, but sincerity is now to him what talent was once to Rohit Sharma. His body language, voice, mannerism and dance style are too borrowed; the individualism of Yuva, or even Guru, is missing. Yami Gautam is no longer the dead girlfriend in Hindi films, but the combative smile is starting to get repetitive. The only worthwhile thing to come out of Dasvi is the fact that Nimrat Kaur would make for a great sociopath in a dark, twisted film that actually deserves her.
When a film is bad, the veneer of entertainment cracks and reveals a pattern of jokes without a punchline. When a film lacks identity, you also start to notice the misguided masculinity seeping through its veins. Forget accepting Dasvi for what it is, I not only failed to empathize with its protagonist but also failed to fathom how it so readily turns a strong police-woman into a subservient teacher and a housewife into a villain for wanting to defeat her terrible husband. It's not entirely the film's fault, though. Indian politics is such a sexist and broken ecosystem that a make-believe story about 1. A male politician having a change of heart and 2. A horrible man capable of being redeemed, feels so implausible that it comes across as farcical. Gangsters can un-shoot their bullets, writers can learn to be cheerful, Kohli can regain his form, India can learn to be secular again, but heartland politicians simply cannot be defined by the desire to learn; that's where even fiction must draw the line. I could only let out a sympathetic sigh when the quote "those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it" triggers an abrupt transformation. What other choice did the writers have? Dasvi was doomed even before it became history.