A Barbie pink chevy cruises down Rodeo Drive to the nostalgic vocals of Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi. It’s a ‘family’ outing headed by businessman Ranbeer Talwar (Saif Ali Khan) and his ‘children’s nanny’ (Rani Mukherji). But there’s magic in the air because the famous Hollywood sign overlooking Los Angeles miraculously morphs into ‘Bollywood’; a transformation that nicely sums up Kunal Kohli’s new film where Western clichés of nannies that impart true family values takes on a distinctively Indian character. It’s not just about family though, because there are also references to ideal national values in a film suitable for the whole family.
All up, the pace is crisp with some inventive developments. Someone once told me that Disney films are created with a short attention span in mind so that something lively happens every 10 minutes and so it is with this film. Jaded industrialist Talwar, kills a middle aged couple in a motor accident but isn’t allowed to wallow in remorse because a wise, old judge puts their orphaned children in his care. It’s far-fetched but the genre is fantasy so all is well. The Wallia children are devilish in their naughtiness so who better than God’s own angel to placate them and teach their guardian how to relate to them? The first half is peppered with pranks and special effects which should entertain the young but the emotional thread is also maintained to bind and advance the story.
The children are given distinct personalities. The eldest – Vashisht (Akshat Chopra) is the most troubled and most vindictive. Chopra, who plays the role, is more adolescent than child in his rebelliousness and has some powerful moments opposite Saif Ali Khan. He doesn’t just slam doors and throw tantrums though, but displays a calculating deviousness which lies beneath forced smiles and off-handed remarks. The adopted Sikh child Iqbal (Rachit Sidana) craves to belong and resents his difference. The little girls – Avantika (Ayush Berman) and Aditi (Shriya Sharma) are just lost souls and their personalities could have been differentiated a tad but thankfully, are still consistent with the fresh images of children that are emerging from Bollywood cinema of late in films like Taare Zameen Par (2007) and Boothnath (2008). They are departures from the bland stereotypes that have evoked cuteness at the expense of personality and a real voice.
In Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964), the neglected Banks children were taken on escapist holidays by their magical nanny. Kunal Kohli puts a modern and Indian spin on this idea. In the song Beetay Kal Se, Geeta (the angel) takes the Wallia children on a journey of discovery to develop their awareness of themselves as citizens of India and the world. They are taken into the realms of technology, history – the past and the future to see the value of cooperation, the futility of war and the sanctity of the environment. The film even suggests that children without proper adult guidance can be quite savage. There’s a very ugly scene in the second half where the Wallia children, in a particularly nasty outburst - mirror adult brutality. The angel – ‘didi’ (not ‘nanny’ because its Anglo-Saxon) doesn’t just sweeten life and cocoon her charges from reality.
Like Farah Khan’s films this one is self referential. The poster of “When Harry Met Sally” in the grungy alleyway reminds viewers of Hum Tum (2004) and there are many inferred references to Rani’s famous on-screen tears because ‘Angels don’t know how to cry’. Then, of course there is the send up of the ‘item number’.
Somewhere in the second half, I lost touch with the angel character but this is a slight criticism. Perhaps the necessity of using expensive LA locations to maximum effect has contributed to an imbalance because the film seems to lose its focus. It’s essentially about the kids and their guardian but shifts direction at the end, resorting to a clichéd ending. Certainly the cliché is self-conscious and more than a little tongue-in-cheek. However, there’s still a feeling that it’s a bit too expedient and rather hollow.
With Bollywood collaborating with Hollywood on forthcoming projects, it’s satisfying to know that the former is so clearly defined and redefining itself in inventive ways. An effective screenplay, competent performances and direction made the time pass effortlessly.
Note: Don’t come late to this one because an important part of the story occurs while the opening credits roll.