March 28, 2014
Syed Ahmad Afzal
Jackky Bhagnani, Neha Sharma, Farooque Shaikh, Prakash Belawadi, Mita Vashisht, Kayoze Irani, Boman Irani
The core concept of Youngistaan is highly believable considering India’s political culture and the current scenario. After all, the story of a carefree young Indian techie in Tokyo, compelled by circumstances to succeed his dad as India’s Prime Minister, has resonance in the subcontinent where dynasties are a political staple. Jackky Bhagnani plays the man in question, Abhimanyu Kaul, whose life turns upside down when his dying father (Boman Irani) asks him to take over his job. With their party expecting a defeat in the coming election, the newbie finds his seniors happy to prop him up as their boss since they know they’ll need a scapegoat for the rout. As it turns out, the novice is not the nincompoop they were expecting him to be, he has some clever tricks up his sleeve in addition to his primary weapons: basic decency, honesty, straightforwardness with the public, and his father’s advice.
Sharp concepts unfortunately don’t always translate into great films. Youngistaan slips up at the word go with its casting. Jackky is clearly an earnest, well-meaning boy, but although he has become comfortable enough before the camera to pull off films like F.a.l.t.u. and Rangrezz with an ensemble of leads, he simply does not have what it takes yet to fill out a solo lead role, especially that of a charismatic youth leader pulling a fast one on political veterans.
Watching him at work, I found myself wondering what this film might have been if he’d been replaced by Neil Bhoopalam who recently played a similar role in Anil Kapoor’s 24. Jackky’s problems are compounded by the fact that he is surrounded here by heavyweights who shine despite getting far less screen time. That includes the late Farooque Shaikh doing a wonderful job as his father’s PA Akbar Uncle, Karnataka theatre’s Prakash Belawadi as his slimy bête noir and Brijendra Kala in a teeny appearance as a kulfi seller. Neha Sharma as Abhi’s girlfriend is not bad either, when she’s given something to do beyond being cutesy and young.
The screenplay makes some entertaining allusions to the Congress party, which Pranab Mukherjee and P. Chidambaram are unlikely to find amusing in the unlikely event that they watch Youngistaan. Belawadi plays a corrupt, mundu-clad southern Indian Union Minister who gets outsmarted by the initially reluctant youth leader. Also in the picture is an elderly Bengali politico who Abhimanyu kicks upstairs to the post of President of India. So there is some fun to be had playing spot-the-real-life-neta among those around Abhi; and if they are meant to be who we guess they are meant to be, then Rahul Gandhi should be very flattered by this film.
Some of Abhi’s trump cards are not bad at the idea level either, but the writing needed more sophistication to make their execution sound more credible. The film throws up some thought-provoking questions about privacy and how public life can force certain choices on you. On the other hand, it forgets that the Indian media – notwithstanding all its flaws – tends to stay away from the personal lives of politicians, rarely letting go of its don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy. The writer seems unaware that a number of high-profile politicians in this country are in live-in relationships that the media has not reported, so the screenplay should have given us a strong reason why our journalists would change this long-standing practice only for Abhimanyu Kaul.
In fact, in a bid to introduce serious issues into the discussion, Youngistaan unthinkingly transposes Western realities on to the Indian scenario. Paparazzi in the West may fly choppers over private villas to photograph a princess sunbathing topless, they perch themselves in trees to get a shot of a disgraced star peeping out of his window, they chase Diana and Dodi through a tunnel in Paris…but even the worst, most intrusive Indian news photographers haven’t done one-tenth of that. So again: why would the Indian media change only for Abhimanyu Kaul?
It’s also inexcusable that the Indian PM is shown declaring loudly in a speech at the UN that Hindi is India’s national language. Err, some rudimentary research would have taught the writers that India does not have an officially recognised national language.
The direction is as patchy as the writing. On the one hand, debutant Syed Ahmad Afzal seems assured in his handling of the scenes where Abhimanyu’s personal and professional lives intersect, often to comical effect, or where he is taking on his party’s bigwigs. Yet in too many places a juvenile effort is made to inject profundities into the proceedings. Most in-your-face of them all is a shot of Abhi walking down a hospital corridor after his father’s death and in the opposite direction comes a nurse carrying an infant in her arms. The old order changeth yielding place to the new…yeah yeah, we get that, but please make the point more subtly than a Class V student might have done. And for heaven’s sake, if you want to be taken seriously, don’t ask your leads to pose around in typical Bollywood style at the Taj Mahal.
In the overall assessment, it's only fair to point out that this is a film with many interesting elements: the resemblance to real-life incidents and individuals, some unexpected twists and turns, the dilemma of a girlfriend who is not keen on marriage but is suddenly thrust into a situation where not marrying the man she loves could harm his career. The songs too are nice, Suno na sangemarmar ki ye minarein is especially so. Despite all this going for it, Youngistaan still ends up feeling flat and dull for three reasons: inconsistent writing, inconsistent direction and a weak lead actor.
Rating (out of five): *1/2 (stars out of 5)
CBFC Rating (India):
Photograph courtesy: Everymedia Technologies