Babumoshai Bandookbaaz movie review: Nawazuddin Siddiqui rules a rocky ride
Director: Kushan Nandy
On the face of it, Babumoshai Bandookbaaz is a good old comic crime thriller with more plot twists than the hairpin bends on a mountain road. Look closer though, and you will see the underlying tragedy in the tale of Babu Bihari, a hitman who acquires a protégé and gets played even as he thinks he holds all the cards.
Babu (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a sharpshooter for hire in the interiors of Uttar Pradesh, a man whose killing skills have earned him a celebrity status of sorts in the criminal underworld. He is a close associate of the local politician Sumitra Jiji (Divya Dutta), but switches sides when he receives a high-paying contract from a rival. While out on the job, Babu’s mission is thwarted by Banke (Jatin Goswami), a youngster who has been assigned the same contract for reasons subsequently explained.
Banke is yet to establish a reputation for himself in the field, but he is cocky and has obvious potential. His work is managed by his girlfriend, an aspiring actress called Yasmin (Shraddha Das). Also in the picture are another murky politician, Dubey (Anil George), and Babu’s fiery lover Phulwa (Bidita Bag), a professional cobbler with whom he shares a home.
As it happens, Banke is Babu’s fan. So, they come together for a game of who-kills-who-first.
Obviously nothing is as straightforward as it seems in this scenario. There are wheels within wheels in Babu and Banke’s saga, blind alleys where you assume there is a path ahead and turns where you expect a straight road.
In the end though, Babumoshai Bandookbaaz is about the pointlessness of violence and the endless cycle of bloodshed that is sparked off by those who take the law into their own hands. Or, as one marginal character says in the film, what goes around comes around. This is a theme that was pushed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s pathbreaking Parinda in Bollywood in 1989 and on which Ram Gopal Varma built an entire filmography, starting with his Telugu film Siva in the same year. More recently Bollywood kingpin Anurag Kashyap has visited and revisited this line of thinking in several films. The highlights of Kushan Nandy’s latest venture – his first after a long break – are its swag and the two dudes at the centre of the story.
Babumoshai Bandookbaaz is an extremely gory film, though most of the butchery takes place off screen. Babu and Banke are what twin Veerus might have been if they were transported from Sholay’s Ramgarh to Jiji’s domain.
They are funny in a disturbing sort of way. And in the first half, the grimness of their choices is underlined by the casualness with which they commit murder. The pre-interval portion is packed like a tiffin box filled to the brim by my indulgent Mum, making Babumoshai Bandookbaaz a stylised action flick with equal parts humour and pathos, infused with song and dance in traditional Bollywood style.
The women in Babumoshai are relentlessly objectified, but they give as good as they get, with a gaze that is no less lustful than the no-good men in their lives. They are also nobody’s fools.
Following a very dramatic moment just before the break, the tone switches completely. The second half is more intriguing than the first, though it does dip in terms of both pace and heft. Be that as it may, the film remains enjoyable for the most part.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui is the lynchpin of the enterprise, delivering a performance in which he somehow manages to amuse and yet scare the bejeezus out of a viewer. His entry into crime takes place in circumstances that are mirrored endlessly in the real world, circumstances that should shame our society but do not.
That said, his Babu is always entertaining but never a person whose condemnable behaviour is hero-ised, either by his acting or by Ghalib Asad Bhopali’s writing.
On a superficial viewing, it might seem that Siddiqui has played this character repeatedly in the past, and in many ways, Babu does indeed hark back to Faizal Khan in Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur 1&2. What worked for me though was the chalk-and-cheese contrast between two extremely violent, kinky men he has played in quick succession: Babu this year and the mentally unhinged, impoverished serial killer in Kashyap’s far superior, sadly unheralded Raman Raghav 2.0 from 2016.
The rest of the cast in Babumoshai Bandookbaaz is a roll call of fine talents that deserve far more than what Bollywood seems to have served them so far. The very attractive Jatin Goswami playing the smug Banke matches his star colleague Siddiqui scene for scene, dialogue for dialogue, smirk for smirk. Equally oven hot and seemingly effortless in her spot-on performance is Bidita Bag as Phulwa. The always reliable Divya Dutta as Sumitra Jiji and Bhagwan Tiwari playing her policeman sidekick Tarashankar lend an unexpected comicality to their performances in one of the film’s darkest scenes on a lonely country road surrounded by fields.
The weakness of the second half comes from the feeling that plot points are being introduced one after the other merely to surprise, without a sufficient exploration of the motivations and deceptions of several characters. The result is that while the film remains engaging throughout, it is hard to ignore the post-interval lack of substance.
To say that it completely lacks depth would be unfair though. The quiet insertion of a famous melody I shall not name here while the end credits roll, for instance, comes across as a deliberate act of subversion. And the Babu-Phulwa-Banke dynamic is interesting, to say the least.
Besides, Babumoshai Bandookbaaz, flawed though it is, comes as manna to a starving film buff in what must certainly be the worst year for Bollywood in the decade so far. It could have been better, of course, but it is fun enough to be forgiven its follies and indulgences.