Director: Apurva Dhar Badgaiyann
Cast: Jitendra Kumar, Ritika Badiani, Alam Khan
Streaming on: Netflix
At one point in Chaman Bahaar, Billu the paanwala asks a shopkeeper where greeting cards which say, 'I love you' are kept. The man looks surprised, like he can't imagine how this meek wallflower could even think about love. Who could possibly be the recipient of his devotion? Which is also our first impression of Billu. He's painfully ordinary. But because he's played with practiced ease by Jitendra Kumar, we immediately care about him.
I think of Jitendra as a saltier, more prickly version of Amol Palekar. Like the veteran actor, Jitendra is instantly relatable. We can easily imagine him struggling with his job, relationships, desires. His ability to be one of us makes him endearing. But Jitendra is also a fine performer who can locate that delicate balance between the comedy and tragedy of his character's anguish. He's done this with aplomb in his first film Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan and more recently in the superb streaming show Panchayat. Even as you sympathize with his character's predicament, you're smiling because his seething has an in-built comical streak. In Chaman Bahaar, he once again finds this sweet spot. Sadly, the film doesn't.
Chaman Bahaar has been written and directed by debutant director Apurva Dhar Badgaiyann. The film, made in 2018, was meant to be Jitendra's feature debut. The story is set in Lormi, a district in Chhattisgarh. Billu is a man with determination and dreams. He is a disruptor who breaks the family tradition of working in the forest department and sets up a paan shop called Chaman Bahaar. Sadly, the district limits change and his shop, on the outskirts of Lormi, has barely any customers. Until a family moves into the house opposite the street. Their teenage daughter Rinku sets Lormi aflame. Dozens of young men start driving past, only to have a look at Rinku who famously wears half-pants. Billu's shop starts thriving but he gets more miserable because he can't resist Rinku's charms either. As a character aptly puts it: Shah Rukh ka picture dekh dekh ke chocolatey ho gaye hain sab.
What Apurva gets right are these small town textures – the language, the atmosphere, the conversational style. The young men routinely address each other as Daddy. The biggest daddies here are the youth politician Shila who chews paan and swaggers even while spitting. And Ashu, the local rich kid. The District Forest Officer's son also comes by – his father's position gives him the clout to try for Rinku. The other boys understand they have no chance so they start to place bets on who among these will get the girl. And the circus is orchestrated by Somu and Chotu, a jugaadu twosome who effectively function as Lormi's Narad Munnis, prodding the action, hustling and doing idhar ki baat udhar. These characters and their interactions are the most vibrant part of the film. The display of outsized egos and low IQs is amusing. Apurva also constructs some lovely grace notes – like Billu asking for a shave with Gillette after he's fallen in love with Rinku and a climactic moment, which brings him some solace.
The film keeps shifting tonally, going from a comic vein to serious and later, satirical
But Apurva isn't able to build on the promise of his premise. He doesn't spend enough time fleshing out the story or the characters. The plot is too thin and beyond the first hour, the antics of these hordes of men in pursuit of a young girl start to wear thin. The situation is also inherently uncomfortable. In one scene, Shila and his gang in a jeep are chasing Rinku who is on a scooter. He tells the driver to drive faster so she is at least aware that she is being chased. Honestly, I couldn't find the humor in this. Her school teacher also has a crush on her, which is flat out creepy.
Rinku, played by Ritika Badiani, isn't so much a character as an idea. She barely speaks in the film and we know little about her apart from the fact that she loves her dog, who she walks outside their home. When she does this, time stands still for Billu. But neither he nor any of the other boys know her and neither do we. She symbolizes modernity, romance and all that is sparkling in this dusty, testosterone-filled landscape.
The film keeps shifting tonally, going from a comic vein to serious and later, satirical. The background score keeps prodding us to laugh – when a tough cop enters the story, we get Sholay-like sound effects. Which I think are supposed to be funny. But then, we go to full-blown emotional drama, which feels out of place. Also the subtitles are a little distracting – does the word lafandar really translate into 'town bitch'?
I don't know but it's so delightful that I recommend we add it to our vocabulary.
You can watch Chaman Bahaar on Netflix.