I keep imagining the 1970s and the 1990s in a group therapy session, where the two sit in a circle and share their trauma of being culturally appropriated and artistically exploited in the name of nostalgia by 21st-century Hindi cinema. The 1970s will speak about how it is only ever associated with pulpy retro-Bollywood homages and cool Bachchan characters, and resents not being respected as a real and old period of time. The 1990s will speak about the opposite: being fetishized as a real period of time when it’s really not that old. Both of them might then consider dragging Abhishek Sharma’s wasteful comedy Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari to court – for being based in 1995 Bombay, with a hero who is obsessed with 1970s Bollywood. 1990s in particular will have a strong case: amidst the forced nostalgia of pagers and printed shirts and Premier Padminis, the odd Santro taxi in the background of some shots might make for a potent character-assissination lawsuit. If the defendant claims that all is fair in comedy, the judge might have to screen the film and thereby risk the collective sanity of a packed courtroom.
Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari is one of the first Hindi films to screen in cinema halls during the ongoing pandemic. That’s pretty much all it’s going to be known for in the annals of Indian history. The movie is 142 minutes long, and revolves around Suraj Dhillon (Diljit Dosanjh), an over-energetic Sikh man looking for a suitable and sanskari girl who will make sure that his mother “doesn’t need to enter the kitchen” and he “doesn’t need to leave the bedroom”. Raining on his parade is a Maharashtrian private detective named Madhu Mangal Rane (Manoj Bajpayee), whose only job is to do a background check on prospective grooms by being a master of disguise. Bajpayee is introduced as a man dressed in drag, trying to pry out information about an unsuitable boy from a local aunty. In the next scene, he is dressed as a sleazy pot-bellied uncle at a dance bar who looks like Pablo Escobar’s long-lost marvari brother. He dons various getups down the line, but not nearly enough to convince us that we are getting several Bajpayees for the price of one. It’s not the actor’s finest moment, but it’s still a distant second to his presence in Mrs. Serial Killer from earlier this year.
Once we see that Fatima Sana Shaikh is playing Madhu’s sister, you can smell the Suraj-Tulsi affair coming the way you can smell Mahim Creek coming once the local train leaves Bandra station. (That’s how you integrate “Bambai” into a movie). It’s predictable, unpleasant, avoidable – and the film starts to go around in revenge circles, with Suraj first teaching Madhu a lesson and then Madhu teaching Suraj a lesson and then Tulsi the pawn still finding in her broken heart the courage to forgive the two horrendous men of her life.
Speaking of courage, that’s what it takes to have a supporting cast of Manoj and Seema Pahwa, Supriya Pilgaonkar, Annu Kapoor and Vijay Raaz without giving them a single useful thing to do. It’s hard to ever dislike the sprightly Diljit Dosanjh, but I’m starting to run out of patience with him playing simpletons who thrive on playing the fool. Fatima Sana Shaikh is entirely forgettable as a girl who straddles the traditional-modern bridge with timid conviction. The music theme marking the Suraj-Tulsi romance sounds a lot like the chorus of Sonu Nigam’s hit 2001 single Mohabbat Kabhi Maine Ki To Nahi Thi – the music video is about a hunky farmhand boy trying to impress the new girl, which also reflects Suraj’s clumsy effort to learn Marathi for his lady love. This is of course an entirely bogus reading of the film. It’s second-hand intellectualism; the film refuses to justify its existence for so long that the viewer feels obliged to search for imaginary depth in a narrative that is shallower than the conscience of a Mumbai broker.
The climax is of course at a railway station with a moving train and running lovers. As much as we want to sue DDLJ for starting this station fad, maybe it’s DDLJ who should be doing the suing this time. If nothing, at least the 1990s will be on the same page as the 1970s in the next group therapy session.