Ram Singh Charlie
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Director: Nitin Kakkar
Writers: Sharib Hashmi and Nitin Kakkar
Cinematographers: Subranshu Das and Madhav Salunkhe
Editor: Shachindra Vats
Streaming on: Sony Liv

First, can I gush about Kumud Mishra? I’ve been an admirer for years. Kumud combines blazing talent with an innate decency. His sympathetic face and thoughtful manner add humanity to whichever film he chooses to be part of – think of the supportive Khatana in Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar or the wise judge Madhok in Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk, who calls out bigotry without a hint of shrillness. Over a career spanning more than two decades, Kumud has combined gravitas with generosity. Even in roles that do little justice to his acting chops, he manages to stand out.

It’s fitting then that this fine actor finally gets to take center-sage. In Ram Singh Charlie, he plays the titular role. Ram Singh is a circus performer whose specialty is playing Charlie Chaplin. He’s so good at it, that a character says, ‘Sab bolte hain inka jaisa Charlie sirf ek aadmi kar sakta tha, khud Charlie.’ But the circus is a dying art.  When the Jango circus, where Ram Singh was born and raised, shuts down, he is forced to enter the larger circus of the modern world and fend for himself and his family.

Ram Singh Charlie, directed by Nitin Kakkar, and written by Kakkar and Sharib Hashmi, wants to be many things. The film is a celebration of the artist. Ram might be a circus entertainer but that doesn’t diminish his talent or the labor he puts into making people laugh. When people call Ram a joker, he protests. Because Charlie Chaplin was so much more. Ram does his job with unfailing sincerity and even tells his son, ‘Asli artist sab ke liye nahi, apne liye perform karta hai.’

The film is also a lament for a lost way of life. The circus isn’t just a job. It’s a family. When it shuts, all the members – from the owner to Ram to the clowns – lose their moorings. They find it impossible to fit into an indifferent world where their talent is disregarded. At one point, Ram tries to make money by donning a giant chicken costume. He also becomes a rickshaw puller, racing through crowded streets while his head swirls with images of his beloved circus.

The story is set in Kolkata. The city has been evocatively captured by DOPs Subranshu Das and Madhav Salunkhe. We see the urban sprawl as Ram sees it – expansive, uncaring, brutal. You might find echoes here of Bimal Roy’s 1953 classic Do Bigha Zamin, in which a poor farmer, played by the brilliant Balraj Sahni, tries to salvage his ancestral land and his family by becoming a rickshaw puller. The circus scenes might remind you of Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker. Ram Singh Charlie is also steeped in nostalgia for the simpler joys of the circus, which has now been replaced by technology and a hurried pace of life.

It is lovely to see Kumud Mishra work his magic. This actor doesn’t need co-stars or even dialogue to shine

Nitin and Sharib earlier collaborated on Filmistaan, which is a film I loved. Filmistaan combined laughter with pathos. Ram Singh Charlie doesn’t have much room for humor but it is aiming for that same bittersweet texture, which in fact was the forte of Charlie Chaplin, who could, with the skill of a sorcerer, make you smile and tear up at the same time. Ram Singh Charlie is constructed to tug at your heart but unfortunately, in places, the string-pulling shows.

Not in the acting though, which is uniformly good – Kumud gives Ram Singh dignity. The actor does the heavy lifting without strain. Ram longs to return to his circus days but he refuses to compromise his integrity. He remains loyal to the idea of a circus rather than the physical event of it. And even in his worst moments, he manages to smile. Kumud finds every beat of this troubled man. Divya Dutta as his wife is also strong. She doesn’t say much but her eyes give expression to her feelings. The scenes between the two are genuinely affecting.

Ram Singh Charlie, directed by Nitin Kakkar, and written by Kakkar and Sharib Hashmi, is a celebration of the artist

But the emotional momentum of the film doesn’t reach a crescendo because the script is scattered. Nitin attempts to capture Ram Singh’s arduous struggle but in the second half, the hurdles seem to miraculously ease before randomly getting complicated again. The despair doesn’t get a chance to take root. Apart from Ram Singh’s family, the characters are thinly etched and the plot is inconsistent.

Ram Singh Charlie is made with heart but the film doesn’t rise to its full potential. Still, it is lovely to see Kumud work his magic – watch him in a scene in which Ram, in a daze of longing for his old life, rubs white paint on his face and momentarily becomes Charlie again. His eyes, brimming with tears and loss, shine through the layers of covering. This actor doesn’t need co-stars or even dialogue to shine.

You can watch Ram Singh Charlie on Sony Liv.

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