Jai Ho! Democracy review: A chicken, Indo-Pak enmity and all-round buffoonery
Fortunately for Jai Ho! Democracy, the scenes are not materialised through contrived or heavy-handed sermonising.
By Tanul Thakur
Jai Ho! Democracy is the kind of film that’s considered an outlier in Bollywood. It doesn’t feature a central character, songs or a popular mainstream A-lister, although the film’s ensemble cast features well-known, fine actors. Directors Ranjit Kapoor and Bikramjeet Singh Bhullar bore the brunt of this unlikely casting choice — Jai Ho! Democracy has been lying unreleased for around a year and a half, until Bhullar stepped in as a producer.
However, this decision may also have helped free their movie. Unlike many mediocre and cautious Bollywood productions, Jai Ho! Democracy doesn’t shoehorn elements that don’t naturally belong to the film’s world — no hero romances a heroine and there are no intrusive songs, for instance. Instead, the films goes straight to the heart of its story, almost never diverting from its course.
Jai Ho! Democracy opens to an India-Pakistan border that is simmering with tension. A hen is spotted in no man’s land, and both the sides lay claim to it. An Indian solider, who is a junior cook in the army, is sent to get that contentious hen back. The head of the Pakistani regiment, then, loses his cool and warns of dire consequences if the hen is stolen.
You know where this is going. Jai Ho! Democracy doesn’t want to make any sense whatsoever and, given how deliberately cartoonish the film’s Indian and Pakistani soldiers are, it’s not such a bad thing. One nonsensical, but nevertheless comical, scene features miffed soldiers from both the sides hurling abuses at each other. Another scene has them standing near their respective borders, urging the hen to come to their side.
These funny and silly bits work because they are a welcome departure from the simplistic, jingoistic war dramas that often come out of Bollywood. And it’s not surprising that the two films in recent times to have bucked that trend were conceived of as low budget indies — Filmistaan and Kya Delhi Kya Lahore.
But you wonder for how long will Kapoor and Bhullar can sustain interest in a plot that is completely irrational, at least at the start. Instead of choosing to restrain the film’s absurdity, they take it further by introducing another plot point that rivals the first one in gleeful silliness.
As the tension on the border keeps increasing, there is a possibility of India waging a war on Pakistan. A committee, chaired by an ex-Supreme Court judge Ramalingam (Annu Kapoor), and comprising six members from both ruling and opposition parties, is set up to pass a bill that will decide whether India should go on war. These members, as evidenced by their distinct accents, belong to the different parts of the country — Assam, West Bengal, Punjab, Tamil Nadu. They’re a group of people, fixated on fulfilling personal agendas, that fails to see the big picture. Evidently, Kapoor and Bhullar are trying to paint a picture of the country’s decision makers through them.
Fortunately for Jai Ho! Democracy, the scenes are not materialised through contrived or heavy-handed sermonising. Instead, the characters revel in their silliness. Although there’s nothing highbrow about the gags, which are mostly devoid of nuance, they are also simple, unpretentious and therefore funny.
Some jokes — for example, a 65-year-old politician (Om Puri) being persuaded to do sit ups because he was rude to the fellow members of the House — may appear to stretch credibility, but the comical absurdity matches the tone of the film. Also, considering the antics that the Indian parliament has witnessed, perhaps no gag about it is incredible. There are obvious references to actual incidents, like the instance of a politician watching porn while his peers intensely debate an issue of national importance. Unfortunately, these feel both unfunny and unoriginal, but these slip-ups are few and far between.
Bizarrely, in the last 10 minutes, Jai Ho! Democracy changes its tone. The junior cook who went to no man’s land suddenly starts mouthing platitudes about the importance of India-Pakistan unity. No one will deny the sincerity of that sentiment, but the shift to rose-tinted and the preposterous final scenes make you think about those portions of the film that didn’t need a mouthpiece to get its point across.
The tension between the Indian and Pakistan armies, which is the pivot upon which Jai Ho! Democracy is balanced, is rooted in reality. However, its characters are over-the-top, juvenile buffoons who are constantly complicating the problems they are supposed to solve. By placing such caricatures in a believable milieu, Kapoor and Bhullar’s film satirises politicians, media and army men (and their jingoistic leanings) with ease.
That said, the satire is not particularly nuanced, profound or even consistently funny, but it’s still impressive because the film is just wicked enough.
The writer is a Delhi-based film critic.
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