I spent the Thanksgiving holiday weekend with my brother and his family, watching relatively recent Hollywood fare peopled with quirky, hilarious and (mostly) heartwarming characters (A Christmas Story, I Love You, Man and Duplicity). Steeped as I am at this point in watching decades-old cinema, with only occasional and generally disastrously noisy forays into today’s offerings, it was nice to see contemporary movies with *heart* and actual stories instead of an onrush of special effects. And so it is too with Chintuji, set in the utopian village of Hadbahedi—fictional birthplace of the very not-fictional Rishi Kapoor.
Rishi himself offers a little disclaimer at the beginning: “This film is part reality, part illusion and part fact, part fiction.” How I would love to discuss this statement with him, because he plays himself as a not very nice guy—and he is great at it! In fact, my main quibble with this movie is that it wanders off in too many directions instead of staying focused on The Man. But despite some flaws, it is a sweet and funny film about a Little Village That Could, with the unwilling help of its most famous export.
Hadbahedi is a peaceful little town in a northeast corner of India. Its denizens love their home dearly, but a wistful “someday…” creeps into every conversation.
Hadbahedi’s only claim to fame up till now has been a guru (Satyakam) who had two disciples. These disciples quarreled, and one went off to the neighboring town of Triphala while the other stayed in Hadbahedi. Over the centuries Triphala has prospered and grown using dishonest means, while Hadbahedi has stayed true to its guru’s principles—and remained small and overlooked.
At a town meeting, the citizens are amazed to discover that they have another avenue to pursue in their efforts to get put on the map. An old midwife tells them that when Raj and Krishna Kapoor visited the Satyakam shrine in Hadbahedi, Krishna went into labor and with the midwife’s assistance had a baby. She has a photograph of the famous couple with her and the little baby as proof: the baby they named Rishi, and whom the midwife nicknamed “Chintu.”
A committee instantly sends off a letter of invitation to Chintuji, asking him to visit the place of his birth. Since Rishi has decided to throw his hat into the political ring, he accepts the invitation and arrives by small plane with his secretary Kutti (Teekam Joshi) and a PR person whom he has hired to help him campaign, Devika (Kulraj Randhawa).
The small but enthusiastic crowd which greets him are ill-prepared for the arrogant and spoiled film star. He has to be prompted by Devika to properly greet the elderly midwife who delivered him:
and he objects when the mayor addresses him as Chintuji.
Things only go downhill from here. Rishi is made grumpier by the sticky heat, but there is no electricity to power the AC; his hosts are vegetarian and he wants chicken; they are also non-drinkers and he wants his whiskey! The lukewarm cola he receives is the last straw (no pun intended).
He flings himself out of the house in a fury just as the mayor takes delivery of a big block of ice and drops it right under Rishi’s feet.
Now laid-up for an indeterminate amount of time in the unfortunate mayor’s house, Rishi truly becomes a nightmare guest, although there are some accompanying benefits. The town elders plead at the nearest utility company for a bigger quota of electricity so that he can have his AC. It turns out that the utility chief is a fan of Chintuji’s:
Romance begins to brew between local newspaper editor Arun Bakshi (Priyanshu Chatterjee) and Devika. Arun is hiding a secret which the whole town is in on, but they are not telling. Devika reciprocates Arun’s feelings, but also has her hands full managing the self-absorbed Rishi. The hapless mayor and his wife are bending over backwards—and going against their religious beliefs—to accommodate their meat-and-liquor-loving guest.
Meanwhile in Bombay, producer-director Mr. Malkani (Saurabh Shukla) is not happy with the delay to his project that Rishi’s mishap has caused. (It looks like a film I would look forward to!)
Malkani decides on the spur of the moment to take his crew to Hadbahedi to finish the film, even if it means rewriting Rishi’s part.
In addition to all this, word of the film star’s presence in the little town spreads, bringing all the attention its citizens could have ever possibly hoped for. The new Police Inspector (Govind Pandey) in rival Triphala comes to take a dekho at his favorite actor and spots Arun. Recognizing him, but unable to place him, the Inspector sets a newly-arrived reporter from Delhi on Arun’s trail.
Plus, a well-known politico from Triphala shows up with a lucrative proposal for Rishi, which will involve the betrayal of his birthplace and its people.
What other changes will Rishi’s (and the film company’s) presence bring to our sleepy little Hadbahedi? Will they get more than they bargained for, or want? What is Arun’s secret, and why would the police be after him? Above all, will Rishi—our Chintuji—learn anything from his sojourn among these loving and generous people?
So much of Chintuji reminded me about the inherent values that first drew me to Hindi cinema: respect for elders, an ability to see good even in the bad, an appreciation for simplicity, forgiveness for those who wrong you. And Rishi is simply superb as “himself”: demanding, rude, selfish and manipulative, but with flashes of humanity and oodles of charisma.
I love his career graph through this decade. Lage raho, Chintuji!
The character sketches of the townspeople are lovely, bestowing the action with humor and spirit as they struggle to deal with their boorish guest; and as a film fan I enjoyed the movie-within-a-movie scenes too—even the gratuitous but surprisingly fun item song courtesy of scantily-clad Sophie Choudhury and a bevy of gori dancers.
I could have happily done without the Arun background story: it meanders and would have benefited from some tighter editing (or scripting). My vote actually would be to eliminate it completely: it adds nothing meaningful and only distracts from Rishi’s personal epiphany and the town’s journey to fame. There is another pointless side plot in the form of a romance between Kutti and Rishi’s local nurse Mariamma (Padmashree), and the one other song could have been left out too. A strangely awkward attempt to pay tribute to Raj Kapoor is also inserted, but doesn’t quite mesh with the main story as intended. More focus on the townspeople and Rishi himself instead of these elements would have strengthened the film enormously.
Also, I must add that the subtitles are beyond annoying. A lot of dialogue is spoken in English and subtitled in different English. For example, the spoken word “sex” is subtitled as “physical intimacy.” Huh? In a scene reuniting Rishi with the Uzbek actress Kseniya Ryabinkina from Mera Naam Joker, she tells him that she “always dreamed to be here once again”:
Shirwas? Come on, people. Her accent isn’t that heavy. This subtitle idiocy happened often enough to irritate me quite a bit by the end.
In all, though, I recommend it as a fun and heartwarming story which treads gently between reality and fantasy. You might want to use the FF button judiciously, although it isn’t all that long a film, clocking in at under 2 hours. Don’t FF through Rishi’s scenes, though: he is wonderful. (He’s really beginning to resemble his father, too!)