One of the most eagerly awaited film of the year by a long shot, Paa turned out to be an alpha-gamma movie at best. Following the story of Auro-a kid with progeria (genetic disorder where ageing is sped by a factor of 10 and life seldom stretches beyond the thirteenth year), Balki-the director-writer pens a screenplay around the what-if scenario of such a kid being fatherless. So the final act’s emotional crescendo isn’t the predictable lovable-kid-with-terminal-illness-dying but a moment of grace at seeing his biological parents stop acting like high school teenagers and hold hands. It is a sublime moment no doubt, but such virtuoso writing evident in the film’s final minutes is hard to come by in its dramatically spent preceding minutes.
Thing is, as much as I want to laud Balki for thinking out of the box and giving a fresh arc to Auro and his immediate family, he’s rammed a potentially sensitive drama with a supremely grating take on the fourth estate. Turning Auro’s dad, Amol into this milkwhite spotless virtuous MP son of an erstwhile politician who takes on the irresponsible media of the country by staging a vendetta on live TV bores the wits outta you and is really so shrill it has no business being here in this already-choked-with-incident drama. One high-concept a film please, Balki. The whole subplot involving him re-allocating slum-dwellers into a whole new appartment building and then his noble gesture backfiring by a typical crony opponent who soughts out the typical unethical media-houses to brew up their staple sensational gibberish to fill air-time would probably have sunk deeper if it was left as it is: a sort of a background worry for our sagacious young leader. But then we have the whole farce of him tying things up, resolving them and tiring us unsuspecting audience with a sermon of “media in crisis” in Dolby Digital Surround. I don’t mind the virtuosity, I don’t mind the social commentary (Why I absolutely adored the opening montage of a line-up of art models by kids about their vision for India). It’s just when it’s ramrodded down my throat all the way down until I can taste the popcorn-cola sludge which was sloshing wistfully in my stomach uptil now, something’s not right. And Abhishek doesn’t sell me the persona well enough. Does he have the chops or the screen charisma of Anil Kapoor to pull off a Nayak? Sadly no. I just wasn’t convinced that from one minute to the next he goes from the wet-behind-his-ears social servant to an astute politician who uses his clout to witch-hunt the very reporters who blabbered bile about him and manages to run an exposé on television (complete with a misdirecting ad in the newspaper) to get the attention and elicit the requisite reaction from the masses.
It’s a neat ploy, but it grates on the big screen because I lost the number of times I caught Junior AB enacting this role, and also, essentially the macabre stunt is basically making a big deal about reporters behaving and reacting like normal mortals do when they have their private space invaded. The hyperbole offered obviously, and rather gratingly, with Abhishek looking straight at the camera is that the government’s not immune to reacting when it’s property is encroached, just like the media persons. Nobody’s around him to tell him to go storm the studios and offices of media-houses instead, but that’s another story. We are going for a broader black-and-white stroke here with the tone being that the media is abusing its power. Let’s face it: Balki is no Rakesh O Mehra who’d go the extra mile and question if the socially conscious commentary serves a purpose in the story (although even the latter screwed it up by going overboard in Rang De Basanti IMHO). In his head maybe it does. Well according to him, even this character does when to me he just doesn’t.
So poof goes Paa, like Cheeni Kum did since R Balki is our new social-commentator in town. And poof goes another potentially splendid chance to make something timeless. In Love Aaj Kal parlance, Paa would have had ten times the impact had the actual Paa been an aam-aadmi, you know, a mango guy. Or even if he had to have a high profile, some other less attention-grabbing profession, so our writer saab could focus on building the backstory of Auro’s parents with a little more care. Amol Arte here and his whole political shenanigans belong to a different movie altogether.
Let me tell you why Cheeni Kum, for all its flaws made for a delightful watch. It was the courtship between these two characters with an age-gap as wide as an autobahn that was written with such casual wit, such innate maturity and such freewheeling banter that it was nothing short of a revelation. So I was more than appalled when I saw the scattershot treatment of the love angle in Paa. Yes, this is a different film, but this is the same guy who showed a thing or two about two actors playing off each other (remember BigB coaxing Tabu for a nookie for the whole of Jaane Do Na) and now he comes with something as pitifully tepid as Mudhi Mudhi, shot in the style of a flashy 30 second commercial and it made me angry. Not the least because the whole bloody backstory between the supposed lovers is trash-canned in these two minutes (reminded me of the similar sacrilege done in Aaja Nachle when they compressed a specatcularly important and potentially interesting backstory of a rebellious small-time Madhuri who makes it as a single mom and choreographer in NYC in 5 minutes). So NOT DONE. I was just baffed at his directorial choices in the first half, and the fact that the second half obsesses over this couple’s standoff routine, you don’t give a damn because well, you don’t have any reason to.
