Director: Satramm Ramani
Writers: Rohan Shankar, Satramm Ramani, Gopal Mudhane
Cast: Aparshakti Khurana, Pranutan Bahl, Abhishek Banerjee, Anurita Jha, Ashish Verma
Streaming on: ZEE5
Nearly ten years after model-actor John Abraham turned producer with the landscape-shaping Vicky Donor starring Ayushmann Khurrana, model-actor Dino Morea has turned producer with its tired and formulaic sibling, Helmet, starring brother Aparshakti Khurana. The heritage is obvious – too obvious. Helmet is the kind of derivative, half-hearted and generic North Indian social dramedy that makes you want to pat its head and politely send it back to school. For no fault of its own (other than being great), Vicky Donor has spawned a legacy of pretenders over the years. Like a creepy game of Chinese Whispers, every subsequent iteration seems to retain less and less of the truth and novelty of the original. While sex was still a conversation starter back in the Hindi cinema of 2012, it's now a full-blown Bollywood hashtag. The innuendos are the same, the puns are dated, the "quirky" characters are not so quirky anymore, and the moral posturing feels about as genuine as a Spring day in Mumbai.
Helmet is the poster child of this copy-paste syndrome. You know it's trouble when a protagonist named Lucky sermonizes, in all seriousness, that "if people bought more condoms, the world would not have so many orphans". Everyone in the frame is weeping, and I suspect it isn't entirely because the dialogue is supposed to be emotional. The kicker: he is speaking about his own sad backstory in the final ten minutes of the film. For lack of a better critical reaction: I mean, come on. Apparently, the guy and his gang single-handedly reduce STDs, abortions and the Indian population in general after becoming vigilante condom sellers in a small Uttar Pradesh town. This is after they set out to convince people from all walks of life – the manager of seedy adult movie theatres in which men spend their time masturbating (one chap buys a packet without washing his hands), sex workers who are sick of rubber-averse clients, middle-aged uncles way past their sell-by dates – to use their discounted condoms. If this rubber-revolutionary gang didn't sound scammy enough, the movie they're in outdoes them: It tries to sell us the notion that desperate hustlers like Lucky are good-hearted rogues who have a sudden change of conscience once they start making money. The noble-thieves trope is so 1980s. I mean, come on.
But let's rewind for context. The premise is as greasy (or lubricated?) as it sounds. Moments after we see some overzealous sarkaari agents being slapped by prude citizens during a condom survey, Lucky is introduced as the singer of a popular brass band. He is dating a pretty girl (Pranutan Bahl) who, in the only semi-amusing scene of the film, is aghast when a cowardly Lucky buys everything but the condoms they need from the chemist store. (This, after she uses all the safety-first metaphors possible: "no ticket, no entry" being the crudest of them). When her father (Ashish Vidyarthi) humiliates him for being a lowly bandmaster, he promises to earn enough money to start his own band and win her hand in marriage. Somehow his first decision involves robbing a delivery truck and ending up with "crores worth of condom boxes".
At some point, Lucky and his friends start wearing flimsy motorbike helmets to protect their identities while selling the packets. (And you all thought Surinder Sahni's moustache trick was the deal-breaker in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi). The purpose of course is to reveal the stigmas and contradictions of the Great Indian Middle Class. But the problem with Helmet, like most others, is that the film wants to be the cure too. As a result, montages featuring Indian women reminding their partners to wear a condom adopt the veneer of a tacky song. And a cringeworthy scene involving Lucky mansplaining the importance of consent and protection to a cynical sex worker is performed with the inertia of a Public Service Announcement. Almost on cue, the film ends with footage of our Prime Minister giving a speech about India's population problem.
The performances are based on other idiosyncratic performances from the same genre. The faces are familiar, largely because this is a story composed of quintessential supporting actors – Aparshakti, Abhishek Banerjee, Ashish Verma – who look bereft of a grounding force. There's a hero-shaped vacuum at the core of the film. It's nice to see Khurana in a rare leading role, but he might have to carve out his own space beyond the one that is dominated by his famous brother. The deja vu is too heavy; everyone's gotten the memo. A distinct identity – not an echoic one – is the need of his hour. The biggest irony of Helmet is that India's condom commercials over the years have been far more imaginative, cheekier and…slicker. After all, if condoms were a priority, necessity would not be a mother of invention