Santa Banta jokes are a national treasure. Their long survival is, in a sense, an ode to the country’s Sikhs who are among the few Indian communities with the ability to laugh at themselves (an image that terrorists and sections of the clergy have been consistently trying to undermine, ever since bombs were exploded in theatres showing Jo Bole So Nihaal in Delhi in 2005).
Hindi cinema has also been guilty of unfairly exploiting the Sikh sense of humour by lazily and unintelligently stereotyping ‘Sardars’ as belligerent loudmouths and buffoons even in spaces where laughter is not relevant. There’s a thesis begging to be written here. Suffice it to say for the purpose of this review that director Akashdeep’s Santa Banta Pvt Ltd comes to theatres bearing the burden of a formidable legacy.
The film stars Boman Irani and Vir Das as small-time crooks Santeshwar Singh and Banteshwar Singh from Patiala. The two are mistaken for a duo of renowned and skilled spies going by the nicknames Santa and Banta, and are consequently roped in by India’s RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) to solve the kidnapping of the country’s High Commissioner to Fiji, Shankar Roy (Ayub Khan). Since the agent responsible for the confusion – a guy called Arvind played by Vijay Raaz – cannot afford to admit to his faux pas, Santa and Banta are packed off to Fiji.
There they meet the ambassador’s wife Kareena S. Roy (Neha Dhupia who also plays the love of Santa’s life, Billo), the wealthy antiques trader Sonu Sultan (Ram Kapoor) who is also the Roys’ friend, a RAW agent called Akbar Allahabadi (Sanjay Mishra) who is Santa-Banta’s pointsperson in that country, an undercover RAW operative called Queenie Taneja a.k.a. QT (Lisa Haydon), a Nepalese underworld don (Johnny Lever) and the gangster Antonio Kapoor (Ranjeet).
The multiplicity of characters introduced in quick succession justifies the text plates flashing on screen with their names and photographs in the beginning. You might assume that confusion over who is who would be the risk this film runs. That ends up not being the problem at all. The problem Santa Banta Pvt Ltd ends up with is: who cares who is who?
It is perhaps illogical to expect better from a film that takes itself so casually. When the opening Hindi voiceover speaks of “Hindu, Muslim, Isaai, Sikh”, the English words flashing on screen are “Hindu, Muslim, Catholic, Sikh” (umm, Catholics are only a sub-set of Christians). Actress-model Lisa Haydon’s name is spelt differently in the opening and end credits. And Ram Kapoor suffers from inexplicably inconsistent lighting and makeup – he is pink and perspiring in early scenes, after which his face seems to be cast in shadow. These are not crimes, as less finicky folk may point out, but they reveal a lackadaisical attitude towards the filmmaker’s own product which is bound to be in evidence in the rest of the film too.
And so it is. Irani and Das have personable personalities, good comic timing and the ability to let their hair down on screen. The film’s best scenes are the ones that bring them together and focus entirely on them. Oddly enough, the writers seem not to recognise that they and humour are Santa Banta Pvt Ltd’s USPs, and end up spending too much time on a boring plot involving the High Commissioner that gives too much space to everyone and everything else.
Not that the rest of the cast do not deserve to be on camera. As you can see, they are a roll call of some of Hindi cinema’s best comedians. But good actors can do little when the script is so limited, and this one in any case has too little comedy and an abundance of nothingness.
Take for instance the sub-plot involving the Nepalese gangster. For some reason the man keeps getting phone calls from a voice addressing him as Bahadur and asking him to open the gate. Wit that draws on community stereotypes require high-IQ writing to be effective. This one is unimaginative and irritating and yet is repeated ad nauseam. Besides, if Lever contorts his face and body on screen one more time in his career, I think I might scream.
With Santa Banta Pvt Ltd, I was too busy keeping myself awake to summon up the energy to do so.
The film’s initial scenes feature the sort of wisecrack that regular Santa-Banta consumers know well. When they squabble over how to split Rs 1,000 between them, one of them suggests that they go 50-50. Okay, says the other, but what about the remaining Rs 900?
It’s the sort of light-hearted nonsense that should have filled the film. There’s simply not enough of it. Every 20 minutes or so, there is one really good, enjoyably silly joke (which proves the writers’ potential for this genre) and then – yawn, yawn, yawn – it is back to the dull grind. Considering that the film runs for about 113 minutes, that adds up to a total of approximately six jokes. Why?
Santa Banta also features too many noisy, unmelodious songs with redemption coming in the form of just one foot-tapping number, 'Machli Jal Ki Rani Hai' sung by Sonu Nigam and Vikas Bhalla, both of whom make guest appearances to sing it.
Former prime minister Manmohan Singh also has a cameo of sorts in Santa Banta Pvt Ltd. Sadly for him, like the government he headed till 2014, there is little he can do to save this film.