So with such lax character development, you are left with Auro. Who thankfully is written with now-trademark-Balki irreverence and wit. Amitabh makes Auro work like anything despite being caged in a severely unrelenting prosthetic package as he unassumingly invades the spontaneity and physicality of a twelve year old, at the same time managing to totally convince you of the disorder. Like in Cheeni Kum, Balki makes you contemplate about age and how our paltry obsession with the number has reduced ageing to kitsch. How old are you? What’s the age gap between those two? Do this by this age and that by that. Does it really matter? These labels-how far do they take us? I love him for that, and everytime the camera lingered longer on Auro’s face, it had me going. And for all its predictability, those words spoken in that nothing-but-Auro’s voice: Maa and Paa as he hugs them, I wish I had the option to look away. Double thumbs up for BigB for being such a sport in not only kiddofying his own baritone but enjoying the littlest of scenes like only he does: oh didn’t I enjoy his jabber on all matters scatological or what! And that chimp dance routine. So Auro.
Another Balki trademark is how he characterises his kids. I was supremely cheesed off by this supposedly precocious kid in Cheeni Kum who’s terminally ill but had a lip on her that was nothing but crass and completely negated the adult-like “mature” conversations she was having. But in Paa, this works as it’s all for humour. So even if all these bawdy 12-year boors behave and talk like people double their age and are cringeworthingly affected, it’s all to get a few laughs. And laugh I did. Essentially, Auro’s arc is pretty much the same as the cancer-inflicted Sexy (rolling my eyes at her memory) of Cheeni Kum– dying kid vying to get scorned lovers to embrace each other in plain sight as he/she breathes their last. Still, the contrivance somehow is well put-together this time, although on a related note I did not care for the said lovers here. But I was happy for Auro.
And how can I end this review without a high five to Vidya Balan? All that promise she showed in Parineeta and Eklavya, it’s wonderful to see her adorn a persona that is so her. So quintessentially Indian and she just owns it. That casually hanging chignon or plait on her shoulder, that blithe drape of the saree and those sharp eyes: one look and you just believe her as the mother. Someone write a film around her pronto, such bonafide acting talent we have amidst us. And although she’s at her best, the stilted character she invades doesn’t give her much scope to really bare her fangs. Okay, it’s much better than being suffocated in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s indulgent vehicles, and watching her do the saat pheras as Balki’s camera captures that sideways glanceof hers as she looks at Auro (encore Tabu from Cheeni Kum) is more than any female performer managed this year, but in the wake of BigB and progeria, her work might go overlooked completely. But this is so her turf. Just give the girl a few trophies so she doesn’t feel insecure enough to associate with drivel like Kismat Konnection or Heyy Baby. And thanks Balki for casting an unknown face (a theater thesp from what I hear) Arundhati Nag as her mom. The BigB-Balan-Nag trio more than undo the damage by the super sincere but perfectly inadequate Abhishek who sort of tanks the first half (with ample help from the abysmal writing) and bolsters himself somewhat in the second when he’s playing off his real-life dad but ten years on and I still see a performer so gratingly self-conscious when cast even a shade against his type, it doesn’t impress me. Performers clearly aren’t made or bred, they’re born.
So finally coming back to Balki, I’ll be looking forward to his next sure, and hopefully third time will be a real charm if he spares us the lecturing. If not, well I’ll accept that he’s doing a good thing and I am not his target audience. Shame, I know.
PS: I actually didn’t mind the goofy titles. Jaya Bachchan rattling on the cast and the crew’s names sitting on the steps, sometimes just dropping the first-name hinting at a possible acquaintance and smiling all the while, sometimes at the memory of their company, sometimes at getting the name right- it was something new. Then again, I am in the minority who adores her maternal self on the big screen, yes, complete with all the enigmatic contortions her wrinkles are capable of.