Director: Soumik Sen
Cast: Emraan Hashmi, Snigdhadeep Chatterjee, Shreya Dhanwanthary
Have you ever seen a movie that is so aggressively daft that it’s too smart for you? The kind of self-obsessed, tone-deaf, overwrought corruption porn that believes that showing dishonest people in a hopeless system automatically makes them the heroes? The sort of morally warped, star-worshipping, formula-pandering anti-narrative that spends 118 out of 120 minutes romanticizing the machinery of cheating only to tell us that cheating is correct and India is doomed? The kind of unimaginative, unoriginal social-message drama that makes you feel like you’re a masterful fortune teller (scamster enters, starts empire, becomes rich, tragedy, grows conscience) within the first three minutes? Me neither. But if you can get past the grammatical wrongness of the title of a film that is ironically all about the awfulness of our education system – wait, is that deliberate? – you just might.
Why Cheat India is pointless on many levels not just because it seems enamoured by the conscienceless crooks driving the nation’s coaching-class culture, but also because it has no idea whether Emraan Hashmi is playing a hero or a villain. It begins as a B-grade Laakhon Mein Ek (a rare show that authentically depicts the curse of the academic rat-race), outlining the life of one particular “scholar” in Jaunpur. This kid, Sattu, who might otherwise easily pass off as a teen-aged Rahul Bose, passes the engineering entrance exam with flying colours and fulfils his domineering father’s wishes. Mostly because he is more expressive than Rahul Bose. He has a pretty sister who has eyes for Sattu’s shady ‘mentor’ Rakesh Singh (Rocky, because Emraan is cool like that), a man who beats up bullies in a Gupt matinee show and pulls Sattu into a racket that’s simple enough to understand in the first half; the boy is paid to impersonate bad students (remember: bad students are always rich and fat) in their entrance exams so that they score top marks. Intelligent Sattu is Rakesh’s golden goose.
Simultaneously, a thread detailing Rakesh’s family life (of course he has daddy issues) unravels in a parallel dimension of Bollywood storytelling. At one point, he takes his position in front of a harmonium during a wedding function but belts out the voice and lyrics of a song that is more suited to an erotic romp on the beach. Meanwhile, all is not well with Sattu. How can we tell? Because he now sports a goatee. A goatee is to Hindi movie males what cigarettes are to the females.
The racket in the second half is so complicated – banks, honest cops, stringers, politicians, Mumbai, hotel rooms, sex workers keeping the golden-goose nerds happy (?) in hotel rooms – that I’m not sure even the filmmakers understand it. Incessant split-screening suggests that they think it is something very clever. In fact, I was convinced I had walked into the wrong cinema hall after the interval.
I’d be under house arrest in Switzerland if I had a tax-free penny for each time a film stars Hashmi as a smug Robin-Hood-style con artist trying to dupe the system while magically producing a lilting Bhatt-style ballad with a heroine that appears out of nowhere only so that he can kiss her completely out of context and still end up being a knight in murky armour. To be fair, Hashmi likes wearing a moustache and a shirt. His face has that natural “I’m unreliable and I love grinning because you trust me because I’m unreliable” look about it. While it can’t be pleasant to know that directors can only visualize you as a professional liar, it’s not all that bad. Look on the brighter (darker) side: He pulls off a better Azhar here than he did in Azhar. Which makes Why Cheat India more of a biopic tagline.