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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Jodhaa Akbar – How it holds up

This is going to be a bit of a different post. Recently, I re-watched Jodhaa Akbar, which released in 2008 and is directed by Ashutosh Gowariker. I had first watched the movie a few months after its release and was awestruck by the manner in which the film captured the splendour of both the Rajput and Mughal cultures while sharing a sweet love story. In my most recent viewing, however, I didn’t feel the same way. The movie felt dated in some ways and there were several points that just didn’t work for me. So – despite my dislike of listicles – here is a list of things that struck me as dated or poorly executed.

  1. The costumes

Given as this film received praise for its style (it won the IIFA Award for Best Costume and inspired real and imitation jewellery in India for years to come), I wish this wasn’t the case. But the fabrics and embroidery used on the clothes is clearly machine stitched and mass produced. As are the turbans used by all male Mughal characters. Once you notice these details, they are hard to un-see, and become a distraction throughout the duration of the movie. For instance, Maham Anga, a minister in Akbar’s court, has lace on her dupatta (veil) that is completely out of place for the era. I’m not an expert on historical costumes, obviously, but I recognised its stitching and prevalence in Indian clothing (See 1:54:25).

Additionally, the beards and moustaches worn by the minor male characters appear visibly fake. There’s only so much make-up can do, the sight of real hair cannot be replicated.

In addition to clothes, some of the jewellery (shocking) also bothered me. Don’t get me wrong, Tanishq did a fabulous job with the sets worn by Aishwarya Rai. It was accessories to turbans worn by minor characters that struck me as not being of the same quality as Jodhaa’s gorgeous necklaces. Here we can also mention that the pearls used in the curtains in 1:01:34 looked fake and didn’t fit into the splendour that the film was trying to sell. For those who will come at me for being too picky, K Asif (director of Mughal-e-Azam) famously asked for real pearls to be dropped on the floor for a scene, because the fake ones were prone to breaking easily. And no amount of clever camera work to hide the broken pearls convinced him. And this part of the film wasn’t even in technicolour! Such attention to detail, sadly, is missing in this film.

  1. The sets and props

While the sets are carefully designed, one can clearly tell the difference between scenes shot on sets versus sweeping shots of actual Mughal architecture. For instance, the scene shot in the Mughal subhedar’s fort in Ajmer has a distinctly set-like quality to it owing to the texture and patterns on the walls. Of course, using sets is inevitable, and the sets really are beautiful. But they simply cannot match up to the real thing. In the same vein, while the props used were beautiful, they were blatantly inauthentic. Golden organza curtains? Nope.

  1. Editing and camera work

This is where the film really begins to look dated. Major transition shots are accompanied by ‘wiping’ the next frame in. This is a feature that should only be restricted to MS Powerpoint (maybe not even that). Smarter editing and dialogue could have also helped make the movie shorter (at 213 minutes, it is a LONG film). For instance, the scene where Akbar’s mother leaves the palace to go on pilgrimage (1:44:15) is entirely unnecessary. It could’ve been replaced with a single dialogue signalling her absence.

This is also coupled by sloppy camera work. Most notably in the song Man Mohana. The song first appears around 45’. The camera angle revealing Krishna’s face at 45:15 is reminiscent of a Sooraj Barjatya movie. That accompanied by low angle shots of the idol simply did not work for me. Similarly, the shot of a white light engulfing Akbar when he supposedly gains enlightenment at the end of Khwaja Mere Khwaja could perhaps have been replaced by a subtler shot of his expression to signify the same thing.

  1. The use of music

I am not questioning Rehman’s genius here. My point is a minor one. The background score, at times, is used poorly and makes the film feel loud. Shots of Akbar’s enraged face at 47:05 are accompanied by loud dramatic music. This is entirely unnecessary. The actor’s expression coupled with the camera’s angle conveys the emotion the director wants us to understand. By adding dramatic music on top of that takes away from the subtlety of the movie as assumes that the audience is too stupid to understand what’s happening unless shown explicitly. Similarly, there is a beautiful scene where Akbar showers flowers on his wife in the middle of a sword fight (2:23:03). But is accompanied by music that is dated and redundant.

 

Now that I’ve listed what didn’t work, it is only fair to mention what did.

  1. The chemistry between Hrithik Roshan (Akbar) and Aishwarya Rai (Jodhaa) is endearing. As someone who isn’t a fan of romantic films, I found it cute and refreshing. This may also have to do with the fact that the director took time to showcase the personalities of these two characters individually.
  2. The lighting throughout the movie is very good, and goes to convey the setting and mood of the film very well. Think dark lighting to accompany Maham Anga’s plotting (1:44:52) and warm light to accompany the central character’s blossoming romance in In Lamhon Ke Daman Mein.
  3. Rehman’s music continues to create magic regardless of how many times I’ve heard the film’s songs.