Early in Karan Anshuman’s debut, Bangistan, a Bangladeshi cab driver in Poland named Tamim Hussain (Chandan Roy Sanyal) meets the film’s two leads, Hafiz Bin Ali (Riteish Deshmukh) and Praveen Chaturvedi (Pulkit Samrat).
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Hafiz is interested in knowing whether he’s a Muslim. Tamim says he doesn’t have a religion. “Citizen Hussain,” he says. Ah, Citizen Kane, the iconic Orson Welles film — that’s the ‘joke’ here. For a 135-minute comedy, this silly reference should not be the funniest bit in Bangistan but sadly, it is.
This is not for the lack of trying. Anshuman peppers his film with references that he hopes will make the audience giggle. For instance, two cops crack down on Praveen’s door. One of them introduces himself as “Wai Kar Wong.” It’s another film reference, this time to the celebrated Hong Kong filmmaker, Wong Kar-wai.
Then in another scene, Praveen looks in the mirror and abruptly says, “Humse baat kar rahe ho? Yahan toh koi nahin hai. Toh kisse baat kar rahe ho (You talking to me? There’s no one else here. Then who the hell else are you talking to)?” This one references Robert De Niro’s famous lines from Taxi Driver. Unfortunately, none of this is funny even to those who pick up the references.Let’s consider another scene, this one near the film’s climax.
In it, the head of an Islamic militant group (Kumud Mishra) is talking to the leader of a Hindu fanatic group (Mishra, in a double role). “Aman ki chah kise nahin hai (Who doesn’t want peace)?” says the former. The latter asks, “Chaa lijiyega (Will you have tea)?” You have to have a heart of stone not to feel bad for Mishra, who is almost watchable in this film, for agreeing to be a part of this embarrassing mess. Evidently, Bangistan is silly and that need not be a bad thing in a movie.
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However, characters who are silly don’t make a film interesting by default; silly characters who are either self-aware or being deployed by a director who can use goofiness intelligently does. Also, when your jokes are lame, you need talented actors — someone like Govinda in the ’90s or Arshad Warsi on a very fine day. Deshmukh (who, like in most Bollywood films, is underutilised) and Samrat (just about passable for the most part and completely out of depth in the climax) are not even close to being as zany as this film needs them to be.
However, they aren’t Bangistan’s biggest problem. Every character in the film is so poorly written that you neither care about their buffoonery nor their journey. In case you were wondering, there are three writers taking credit for this script. Bangistan revolves around its leads’ hefty transition — two terrorists must morph into peace-loving idealists — yet nothing about them in the film convinces us of that weighty change.
The film’s discourse on the dangerous, divisive powers of religion has been discussed and debated so frequently that it’s become trite and uninteresting (a hurdle that even a film like PK, which was much funnier than this, failed to cross). What’s worse, nearly everything in this film signals lazy storytelling. Its central conceit rings false and comes across as both hurried and unconvincing. The film’s eponymous country, Bangistan, doesn’t add anything to the narrative.
It’s obviously a flimsy disguise for the relationship between Pakistan and India, but it lends nothing by way of either insight or plot. The major characters in Poland — the cab driver, the waitress, the arms dealers — irrespective of their nationalities, all know fluent Hindi, true to Bollywood tradition. You expect such tropes in a bad Hindi film made three decades ago; not in 2015, when even big budget films have upped their game. Hafiz and Praveen are initially presented to us as two ordinary drifters, easily swayed by the misguided rhetoric of religion.
Yet, for no explicable reason, by the time the film’s climax is upon us, one of them has become an embodiment of aman ki asha and presents a nuanced lecture on global harmony while we are left perplexed.
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Bangistan’s ultimate undoing lies in its desperate lunge towards delivering a message in the climax. Here, Anshuman is at his most clueless, pausing the story to allow preachy banalities to take centre stage. It’s this bit that is really irksome but fittingly encapsulates Bangistan: the film refuses to take chances, to buck the rules, to soar beyond the cushy confines of unending mediocrity.