Director: Ken Scott
Cast: Dhanush, Erin Moriarty, Bérénice Bejo, Barkhad Abdi, Ben Miller
How many Indian stars have gone on to play the lead in a non-Indian film? This isn’t about Indian-origin actors like Dev Patel. This isn’t about actors like Shabana Azmi, primarily identified with art-house cinema and invited to play character roles in dramas like Madame Sousatzka. This is about a full-blooded mainstream star being cast as the protagonist. Three decades ago, Rajinikanth came close with Bloodstone, a poor man’s Indiana Jones adventure. But despite being directed by Hollywood’s Dwight H Little, the man behind such epics as Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home and the Steven Seagal-starring Marked for Death, it didn’t feel like a “Hollywood film.” It was set in India, and it featured many familiar Indian faces. Heck, Bob Christo showed up as a thug. The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir, top-lined by Rajinikanth’s son-in-law, may be something of a landmark, then. It’s a true-blue international production, featuring international actors like Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) and Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips). But they play supporting roles. Dhanush is the film’s… VIP.
That, pretty much, is the good news. The rest of this fantastical (in concept) yet bland (in execution) drama, directed by Ken Scott, makes you wonder what was it about the original book — The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe, by Romain Puertolas — that made it such a worldwide sensation. I haven’t read it, so I can only guess that the writing isn’t as flat as this film’s screenwriting, with information dumps posing as dialogue. (“Our families have been displaced by war…”) Every beat is hit extra hard, right from the opening scene of cutesy-wutesy babies in all colours. We are all born equal, a voiceover says, but then our lives become unequal due to the “tyranny of chance”. Some of us end up privileged. And some of us end up like Ajatashatru Lavash Patel (Dhanush), an impoverished Mumbai-ite. Through a series of improbable — though in the book, I suspect the word you’d use is “whimsical” — accidents, Ajatashatru finds himself in a cupboard, in a hot-air balloon, in Paris, in London…
But the wonderment stops with the plot outline. Every city feels like a travelogue cliché. Rome equals coins in a fountain. Paris equals the Eiffel Tower. Mumbai equals sword-swallowers and bright clothes that look as though someone’s always flinging Holi colours from behind the camera. The one non-cliché in the narrative is its attempt to weave the global refugee crisis into a warm fairy-tale. (Imagine Life is Beautiful!) Imagine having the money to grant the wish of a man who has nothing and wants to buy a fishing boat. Imagine having the money to grant the wish of a woman who’s scrambling for food, and yet, wants to fly to Brussels and learn chocolate-making. But the warmth in the story doesn’t reach the heart. There’s no feel. These incidents just flit by — and the tone is puzzling. It’s hard to say what we’re meant to think when Ajatashatru is chased by a gun-wielding gangster. Is it slapstick? Is it desperation? Is it whimsy? Is it all of the above?
The romantic interest, Marie (Erin Moriarty), feels as perfunctory as how we describe the heroines in our potboilers – only, a tad more exotic. She’s Aum Candy. The spoken English feels off — though this problem might not be faced by international audiences. Only we’d wince when a local Mumbai boy says things like “There were several clandestine refugee camps…” In a better film, we might attribute these discordant notes to an unreliable narrator. No such luck here. Scott throws in everything, from musical numbers to a woman who thinks she may be a lesbian, but the only thing that sticks is Dhanush’s sincerity. It’s nothing he hasn’t done before, but look at the scene where he thinks he’s going to die and calls Marie. He isn’t just an actor. He’s an alchemist. He’s trying to turn dirt into gold. Fakir is a win for him if only because he’s managed to branch out, and it will hopefully lead to better projects. But for those of us who know him from his Tamil work, it’s a very ordinary journey.