Director: Rohit Dhawan
Writer: Rohit Dhawan (based on story by Trivikram Srinivas)
Cast: Kartik Aaryan, Paresh Rawal, Kriti Sanon, Manisha Koirala, Ronit Roy
They say that a movie should be enjoyed for what it is, not what we want it to be. I’ve never agreed with this rule, because the medium itself encourages us to imagine different realities and fictions. But let’s take the rule for a test drive in this review. Let me judge Rohit Dhawan’s Shehzada through the lens of what it is: A cheap and cheerful David Dhawan-esque entertainer. As someone who grew up in the 1990s, I am fully qualified to say Shehzada fails at even the art of nonsense. Even as the vapid all-in-one dramedy it strives to be, Shehzada is atrociously unfunny. Even as a new-age ode to David Dhawan class-ics like Swarg (1990), Hero No.1 (1997) and Coolie No. 1 (1995), Shehzada is a disaster. Even as a Kartik Aaryan vanity vehicle and a campy throwback to an age in which heroines were treated as dispensable showpieces, villains used umbrellas to stab industrialists and white mansions had marble gates preceding metal gates, Shehzada is a joke without a punchline.
A remake of the Telugu film Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo (2020), Shehzada stars Aaryan as Bantu, a poor and rakish Delhi hero with a heart of gold. Bantu is the sort of chap who seems to secretly swear by Luv Ranjan comedies. You sense this when he temporarily agrees with his sister’s eve teasers (“You called her hot, that’s fine…”) before reluctantly thrashing them for the sake of 2023 optics. You also sense this when he teaches a sexist uncle a half-hearted lesson at a cafe (“When women say it, no definitely means No!”), before impressing the girl with lecherous comments about her long legs and short skirt. His email address ([email protected]) is perhaps the only witty thing about him. But I digress. Shehzada is about Bantu discovering that he is actually the biological son of the billionaire industrialist (Ronit Roy) for whom his ‘father’ Valmiki (Paresh Rawal) works. The bitter Valmiki had switched the babies at birth to avenge his own middle-class existence. Mothers are usually intuitive in such movies, but the mother (Manisha Koirala) in this one is too busy being an ice queen.
Among other things, Shehzada is a masterclass in how not to be nostalgic. Bantu spends the second half of the film repairing the rich-people-problems of his real family rather than swooping in to claim his wealth and identity. He notices cracks in a marriage, a pampered son (Ankur Rathee) with no agency, a corrupt uncle – and therefore plays a version of the loyal-domestic-helper stereotype that Govinda aced back in the day. Or even the comic equivalent of the Shah Rukh Khan fixer-healer hero in Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003). But Aaryan’s performance is so bereft of timing that Bantu feels more like an avatar of the nosy plumber in Kapoor & Sons (2016), had he infiltrated the family and counseled them for no good reason. There are times when I wondered if the premise was a veiled nod to Aaryan’s own status as a star outsider in the nepotism debate. But that’s giving Shehzada too much credit. That’s like saying the sky goes dark so that we learn to appreciate the rising sun.
Meanwhile, the old patriarch of the Jindal empire (Sachin Khedekar) is so fond of Bantu that their chemistry looks anything but paternal. He keeps eyeing the young man emotionally, and hires Bantu solely to “hang out” with him. It doesn’t help that Bantu’s romantic interest (Kriti Sanon) promptly disappears from the film after serving the perennial cliche: Girl tries to intimidate a potential groom by smoking a beedi. Other family members in the Jindal family randomly emerge out of thin air: A brother, a brother-in-law, a sister-in-law, a dog (there’s no dog, but I’m sure he/she was lost in one of the mansion’s rooms). It reaches a point where only Kunal Vijaykar’s goofy cameo as a butler named Cadbury makes sense.
It’s all supposed to be silly, I get it, but a lack of logic is often Bollywood code for a lack of effort. The staging quits on the viewer time and again. A comatose patient wakes up after 25 years only to die moments later, because she’s in perhaps the most incompetent private hospital of all time. It’s so private that there’s not a soul around in the corridor – except Bantu and his meddlesome nature – to tend to her. Minutes later, her body appears on the ground floor so that two characters can react to her. I spent the rest of the film thinking about how she got there, especially in a space where nobody is doing their job. (And in a movie where nothing is doing its job, not even the umbrella that semi-pierces the chest of its victim).
This is incidentally the same hospital in which Bantu was once seamlessly switched at birth and Valmiki almost killed a nurse without the slightest of interruptions. The building that pretends to be this hospital (St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai) is probably the best actor in the film. I’m willing to leave my brains at home, I really am. But who’s going to surgically stitch them back into my head after the movie? The doctors of the hospital in Shehzada? I want my life to be better than that. But they say I have to enjoy it for what it is.