Sharmaji Namkeen, On Amazon Prime Video, Is A Swansong For The Ages And A Fine Film To Boot

It’s a gem of a movie: sweet, funny, soulful, understated, and the perfect marriage of craft and circumstance.
Sharmaji Namkeen, On Amazon Prime Video, Is A Swansong For The Ages And A Fine Film To Boot

Director: Hitesh Bhatia
Writers: Hitesh Bhatia, Supratik Sen
Cast: Rishi Kapoor, Paresh Rawal, Juhi Chawla, Satish Kaushik, Suhail Nayyar, Taaruk Raina, Isha Talwar, Sheeba Chadha and Ayesha Raza Mishra
Harendra Singh, Piyush Putty
Bodhaditya Banerjee
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

Processing a posthumous movie release is complicated. When the star is no more, it's almost indecent to be objective about a film that features their final performance. The art becomes a footnote, and the artist, the enduring story. Especially in an age prone to sentimentality and nostalgia, the film doubles up as a euphemistic vessel of memories – a feature-length 'In Memoriam' segment, an ode to a distinguished career. And in Rishi Kapoor's case, this would be entirely acceptable. The late Hindi film legend passed away in April 2020; at that point, Sharmaji Namkeen was likely midway through its shooting schedule. I'll admit that when I heard about the makers choosing to complete the production with a second actor (Paresh Rawal) playing the same character, I didn't really expect the film to be more than a show-must-go-on symbol. In other words, the gesture was the film.

But Sharmaji Namkeen is a rare exception. It's a gem of a movie: sweet, funny, soulful, understated, and the perfect marriage of craft and circumstance. Director Hitesh Bhatia has somehow managed to preserve the identity of Sharmaji Namkeen as a standalone film, without turning its USP into a cultural gimmick. The heart is heavy while watching the Rishi Kapoor scenes, naturally, but the narrative meaning transcends the moment. It's no wonder the makers insisted on seeing this film through, even at the risk of visual distortion: I can't imagine a better send-off to an actor who revitalized the Great Indian Middle-Class genre. The ghost of Do Dooni Chaar looms light over Sharmaji Namkeen. A shared universe would see Mr. Duggal from the former morphing into Brij Gopal Sharma in the latter. Now widowed and retired, the West Delhi veteran is struggling to reconcile with the emptiness of growing old: he is bored, restless and desperate to stay relevant – to himself, if not his two adult sons. His hobby of cooking leads to a gig as a 'specialist chef' for a gang of housewives at their kitty parties. What starts as a device to stay sane soon turns into a rousing instrument of self-respect in the face of societal stigma. 

We've seen versions of this story before. But the orchestration of the man's modest journey is wonderfully organic. Despite some self-aware nods to its famous mainstream sibling, Baghban – otherwise known as every aging Indian parent's Bible – Sharmaji Namkeen resists broad strokes and theatricality in favour of a slice-of-life tone that seldom overplays its social intent. For instance, Sharma's older son, Rinku, is a subscriber of the what-will-people-say mindset. But the writing addresses his conflict – of wanting to progress, buy a home, get married, evolve – without demonizing him. He is not unlikable, if perhaps unreasonable at times. As someone from the newer generation, and as a son who's had his fair share of sobering showdowns, I like that the father is not just lionized at the cost of his close-minded kids. That's too simplistic, as is evident in similarly-themed hits like 102 Not Out and Baghban

Their conflict here does not hijack the humanity at the core of their relationship. These are people trying to navigate the familial circularity of adulthood as much as men whose egos are doing battle. The solution the film chooses – a superbly choreographed climax at a police station – is amusing, grounded and monologue-free: an experience small enough to merit an apology, middling enough to be anecdotal, and large enough to merit the healing of generational discord. The overall result is a male-driven iteration of English Vinglish, another movie that owns the line between personal resolution and cultural catharsis. 

Then there is the kitty party gang that, contrary to type, isn't presented as a comical trope. The film is not just non-judgemental but affectionate towards their quirks and lifestyle, infusing in these women a sense of voice and loyalty that isn't usually associated with them. We don't laugh at them because they're smart enough to laugh at themselves and their inherent entitlement. That Sharma becomes one of them – even as his relatives sneer at his new 'friends' – is a perceptive reminder of how society tends to marginalize both homemakers and old parents in terms of agency. Given that both 'sections' seek a sense of purpose and belonging through human contact, it's entirely plausible that they join forces, in a film that strives to see them as more than just expendable extensions of an ambition-oriented environment. It helps that performers like Sheeba Chaddha, Ayesha Raza and even Juhi Chawla have such a comfortable screen presence. They don't play to the gossipy gallery so much as indulge in good-natured banter – a trait that's essential to the edges of Sharma's arc. Chaddha, in particular, is in the middle of a belated career resurgence; a film like this only expands her range and unique reading of the Indian family dynamic. 

That's not to say the constant swapping between Rishi Kapoor and his replacement, Paresh Rawal – sometimes in the same scene – is seamless. It's an uncontrollable factor. But as a viewer, once you get used to the protagonist rather than the people playing him, the unfussy screenplay takes over. Now that I'm trying to recall moments from the film, the dual act feels like one whole rather than two parts. Suspending a bit of disbelief can be rewarding in this case. Rawal's face is harder than Kapoor's, so one way to watch their cumulative performance is by aligning the actors with separate aspects of Sharma's personality. Kapoor's portions convey the self-doubt and disillusionment with his surroundings; Rawal's portions convey a more direct confrontation with his status. Rawal is a fine actor on most days, which is why his version of Sharma-ji is not so much an imitation as an adaptation. The accents, too, are miles apart; yet, it isn't jarring. It's nearly a 50-50 split between the two in terms of screentime, or maybe that's just me channeling my fondness for the late actor. But Rishi Kapoor's body language and occupation of space are as good as they've ever been – he's undeniably the North Indian heart of Sharma, while Paresh Rawal is the go-getter body. 

This isn't said enough, but the crew of this film – the assistant and continuity directors, supporting actors (especially Suhail Nayyar as the son), the make-up and wardrobe departments, the production designers – deserve great credit. It's not easy to continue the production of a film two years apart. It's not flawless, but maintaining the physicality of the setting – including the looks and rhythms of the people – is quite an achievement. Merging two schedules and hoping for the best was always going to be less feasible than remodeling the premise. But Sharmaji Namkeen, despite being a logistical nightmare, sticks to its original vision and earns its integrity. 

It's almost fashionable to underestimate a parent who is out of touch with modern living. I do it quite often myself. Like Rinku in the film, I shut my parents out of my everyday problems because I misinterpret the cutting of our umbilical cord as their lack of intellectual agency. I tend to assume they aren't equipped enough to help me anymore, when I'm actually just trying to assert my control as the sole breadwinner of the family. I used to get irritated when they made self-seeking decisions – like Sharma-ji 'secretly' enjoying his hobby – because I'm so conditioned to being the voice of reason as well as the center of their existence. But the older I'm getting, the more I've begun to recognize the importance of purpose – and the joy of being seen – in their lives. In fact, I often pray that my father finds the spirited humility of someone like Sharma, or that my mother turns her fantastic cooking into a social vessel for herself. 

A film like Sharmaji Namkeen makes me hope for something more: an opportunity for them to prove that their demotion as caregivers has not diluted their standing as individuals. It makes me understand that my life – however active – is not bigger than theirs. At times, I even wish that I fall into the sort of trouble that would make them rescue me – and rediscover themselves – again. I try to imagine how it might feel to see them in control one last time. I dream of that one last dance. All it took was a movie starring Rishi Kapoor, the immortal hero of their youth. 

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