Every creative artist attempts one theme in various moods and permutations. Guru Dutt made the same film about the tortured protagonist in conflict with society, over and over again. Each time the artist tries to make his story more perfect in its telling. In comedy, when you make your first film you put in as many gags as possible. With time you make sure the gags diminish. Finally, there should be comedy without laughter. Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu made transcendental cinema. He made comedies that reduced the laughter.
-- Ranjit Kapoor, in an inteview in the Times of India
Chintu Ji was released on Rishi Kapoor's 57th birthday, September 4th, 2009. I offer up this little tidbit simply because, frankly, I think he deserved a better gift than to have this little gem of a film come and go with so little fanfare. The film was a favorite with critics, but with little publicity beforehand, the film was out of cinemas pretty much inside of a week.
Ranjit Kapoor might be most well known as a dialogue writer for the cult classic Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, which put its finger into the pie of social issues of the early 1980s. Chintu Ji is a film cut from the same kind of cloth: issues of what constitutes progress, the hollowness of the cult of celebrity, the nature of the modern PR and newspaper businesses, right down to the duplicity and cynicism of the film industry -- none of these are sacred.
And least sacred of all is Chintu Ji himself, with Rishi Kapoor playing a version of himself that only further serves to highlight the delicious absurdity that often exists between the lines of fiction and reality.
It is, of course, possible, that Chintu Ji is merely and utterly a film made for me, which kind of reduces the audience potential for it. But let me tell you some of the reasons I loved Chintu Ji, and then you can decide for yourself if it's made for you, too:
1. "Every grain of soil preaches that truth resides here."
From the successful Canadian television series Corner Gas, set in fictional Dog River (“40 kilometres from nowhere”), where the mere mention of rival town Wullerton causes residents to spit disdainfully on the ground; to Patrice Leconte’s La Guerre des Miss, small, fictional towns and their rivalries are useful lenses through which to view wider societal concerns.
Sometimes the reasons behind these rivalries are lost in the mists of time, as is the case with Corner Gas; sometimes they reflect a competition over benefits, as in La Guerre des Miss, where the village of Charmoussey, hit by the recession, wants to win the contest for the "Miss locale" over rival Super-Chamoussey, a prosperous ski station that has won that right in the previous 22 outings.
In Chintu Ji, the fictional village of Hadbahedi is a paradise. There are no cell phones, the residents believe in values such as truth and non-violence, and if little things go wrong, the residents console themselves with the cheery, pep-talky phrase "Yahan sab theek hai" -- "Everything's all right here."
The almost Utopian Hadbahedi is contrasted with its rival, Triphala. Whereas Triphala is clearly a place inhabited by those with loose morals – it’s where you go for liquor and chicken dinners, and its fame is built upon its political candidates (a criminal running from jail and the owner of a distillery) – Hadbahedi is a paragon of goodness and virtue. No alcohol is permitted, the residents are largely vegetarian, there is no crime. Life in Hadbahedi is not perfect though: the electricity is only on sporadically throughout the day, the local newspaper is a weekly instead of daily, the airport is shared with rival town Triphala. The residents of Hadbahedi are not unhappy with their lot, yet, they long for a little more, and they dream of the possibilities of something just a little bit better.
And they see the key to raising their profile enough to command the attention that gets those benefits in the election of a high-profile politician themselves. When the local midwife reveals that she assisted at the birth of one “Chintu” – that is, one Rishi Kapoor -- the locals think they've got their man, and send an invitation to Rishi Kapoor to visit. The invitation from Hadbahedi dovetails nicely with Rishi Kapoor’s own eye on making a run at political office, and he arrives with his assistant and his newly-hired PR representative in tow. The visit gets off to a very rocky start when Chintu Ji slips on a block of ice and hurts his back, confining him to bed at the house of the hosts who provided a lunch for him, instead of in the air-conditioned guest house he was scheduled to stay in.
2. "Under the pretext of tea."
The romance track, between Arun Bakshi (Priyanshu Chatterjee) and Devika Malhotra (Kulraj Randhawa in her first Hindi film -- her second of course, was Yamla Pagla Deewana) has been described by some as unnecessary to the unfolding of the main story -- but I'd argue otherwise. Apart from the fact that the love story is rather small and sweet, I'd say that it's essential, in a way, to highlighting what's going on in the film.
Because Arun, of course, is the editor of Hadbhahedi's weekly paper, and Devika is Chintu Ji's Public Relations assistant. And between the two of them, they actually form the moral core of the story, somewhat of an ironic twist from what we might expect of people in the positions they occupy. Arun is proud of his paper, hopes to see his readership expand, wants to go from a weekly to a daily. But unlike a lot of journalists, Arun has standards. When Chintu Ji questions the quality of the paper Arun prints on, Arun's disdain at the suggestion of shifting to glossy paper is palpable. For Arun, glossy implies a certain lack of standards, and the suggestion that much of what appears there is rumours and rubbish, not what Arun wants to indulge in. This stands in contrast to the journalist who shows up to investigate Arun's past, under the pretext of wanting to interview Chintu Ji -- the level of disinformation and shoddy reporting he represents is handily summed up by the fact that he arrives from a bigger paper with presumably more resources, is disdainful of the local counterpart, and yet, he gets the nature of Chintu Ji's injury wrong.
