Cast: Geetanjali Thapa, Zain Khan Durrani, Shray Rai Tiwari, Mona Ambegaonkar
After exploring the alternative side lanes of Delhi in last year’s not-so-bad Shab, Onir continues his desi-Woody-Allen-ish city trail by training his sights closer to home – namely, Kolkata – in his latest, Kuchh Bheege Alfaaz. The director has some interesting ideas about romantic relationships, their healing influence on stubborn individualism, and social constructs, but his interpretation of India’s metropolitan “urban cool” milieu seems to be getting more dated with every outing. In 2018, there is nothing worse than amateur world-building.
As a result, this is perhaps his most disconnected, awkward and weakest film yet – almost as if a post-Taal Subhash Ghai were to direct a youth-oriented internet-age movie. Most of all, this is a pointless and dreadfully boring film – which is disappointing, because not long ago this filmmaker challenged our times and chose some very relevant stories to tell.
The film’s opening credits appear in WhatsApp-style texts and corresponding emoticons, subject to the nature of the designation. For example, that annoying laptop emoticon dots the name of the editor, and so on. Yet, curiously, only those generic good-natured smiley faces accompany the names of the producers. Already, one suspects, the film is trying too hard. Usually, such efforts end up patronizing the very generation it aims to analyze.
Surely enough, as we progress into the establishment scenes, it is clear that the writer is visibly striving to juxtapose the positive effects of modernization and digitalism with the inevitability of a budding love story. This involves a truckload of serendipity – contrivances that he attempts to justify by having the characters discuss the poeticism of coincidences (“ittefaaq”) in long-winding quasi-bong conversations.
Archana (Geetanjali Thapa) has leukoderma (white skin patches), overcompensates with her annoying manic-pixie attitude, works at a creative agency named Sir-casm that churns out viral (mediocre) memes, and constantly mourns the “death of her artistic vision”. Basically, she is a millennial version of an underpaid copywriter. She only goes on dates with Tinder men who don’t have a profile picture – because “I like to see the colour drain from their faces when they see me”. Evidently, Onir takes some metaphors too far.
She has a best friend, the agency photographer who is in love with her, and who she obviously treats like a sibling. Onir takes us into one of the company meetings, where the teen-looking boss scolds Archana for not watermarking a (frankly unfunny) meme in a room full of hipsters. “If painters can create art anonymously, so can we,” is her response. Needless to say, she isn’t fired – yet.
Archana finds inspiration in a popular RJ named Alfaaz (Zain Khan Durrani) – his show goes by the film’s title, meaning “some moist words” – whose lilting, old school, earthy Urdu stories have captivated half of Kolkata’s lyrical genes. Alfaaz is the opposite of Archana; he pours his heart out every night into a microphone, loves exploring strangers’ lives on call (he mentions this to his shopkeeper, so that we know of his odd nature), refuses to pander to fame and promotional offers, and sleeps in his minimalistic high-rise apartment that signifies his aversion to attention and humanity. Of course there is a reason he hates taking credit for his talent (cue dark flashbacks), and of course Archana – his emotional antidote – and him connect through a wrong number and become platonic phone buddies.
I found myself waiting for the moment she screams “Word” in response to his observation and then breathlessly cackle at her own pun on his name. But the moment never came. Because the clincher of the plot lies in the fact that she doesn’t know his name. They merely confide in one another, and she inadvertently changes his antiquated outlook towards art by converting her favourite Alfaaz quotes into illustrated WhatsApp forwards. We get it now: she is the snacky listicle to his inaccessible Pulitzer. His traditionalism and her inferiority complex are the villains. I suspect no other city might have made clickbait-literature go viral.
Onir, as always, employs some intriguing supporting characters – Archana’s progressive mother (who discusses condom jokes and failed marriages), Alfaaz’s stoic female colleague and a cute stray dog. But much of this film amounts to nothing in terms of cinema. The script may have seemed passable on paper, but its translation to screen bears a tedious emptiness. The dialogues are shabby and overwrought, the personalities feel artificial, and the actors aren’t directed very smartly.
Worst of all, it feels like the maker doesn’t really know the life – and people – he is depicting. There is no nuance to his high-key indie-ness. The characters’ “modern” environment comes across as a broad gimmick to make his fading vision more relatable. Which is why Kuchh Bheege Alfaaz ends up with too many words and not enough statements. And moistness.