There is a moment in the short film Taandav that went viral on Youtube early this year, in which a policeman watches a video of himself doing a frenzied dance in full uniform on a Mumbai road. His face melts into a confused mix of amusement and embarrassment. Manoj Bajpayee is nowhere to be seen in that middle-class, middle-aged Maharashtrian cop.
In Aligarh, which was released three weeks later, when a reporter asks Professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras of Aligarh Muslim University about his male lover, the old man looks away shyly, withdrawing further into his slouching figure. Manoj Bajpayee is nowhere to be seen in that gray-haired academic in an ill-fitting suit.
And now, on a moonlit night in the darkened corridor of an Old Delhi haveli, a shalwar-clad Pappi stands with his foot on a balcony railing as he peers into the courtyard below. He is an intruder in a wealthy home, his thin body alert yet comically poised for flight, and in one brief shot he conveys everything that his character is: all bluff and bluster and limited guts. Manoj Bajpayee is nowhere to be seen in this foul-mouthed small-time crook either.
Bajpayee’s defining quality as an actor – the ability to lose himself in the people he plays – is the highlight of the week’s Bollywood release, Saat Uchakkey. Like Pappi, director Sanjeev Sharma’s film too is cracked, colourful, crude, intentionally loud and insanely over the top. Everyone in the story is slightly if not completely nuts, the actors are so unaffected that they come across as non-actors drawn from these streets by casting director Vicky Sidavv, and the filmmaker seems to be having a blast as he takes us through chaotic and crowded Purani Dilli.
Saat Uchakkey revolves around the amoral Pappi’s keenness to get rich quick and marry his girlfriend Sona (Aditi Sharma). He is not alone in his desire to cut corners in life. His partners in crime are keysmith Haggu (Nitin Bhasin), metalsmith Khappe (Aparshakti Khurana), knick-knacks seller Babbe (Jatin Sarna), a gambler called Ajji (Vipul Vig) and the multi-talented petty criminal Jaggi (Vijay Raaz). They are the seven rogues of the title.
In the first half, Sandeep Saket’s screenplay draws neat, well-defined sketches of each of the seven in addition to their bête noir, the local policeman Tejpal (Kay Kay Menon) who is smitten by Sona. When this disparate group comes together, they are hilarious and hold out a promise of brilliance. When John Jacob Payyapalli’s camera snakes its way through the bylanes of the old city, it entices us into their world.
The opening scenes in a mental institution, the presence in the story of the hypnotist/fraud/mad man Bichchi (Annu Kapoor), the art design and the beautifully shot scenes in a dungeon in the second half give the film an interesting mystical-mythical air.
It takes more than a great concept though to make a great film, and at some point Saat Uchakkey loses itself in self-indulgence. The abuses that flow off the vile tongues of these bizarre people, for instance, are initially believable. As time moves on though, too many ugly words feel like they have been forced into the dialogues for effect – as it happens, to jarring effect.
Nothing illustrates this better than Pappi’s use of kutiya (bitch) as a term of endearment for Sona and her unblinking response. Yes, the street lingo of India’s capital is often steeped in profanity, but it becomes easy to tell when abuse comes naturally to a character in this film and when the writing is saying, “Hey, see how clever I am. Be impressed with my use of invective. I’m so smart and outrageous, no?”
The spoken lines (credited to director Sharma) are a metaphor for Saat Uchakkey as a whole: energetic, side-splittingly comedic and convincing at first, revved up and raring to go, but failing to lift off in its entirety. I confess I spent a considerable part of this film giggling to myself and enjoying the performances of the wonderful lead cast (each one them), but I also left the theatre with a feeling of incompleteness.
Saat Uchakkey clearly aspires to rise above absurdity for absurdity’s sake, but the writing is not strong enough to pull off the depth it is aiming at (as is evident from that scene in which a divine being appears to the seven central characters).
God is as crazy as us humans and/or possibly a figment of our imagination; s/he is what we want her/him to be and/or is playing games with us, we are told. Point taken. Now take it further, please. This is a film that could have been a lot more than it ends up being – it obviously wants to be more.
To be fair, Saat Uchakkey stands out for its excellent casting, excellent acting and – when it is not self-conscious – excellent humour. Now if only that had been enough...