Devika, of course, has recently been hired by Chintu Ji, who has aspirations to public office. It's Devika who constantly has to remind the boorish Chintu Ji of the basics of polite, respectful behaviour. At first, you might think, well, that's her job, to make him look good, and that's true, up to a point. It becomes clear as the film unfolds that Devika doesn't take any guff from Chintu Ji either, often putting him in his place.
And whereas in real life, the coming together of journalism and public relations is often cynical, in the case of Chintu Ji, it's a shining example of how two very decent individuals do their jobs in ways that are professional and moral and respectful.
3. "An actor has only one motivation...."
One of the particularly delicious aspects of Chintu Ji is how it looks at the business of cinema. The film Is packed with all sorts of filmi references -- when Chintu Ji arrives in Hadbahedi, the residents demand a song, a dance, a dialogue, and Rishi Kapoor responds with one of his most famous ones, the introduction to the song "Om Shanti Om" from Karz. When he finally graduates to using a wheelchair after being bedridden with his back injury, someone comments on how well he manipulated a wheelchair in Chandni.
The film also delivers some wry commentary on the nature of celebrity, and the Indian fondness for placing images of their screen idols everywhere. The residents of Hadbahedi erect a 35-foot image of Rishi Kapoor -- and deliciously, when he arrives, he's unimpressed until he is assured that similar images of Amitabh Bachchan and Rajnikanth erected elsewhere are not as high as his. The town's doctor, treating Rishi for the back injury, turns out to be a closet screenwriter, and offers Rishi a "medicinal dose" of alcohol that he procures surreptiously from Triphala in exchange for the chance to narrate his script to Rishi. The doctor acts out the script in meticulous and excruciating detail, not noticing that the actor merely downs the whole bottle of booze and passes out in an attempt to drown him out.
Equally delicious is the shooting of the film that ends up stalled when Rishi is delayed in Hadbahedi after his fall. Malkani (Saurabh Shukla), the director of the film, decides the actor has caused him so much trouble, delaying his already over-budget and behind schedule film, that he asks the writer to kill him off. The writer, who constantly reminds everyone of his Filmfare and National awards, objects, only to recant when Malkani threatens to replace him with a writer who will do the needful. When the only person who can help the crew get to Hadbahedi turns out to be a wannabe actor, Malkani suddenly offers him a role. And Malkani's response to the actor wanting to know what his motivation for a scene is? "Actor ka ek hi motivation hai -- money" (An actor has only one motivation -- money).
One bittersweet reference is to Mere Naam Joker, Raj Kapoor's failed masterwork. Rishi, narrating his memoirs to Devika, tells the story of being cast for the film, and being so excited he starts practising signing his autograph. Ksyenia Ryabinkina, the actress who played Marina in the film, makes a brief appearance here. Her dying wish is to return to India, and she requests to see Rishi Kapoor, bringing him a photo album of stills from his father's film. She tells him his father was a good actor, but a better human being, and she encourages Rishi to be like him. The meeting serves as the catalyst for his eventual change of heart.
4. "Akira Kurosawa"
I've read two diverging opinions of Chintu Ji's item number, the quirky little "Akira Kurosawa". At best, people find it kind of wacky and entertaining; there are those, however, who object to what they see as a kind of laundry list of the names of the some of the world's finest filmmakers.
Personally? I adore it, precisely because it is absolutely and totally cracktastic, and precisely because of that laundry list. Here, watch, and then I'll explain:
Here's the thing: I think, watching the song like this, out of the film, and out of context, well, it does just sound like a list of directors. And that's highly amusing for some of us (seriously, I was on the floor practically laughing).
But I think you have to think about this in the context of what's going on in the film. Upon his arrival in Hadbahedi, director Malkani is delighted to find out the name of his rickshaw driver: Antonioni. He was named this after his own father served as rickshaw driver to the great Italian director who had come to India on a visit. Malkani delights in this brush with greatness, obviously making the connection between the Italian director and his own work, as if Hadbahedi now has had two brushes with great movie-making to its name.
The irony in all this, of course, is that Malkani is obviously making a B-movie with a star whose glory days are clearly behind him, and a newcomer to the business who can't even get her line right -- it's a deliciously trashy affair called Khooni Khazana. And the item song highlights the contrast between all the great world filmmakers and, well, the B-grade director Malkani, between "cinema d'auteur" and, well, trash.
It's a brilliant bit of skewering, as well as being wonderful and wacky.
5. Chintu No. 1
Chintu Ji would not work at all if it weren't for the immense talent and the extreme generosity of Rishi Kapoor. The fictional Rishi is, frankly, a horror show. He’s boorish, rude, insufferable, cranky; he’s jealous of other stars in the cinema confrérie. Worse – he drinks, and he demands non-vegetarian food. He threatens to sue his hosts for causing his back injury. He cheats at snakes and ladders. He makes fun of the way his Malayalee nurse speaks. He sneaks behind the backs of the residents of Hadbahedi to broker a very sweet deal with Triphala -- for the tidy sum of one crore and some land, he'll go into politics on their behalf instead. Not even his family is spared; his assistant phones Neetu (no, she's not in the film, that would have caused my head to implode) to tell her about Rishi's injury, and she asks him to handle it as she's off to Switzerland.
And yet -- when his change of heart finally happens, he invests the moment with so much emotion, so much regret and dignity, that we absolutely believe in him, that all along there was a good man lurking inside the insufferable ogre. The entire film hinges on this, and Rishi Kapoor delivers. Because of him, Chintu Ji is a joy to watch from beginning to end.