Lara Dutta, Vinay Pathak, Guest appearance by I’m- not-telling-you-who
Sometimes it pays to go into a theatre with zero expectations. Lara Dutta has not managed to make much of a mark in films in the decade-plus since she was crowned Miss Universe. And Vinay Pathak is a lovely actor who has been repeating himself of late. But all those concerns are now irrelevant – I’m happy to report that Chalo Dilli is a fun experience without being overly dramatic. Besides, it’s that rare road movie from Bollywood.
The story is simple. Dutta plays Mihika Banerjee, a high-flying investment banker from Mumbai who is on her way to Delhi. A bunch of delays and mix-ups result in her landing at Jaipur airport without realising it. She hires a taxi to drive to the Capital, but Murphy’s Law comes into operation: everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and she’s joined on the trip by an irritating chap called Manu Gupta (Vinay Pathak) as she braves a car break-down, a cockroach, oily food, lost luggage, camel and bullock carts, tractor rides, pickpockets, a journey in the general compartment of a train, a group of small-town goons, a filthy hotel called Red Tomato Palace, riots and a curfew. Along the way, Mihika learns more than she expected to from that strange little man Manu / Bhaisaab who is over-friendly, chatters incessantly, farts, belches, annoys her with his constant refrain “kaun si badi baat hai?” and yet manages to steal her heart.
A more formulaic film would have cast Lara opposite a male star who fits the traditional Hindi film definition of a hero, and you know precisely what would have happened in the end. Thank god for writers, producers and directors who make their own rules these days. Lara is an actress whose comic timing has not been sufficiently explored by Bollywood. In Chalo Dilli she nicely blends the role of a glamorous, fastidious woman of means with her inherent talent as a comedian. And Vinay Pathak is absolutely in his element, clearly enjoying the lines and situations generously handed to him by this script while also striking an emotional chord with his motto: “Jab aadmi ko rona aaye toh usko zor zor se hasna chahiye. Agar dukhon ka mazaak udaao toh woh rootth ke chale jaate hai.”
The lead stars apart, it’s a joy to see that every tiny role in Chalo Dilli is taken care of by a gifted character artiste. The musicis unremarkable but adequate, the highlight being the energetic remix of Laila main Laila featuring model Yana Gupta, which does far more justice to the original number than Pritam’s recent reworking of R.D. Burman’s Dum maaro dum. Travel buffs will enjoy the sights and sounds of small towns and villages in Rajasthan where Bollywood’s cameras rarely travel. Unlike most Hindi films set in this desert state, in Chalo Dilli, cinematographer Nikos Andritsakis captures a Rajasthan that’s more than just burning sands and a blazing sun. There is an interesting choice of guest star in the run-up to the climax: an actor whose natural charisma and good looks shine through in this brief appearance more than in many of his recent full-length roles. There’s also a neat twist in the tale that could have become weepy but does not.
Arguably the best road movie from Bollywood in recent memory is Imtiaz Ali’s Kareena Kapoor-starrer Jab We Met. At its core, that film was about positivity, optimism and following your heart. Chalo Dilli is not as impactful as JWM, and one reason could be that while it does a good job of portraying Mihika’s discomfort with unfamiliar situations and Bhaisaab’s penchant for blending in, the townsfolk in the places they pass through seem improbably un-curious about this heavily made-up woman in stilletoes and a tight skirt. Well, improbable is not impossible, and overall, Chalo Dilli is a convincing film. Mihika and Bhaisaab’s unlikely pairing is a telling statement on how it’s important to look beyond your own little world, on how broad-mindedness is not directly proportional to income levels, how we must focus on the good things in life, that it doesn’t pay to labour over every tiny inconvenience, that friendships can go beyond class divides and that even snobs can be won over with sincerity and warmth. When Mihika tells Manu in the end, “Bhaisaab,duniya ke bahut kam jagah honge jaha aap out of place honge,” you know she means it from the bottom of her heart even though her social clique may disagree.
One thing Chalo Dilli could have done without is Mihika’s looong concluding voiceover explaining what happened to every single character she encountered on the trip from Jaipur to Delhi. It might have also helped if Dutta’s hair and make-up hadn’t remained near-perfect throughout her journey in spite of all her travails. That notwithstanding, Chalo Dilli is an enjoyable film. It marks Dutta’s debut as a producer. Good choice of project, girl.
Rating (out of five): ***
CBFC Rating: U/A without cuts (The Censors denied the film a U certificate because the film maker refused to cut the following dialogue: “Tu woh bholi lugai hai jisko gaon ka har aadmi khet mein le jaave.” Personally, I can’t think of a single reason why a child shouldn’t see this film)