Hera Pheri: A win for writing

I want to talk about Hera Pheri. Unlike most films I review, Hera Pheri is certainly not new to me. Like me, some of you must have grown up watching and loving it. I would rank it as one of the best Indian comedy films. It has all the makings of a masala potboiler film – comedy, action and drama. Yet it feels fresh and real, rather than cringe and contrived as comedy films often become. And I would attribute that to one thing – superb writing. The writing deliberately uses the tropes of comedy, action and drama to control the tempo of the film and make it all work together, and it works perfectly. Action, drama and comedy work themselves through the writing with the help of two emotions – empathy and tension. These emotions reel us in and keep us engrossed throughout the movie.

Hera Pheri is essentially a story about poor people. The principal characters – Raju (played by Akshay Kumar), Shyam (played by Suneil Shetty), Babu bhaiyya/Baburao Ganpatrao Apte (played by Paresh Rawal) and Anuradha (played by Tabu) all drowning in debt and barely making ends meet. The writers use this as the first ploy to generate empathy among the viewers. Additionally, it is also used for the characters to bond with each other and empathise with each other, even as they make dubious choices. The poverty in the film is so organic to the film’s fabric that it isn’t a big deal at all. The doesn’t try to make a forced point about the characters’ situations.

Additionally, the film generates empathy using the tropes of comedy and drama, often in conjunction, to help the viewer become engrossed in the story and carry the narrative forward. For instance, when Khadak Singh (played by Om Puri), comes into town to claim the money Shyam owes him, the scene is a charged with emotion because of how much the former needs the money for his sister’s wedding. But the writers combine the drama with comedy seamlessly. The writers also use these emotions to raise the empathy between characters. Despite the quarrel between Shyam and Khadak Singh, at the end of the film, the latter (with a truckload of angry Sikhs) charges into the fight sequence where goons are beating up Shyam, Raju and Baburao because he cannot see his friend getting beaten. The scene is hilarious. As a viewer, the scene is very easy for me to watch, it keeps me entertained, and it makes me accept the story because I understand the characters and their motivations.

In addition to empathy, the film uses tension to keep the viewer hooked to the film. Tension first makes an appearance right as the second half of the film begins. The first half of the film ends with a happy dream sequence, lulling the viewer into a false sense of security. This sets the scene for the shock to follow and intensifies the tension as we learn that the granddaughter of a famous fisheries magnate is kidnapped and needs rescuing. Largely, the film plays with tension through the use of action. The action sequences in Hera Pheri are long and the director, Priyadarshan, is in no hurry to resolve the tension. In the first half of the film, action is largely comedic, a way for the principal characters to fight, but ultimately harmless. It is a way for the principal characters to interact and for the viewers to become used to thinking of these characters as a trio. In the latter half of the film, the action gets a lot more serious, and the tension more palpable. For instance, when and the lead trio come in to rescue the kidnapped girl while pocketing half the ransom money, their plans are botched with the arrival of the police. What follows is a long escape scene that had me clenching my fists with in excitement even though I had seen the scene numerous times before. The trio, trying to run from the police, join a large group of cyclists. While the scene has a few funny moments, the nearly 4-minute-long scene is an action-packed chase sequence. For those four minutes, I was completely engrossed in the narrative, feeling the thrill of the chase.

As I think about why Hera Pheri continues to remain fresh, I think the writers, Siddique, Lal, Neeraj Vora and Anand Vardhan, deserve some serious credit. Combining three popular genres and not letting go of the viewers’ attentions while doing so will land you a classic, and Hera Pheri is just that.

Before I end this post, I also want to talk about the music of Hera Pheri. I know, I know… WHAT?! But hear me out; within the context of the film, the songs just work. Don’t get me wrong, the songs are objectively terrible. But they don’t seem too bad when seen in conjunction with the movie. Also, props to the director for shooting each song and dream sequence in the style of the dreamer. Raju considers himself a hero, so his dream sequence (the song Jab Bhi Koi Haseena) is like that of a typical hero in a 1990s-2000 mainstream Hindi movie. Baburao still likes luxury, but he isn’t much of a hero. His dream (the song Dene Wala Jab Bhi Deta) is much kitschier compared to Raju’s but still very filmy. Shyam is the most grounded of the lot and his song (Humba Leela) is shot in the same manner as the rest of the film. No luxurious dream there. Even Tabu’s dream sequence (Main Ladki Pon Pon) shows her as uncomfortable with the role of a typical heroine in the song because she is a realistic, practical woman in the film devoid of any airs. Tun Tunak Tun is easily the worst song in the film. But even that makes you empathise with the dancer when the film reveals that she’s also very poor and in desperate need of shows. Rather than show her as just another item girl, I appreciated that the writers tried to humanise her.

So there goes. If you are in the mood to watch something light hearted but well-written, you know where to look.

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