There needs to come a point where two kinds of mainstream Hindi films are declared relics and locked away in the museum of geological history: the loud Delhi-family comedy and the pulpy 70s-Bollywood ode. The former is obnoxious noise, doomed from the moment you hear names like Sunny and Pappi followed by Bhangra sound cues. But it’s the latter that really gets my goat these days. The nostalgia – unlike someone like Sriram Raghavan’s – isn’t even born out of geeky fondness. Instead you hear names like Vijay followed by retro background riffs, you see movie-obsessed characters and hamming sidekicks, and you experience storylines that feature evil pimps, good-hearted prostitutes, incompetent cops and heroic taxi drivers. If you find the setting too dated, the dialogue too kitschy, the acting too silly and derivative, the movie says: Exactly! Job done. This is our tribute to the Bollywood of yore, who are you to criticize the history of cinema? (Nobody actually says that, but you understand right? You better understand.). The style is basically a copout to justify a crippling lack of imagination.
Khaali Peeli, starring Ishaan Khatter and Ananya Panday, is the patron saint of nostalgic mediocrity. If Bollywood were a costume ball, Khaali Peeli is the guy who comes dressed as Sholay’s Thakur in white jeans instead of a crisp kurta. It tries very hard to be cool – with all the old tropes and stereotypes and the criss-crossing narrative repeatedly cutting to “35 minutes ago” to explain a surprise – only to end up becoming an utterly forgettable statistic in a fast-fading genre. Every time a gun is drawn, the hero snatches it athletically, rendering stand-offs pointless in terms of entertainment value. Khatter is Vijay a.k.a Blackie (don’t ask), Pandey is runaway prostitute Pooja with a bag of money – their paths cross in Mumbai when she escapes her own wedding, and he’s escaping from hoodlums on the night of a taxi strike. The story is set in 2007 or so, which in today’s terminology makes it a bonafide period film. A metallic motorola flip phone appears with the aura of a Victorian gown.
Throughout their ride to nowhere, we see flashbacks of their childhood in a red light district. He was a precocious hustler selling tickets in black outside the famous Maratha Mandir (another “filmy” reference), she was a spirited damsel who attracts the attention of a rich pedophile who “claims” her and waits ten years to marry her. It takes them half the film to realize that they were once pre-teen lovers who were torn apart by ominous adults and masala circumstances. You suspect that Pooja realizes it long before Vijay does, because she turns all coy and blushy after the initial nostril-flaring angst – but apparently that’s just poor acting.
I should mention the customary good-actor-in-a-bad-film part. There’s always one proven performer who seems to be having a ball at the expense of the airheaded movie. Jaideep Ahlawat is the villain called Yusuf Chikna. He seems quite bemused by his own presence in the movie, barely speaking and moving and yet managing to turn it all into a wry character trait. The sheer stillness of his role feels like some much-deserved downtime after the draining Paatal Lok.
Khatter seems too young to go fully ‘mass-appeal’ commercial, while Panday’s walking-Juhu-talking-Dharavi accent is not advisable. Others like Zakir Hussain and Satish Kaushik exist because they must. This is the second recent old-but-new Hindi film after Sadak 2 that’s centered around the city’s trademark black-and-yellow taxi, and that is not a good omen. Sadak 2 was atrocious, but Khaali Peeli is just indifferent. And sometimes that can be worse. I’ve only reached the end of this review and I’ve already forgotten what I’m supposed to be writing about. Maybe that’s a ‘70s thing too. Exactly! Job done.