Director: Mikhil Musale
Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Boman Irani, Mouni Roy, Sumeet Vyas
Made In China, set in Ahmedabad and directed by a fellow Amdavadi, has an authentic core. It has a flavour-of-Gujarat supporting cast in Boman Irani, Paresh Rawal and Manoj Joshi. It is about money and people who like money. It has an entire scene that plays out in innuendo on stage – Irani, who was at the receiving end of this college humour in 3 Idiots, is the gleeful perpetrator at a parent-teacher conference this time. It has a vegetarian protagonist who gorges on theplas in a foreign country. A story about a serial entrepreneur who starts an underground aphrodisiac company, Made In China couldn't have been based anywhere else.
Hypocrisy is a religion in Gujarat. Its resourceful citizens have long made a thriving business out of double standards. Bootleggers and sex therapists are backdoor heroes in a society that preaches abstinence. (Gujarat is statistically the wettest and kinkiest State in India; you also get some of the best meat on "the other side of Sabarmati bridge"). Only here can a film about bedroom bravado easily pass off as a metaphor for the stigmatization of booze drinkers or meat eaters. Given that Ayushmann Khurrana has thrusted in (with Vicky Donor) and out (with Shubh Mangal Savdhaan) of the sex-sermon genre, it might have been wiser of Rajkummar Rao to penetrate mainstream social-message Bollywood with a film about the opportunistic Gujarati bootlegging industry. One might argue it's all the same, but I suspect sex is a more fertile subject for Indian cinema – in that it simultaneously enables the genres of satire, masculine underdog-ness, comedy and melodrama.
Made In China takes the convoluted scenic route to drive home a familiar lesson. The film also travels to China for a reason that can only be described as misleading in context of the story's resolution
As a result, director Mikhil Musale (the maker of the Bollywood-ish Gujarati National Award winner Wrong Side Raju) saddles Rao – who does his best naive-hoper-from-Citylights impression – with a narrative that is torn between teaching and leaching. On one hand, you have the story of a bumbling Raghuvir Mehta aching to make it big, by hook or by crook, in the land of family-business millionaires. On the other, you have the story of a young man who, while conning his insecure clients with a "Chinese Magic Soup," begins to fetishize the nobility of his venture only so that he can educate the court (and by extension, movie audiences) about the normalization of sex. The movie basically wants us to empathize with a greedy and desperate chap who decides to exploit the male ego and make a killing out of selling fake medicine. The messaging is all a bit plastic, like a desi afterthought in a Wall Street narrative – Are we to celebrate the monetization of muddled morality? Is Raghu, despite admitting that he is simply catering to the psychological fragility of Indian manhood, a hero or a shady hustler? In Gujarat you can be both at once, but Made In China takes the convoluted scenic route to drive home a familiar lesson. The film also travels to China for a reason that can only be described as misleading in context of the story's resolution.
The conflict, too, feels quick and dirty – what if his wife finds out? How long can he hide his 'un-Gujarati' venture from his family? The red herring is unnecessary – why paint a rags-to-riches tale with the palette of a thriller? For instance, the film occurs in flashback mode, thanks to a CBI investigation after a horny Chinese General dies on consuming the soup at an Indian event. Raghu and his colleagues narrate their rise to the frustrated CBI officers, who believe that the key ingredient of the soup (Tiger's penis, yes) is responsible for the Chinaman's sudden demise. Raghu of course refuses to divulge the real recipe of his product, thereby leading to a long-drawn arc that culminates in a showy public hearing. Cue Khurrana monologue.
The film does have some nice little vignettes though. Irani gamely plays a character based on renowned sexologist Dr. Mahinder Vatsa – Raghu collaborates with him to sell his magic potion. At a small family dinner, Raghu's uptight cousin (Sumeet Vyas) and father (Manoj Joshi) can't speak about anything but imports, profits and good business – this is true of almost every dining table and every wedding function in Ahmedabad's urban heartland today; cliched as it sounds, the men speak about dhandha while the wives discuss babies and kitty parties. Which is why it's somewhat sweet to see Mouni Roy, who plays Raghu's wife, shut the windows and doors before sneaking in a few cigarette puffs every night. The inimitable Gajraj Rao shines in a cameo as a TEDx-style corporate speaker who talks in sappy motivational quotes. Paresh Rawal is not too shabby as a successful NRI either.
All of which goes to show that, true to the essence of the mysterious product at its center, the film's packaging is fine. "Product" being the keyword. Rawal, as the sagely mentor, advises Raghu to remember that "Consumer is ch*tiya". That a consumer has no idea about what he/she wants; it's up to the entrepreneur to make them believe that they need things. "Don't sell the story, sell the hero!" he booms, with the confidence of a man who has cracked the market. (He is, not surprisingly, an IIM-A alumnus). Given that I was in a frightfully cold hall on a Friday morning watching a film about people who make a career out of tricking the consumer, his mantra made me wonder: Was he a rich investor…or an undercover Bollywood producer?