September 15, 2017
Kangana Ranaut, Sohum Shah, Rupinder Nagra
Not every intriguing criminal has a grandly tragic back story. Sometimes the ordinariness from which the epic, the brutal or the bizarre emerge is fascinating in itself. Simran, director Hansal Mehta tells me, is inspired by a spate of somewhat run-of-the-mill real-life bank robberies in the US in recent years, including the most prominent of the lot: the drama surrounding the woman who came to be known as America’s Bombshell Bandit, a young, glamorous Punjabi Sikh nurse called Sandeep Kaur who robbed a string of banks over a five-week period in the summer of 2014, before being arrested by the police following a high-speed highway car chase.
This extract from a 2015 BBC article about her encapsulates the reason why she made headlines:
Bank robbers are becoming an extinct species. The rise of electronic payments is creating a cashless society, and since 2003, bank robberies have fallen 47%. The crime is also an overwhelmingly male activity. According to the latest FBI figures, just 8% of America’s 4,347 bank robberies last year were committed by a woman. “Traditionally women have been involved in bank robberies only as getaway drivers, or accomplices to male robbers,” says Dr Richard Schmitt, a US criminal psychologist who has evaluated more than 50 bank robbers. Schmitt says that a robber who is an educated professional female, and a Sikh, is, “a highly unusual case… in the history of the United States you will not find another bank robber with this profile.”
(Possible spoilers ahead if you skipped Simran’s trailer and all its promotions)
In the film, we get Praful Patel (played by Kangana Ranaut), a 30-year-old divorcee of Gujarati origin who is working in the housekeeping services department of an Atlanta hotel. Praful lives with her conservative middle-class parents, a grouchy father who runs a small business and her mother who is a housewife. She is a blithe spirit who does not want to be tied down by tradition and meaningless customs, and she’s feeling suffocated by their narrow vision for her life when we first meet her. Praful is hardworking, and is gradually saving the money needed to buy a house in which she hopes to live unencumbered by Dad’s nagging and the pressure they both place on her to get married (to be as free as the breeze she draws a friend’s attention to – not constrained by buildings, not held down by roads).
A visit to Las Vegas with a cousin changes her life forever. She wins some money at a casino and gets hooked. Before she knows what hit her though, she is on a losing streak and then deeply in debt.
The false hope that is born of beginner’s luck at a gambling table has destroyed many lives. In Praful’s case, a series of little scares, disappointments, frustrations and heartbreaks at home, at work and in her gambler avatar, turns this seemingly ordinary person into a thug.
(Spoiler alert ends)
What I enjoyed most about this film is that it has no pretensions to largeness, nor does it make any effort to lionise or romanticise Praful or her life. To do so would have been easy because it is a natural human reaction to draw consolation from discovering that a criminal emerged from misery. The thing about Praful is that she does not look like the heroine of a crime saga. She is not someone else who you expect to hear of only in the news media or fiction. She is Everywoman. She could well be you or me gone wrong.
This is not to suggest that she has it easy – she does not. Yet it is fair to say that she has not suffered any great pain, poverty, affliction or persecution. Her struggles too could well be yours or mine.
It is interesting then to watch how easily and quickly she turns to crime, beginning with the most naturally written, directed and enacted scene you can imagine of an open window tempting a saint and a tigress getting addicted once she tastes easily available blood – excuse me for the mixed metaphors but you will get what I mean when you watch the film.
Director Hansal Mehta must be lauded for his conviction, his confidence in the written material at hand and the clarity he has about how he wishes to tell Praful’s tale – steering clear of seamy, overtly grim territory and driving home the weirdness of it all. The narrative has an easy flow to it, the pace is just right, the humour is unrelenting yet at no point are Praful’s actions normalised. The result is that even while giggling at her eccentricities it is hard to escape the realisation that this is just a regular could-have-been-my-next-door-neighbour kind of woman.
Without an iota of preachiness, Simran also delivers a range of insights into NRI culture, workplace politics, the things that prejudice has done to post-9/11 America and human nature across races. In its choice of title it also throws in a cheeky interpretation of a (highly socially regressive) Hindi film classic.
Even the songs are fitted well into the proceedings, except for the number at a wedding function, Jaddo nachche baby, which does not suit the tone of the rest of the film. Still, it is fun enough to be excused. The closing song with the end credits is a hoot, and a good example of how effective that now-typical Bollywood narrative device can be when well used.
The heartbeat of this project is Ranaut, and she justifies every single frame composed around her. She is extremely funny, but does not at any point allow Praful to be reduced to a comical creature, thus retaining the underlying pathos of her story. The only place where she falters – and this is as much a fault of the direction as her acting – is in a rather silly scene that has her peeping into the window of a bank, where she looks a bit like a cartoon character. The one place where Simran itself falters is in the motivation behind the protagonist’s climactic decision on that highway – it is amusing, but it is not credible. Both are inexplicably farcical breaks in a film that otherwise succeeds in walking a fine line with its air and tenor.
Though the writing is largely focused on Praful, the screenplay does throw up some interesting satellite characters, most especially a young man called Sameer played by the incredibly charismatic Sohum Shah from Ship of Theseus. The rest of the supporting roles are all filled out by talented actors. It is such a relief to see a Hindi film set in a Western country that is not packed with terrible foreign extras – each actor here has been chosen with care.
Simran has come to theatres following an ugly controversy over its writing credits. The final rolls read: story, screenplay and dialogues – Apurva Asrani, additional story and dialogues – Kangana Ranaut. The truth about what went on behind the scenes may never be fully revealed, but what has emerged now that the curtains have been drawn aside is a compact, sweet, unconventional entertainer.
Rating (out of five stars): ***
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost: