November 28, 2014
Dr Chandraprakash Dwivedi
Adil Hussain, Mona Singh, Mukesh Tiwari, K.K. Raina, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Rahul Singh, Shivani Tanksale, Sanjay Mishra, Ekavali Khanna
If you’ve seen him on stage, you will know why I refer to him as His Hotness Adil Hussain. Sadly so far, the actor is best known to Bollywood audiences in films that have done little justice to his looks or immense acting talent. English Vinglish – in which he played Shashi Godbole’s selfish husband – is the best the Mumbai industry has offered him till date. In this week’s release Zed Plus – his first Hindi film as a leading man – Adil erases his striking personality to metamorphose into a diffident, flawed, sometimes naïve, sometimes clever tyre-puncturewallah who gets Z category security due to a misunderstanding that spirals into a national affair.
Aslam is the poor man in question, forever at loggerheads with his neighbour (Mukesh Tiwari) in the small town of Fatehpur, Rajasthan. One day he meets the Indian prime minister who is on a visit to the Peepal Wale Peer Ki Dargah in Fatehpur. My “padosi” is constantly giving me death threats, Aslam tells the PM. In the tension-ridden subcontinent, “padosi” means only one thing to this troubled neta. PM-saab issues orders that the fellow be given 24-hour security. This engaging political satire is about how that one move affects governments and a little man’s life.
Director Chandraprakash Dwivedi and Ramkumar Singh’s screenplay is for the most part both realistic and comedic. Adil is like a chameleon playing Aslam, changing his entire being for the role, without caricaturing the character. Mona Singh too delivers a laudable performance as his conflicted wife Hameeda who initially hates the disruption in their lives, then begins to revel in the unexpected importance. I particularly enjoyed the warm relationship she develops with her husband’s security team, especially a dapper Rahul Singh playing their chief, Rajesh Chaudhary.
Barring Kulbhushan Kharbanda as the PM and one jarring extra playing a cop awkwardly directing traffic in a fleeting scene, Zed Plus hits the bull’s-eye with every other casting choice. My pick of the supporting actors is Mukesh Tiwari who has given us one stand-out performance after another, from Bachcha Yadav in Prakash Jha’s Gangaajal (2003) to the Tamil-speaking Sikh policeman in Chennai Express (2013) and now this. To watch him dance like a maniac when his election campaign procession bumps into a rival group in Zed Plus is to see a man lose himself in a role.
Kharbanda’s laughably clueless PM is a product of faulty casting and writing. The usually reliable actor struggles with a character who cannot speak Hindi but whose English sounds ridiculous too. The PM’s inability to speak Hindi is not a minor plot point but the starting block for an entire chain of events. At first it comes across as a metaphor for a neta’s limited understanding of the “people’s language”. In one scene though, he wears a kasavu mundu and a lady presumably from his family is shown at his dining table in a kasavu sari. One can only assume then that we are expected to gather that he is a Malayali or some form of south Indian.
Is it Zed Plus’ contention then that for an Indian PM, aam aadmi ki bhasha must perforce be Hindi? Is Hindi here symbolic or to be taken literally? This mixed messaging is irritating. Besides, Kharbanda has such an overtly northern tongue that it’s hard to see him as a southerner.
In a small way, Dwivedi also reveals a desire to pander to a male audience. Aslam has a lover. When he gets Z security, he can no longer visit her without attracting attention. This becomes his primary motive for wanting to get rid of his guards. It is initially an amusing situation. However, when at one point he tells his wife “main tumhara gunehgaar hoon” and we are not shown the rest of the conversation, the audience is left to guess whether he was apologising to her for the affair or for having messed up their lives as a whole by allowing circumstances to overtake them.
The ambiguity reminded me of Ross’ fling with the copy girl in the US teleserial Friends while he and Rachel “were on a break”. It remained a major sore point between the couple throughout the show, but Ross was never once shown clearly apologising to Rachel for infidelity. The situation was left fuzzy enough for each of us to read into it what would least offend us. I guess whether it’s the US or India, Bright-Kauffman-and-Crane or Dwivedi, getting a man to say that word “sorry” to a woman with clearly articulated contrition is deemed avoidable.
We also never figure out what becomes of the other woman in Zed Plus. Make no mistake about this though, this is a sweet, fun film. The mincing of words in passing on the gender front is disappointing primarily because elsewhere Messrs Dwivedi and Singh make no bones about their attitude towards communal political parties (the Rajasthan government is run by the majoritarian, ahem, BKP), the manner in which supposedly secular netas use India’s biggest minority community, the meaning of that much-abused term “minority appeasement”, and the hypocrisy of a religionist who points out that consuming alcohol is not allowed in his religion but making it is not barred. This low-key political satire also bravely refers to the Babri Masjid demolition at a time when the prevailing mood in India is to pretend that some things never happened.
Dwivedi is best known for the mega-teleserial Chanakya and the National Award-winning film Pinjar. Despite some rough patches, Zed Plus is a worthy addition to that formidable CV.
Rating (out of five): ***
Aside: Misspelt words flashing on screen are inexcusable in any film. Didn’t anyone on Team Zed Plus notice “Chief Minister’s Residance”?
CBFC Rating (India):
Poster and video courtesy: Epigram PR