Cheeni Kum – watchable

By Vidya Pradhan
Finally, a Bollywood comedy for grownups! Ad film director R. Balki brings the same slick approach to the story of a May-December romance, though in this case the December may be quite a few years apart.

Amitabh Bachchan is the high-strung, temperamental and arrogant chef/owner of an exclusive Indian restaurant in London, who has the unlikely name of Buddha. He meets his match in more ways than one in one of his disgruntled customers, Nina, played by Tabu. The story follows the arc of their unlikely romance and all the chaos that ensues when the news is broken to Nina’s father, who happens to be younger than her suitor.
What could have been a creepy, uncomfortable situation is handled deftly and without embarrassment or apology. Nina takes the lead in the relationship, subtly showing her interest and gently drawing the crusty Buddha out of his crab shell. Their interaction has some magical moments, including one where Nina prods him to ask her a really important question. The scene is hilarious and I won’t spoil it the fun by giving it away.

The movie has been described as a showcase for Amitabh’s always consistent acting and comedic talents and definitely appears to have been written with him in mind. Directors and scriptwriters have been using him to tackle uncomfortable subjects, secure in the knowledge that his reputation as an actor and as the first gentleman of Bollywood is untarnishable.

To my mind though, it is Tabu who walks away with the movie. Her quick backward glances speak volumes and she plays the mature, confident Nina in a way that few Bollywood heroines have had the opportunity to do or the talent to pull off. The supporting cast, with Zohra Sehgal and a bunch of new faces, has good comedic moments. Paresh Rawal as Nina’s father just stops short of hamming; the role is fairly stereotypical with dialogues like “She is going to marry him over my dead body!”

Dialogues like that pepper the second half, which is much weaker than the zingy 80 minutes or so that precede it. Another false note is the character of Sexy, a precocious 6 year old with cancer who is Buddha’s neighbor and his inner voice. She has some of the best lines in the movie, but her illness forces her to deliver them in a deadpan fashion. She gets a lot of laughs from the audience, but I felt very uncomfortable with both the situation and the lines she has to deliver. And why did they have to name her Sexy? In the end, at a particularly sad moment, when Buddha cries, “I want Sexy, I want Sexy”, I had to cringe.

The movie moves effortlessly from wisecrack to wisecrack, most of them in good taste. What it sacrifices as a result is a real connection with its characters. Why Nina would be attracted to Buddha is never really brought out, though I concede it could well happen in real life. Because not a lot of time is spent on developing their relationship, you don’t really care about them. Also for some reason, the director is unwilling to shoot film in the dark, which means that all the night scenes are shot through a blue filter. It was a dissonant feeling in a movie that was otherwise crisply shot and edited.

Still, the movie is far superior to anything Bollywood is producing these days in terms of mainstream comedies. Despite its adult theme, it is really a throwback to the days of Basu Chatterjee and Hrishikesh Mukherjee though with a less personal touch. Chini Kum is like a bag of really good popcorn that is great fun to eat and as quickly forgotten when the bag is empty. Watch it in the theater if you want a quick pick-me-up but if you can wait, it will be as funny and engaging on DVD.

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