Some years ago, one went to watch a Gujarati comedy called Lage Raho Gujjubhai and found it disturbingly sexist and quite vulgar. But the audiences howling with laughter all around, did not seem to mind the Gujjubhai protagonist’s shabby treatment of his wife and children, or his constant lying and cheating.
Gujjubhai became a stage series and the middle-aged, balding, bespectacled actor Siddharth Randeria, became the superstar of Gujarati theatre; his plays getting packed as soon as booking opened and travelling all over the world where NRI Gujaratis flocked to watch his Gujjubhai comedies like Lo Gujjubhai Ghode Chadhya, Gujjubhai Ni Golmaal and Gujjubhai Banya Dabang.
A scene from the movie Gujjubhai The Great. Gujjubhai became a stage series and the middle-aged, balding, bespectacled actor Siddharth Randeria, became the superstar of Gujarati theatre; his plays getting packed as soon as booking opened
What Gujjubhai possesses in great measure is the gift of the gab, and the ability to lie with a straight face, being able to wriggle out of any situation by coming up with a believable fib. The person at the receiving end, is more often than not, his wife. Gujarati plays are brazenly politically incorrect that way, the wife is portrayed as a shrew who scares her husband. The husband keeps trying to find ways of fooling her, grumbles about her temper, her extravagance, her stupidity, flirts with other women, but the marriage is unbreakable.
Now Randeria has made his way to a film titled Gujjubhai The Great written by himself and directed by his son Ishaan. Surprisingly, in spite of his success on stage, Randeria did not move to films or TV full time, just a role once in a while. So, this is Gujjubhai’s first screen outing, and there is a homegrown franchise waiting to happen.
The film is a reworking of an old play Gujjubhai E Gaam Gajavyu, and is being enjoyed by Gujarati audiences. The film is good, clean fun, considering it is about a sharp and sly businessman, who takes pride in the fact that he can “buy from a Sindhi and sell to a Marwari.” A Gujarati will get the joke.
Right at the start, Hasmukh Gandhi aka Hasubhai is seen conning a disgruntled client but making his hapless assistant Bakul (Jimit Trivedi) a scapegoat. As the oily-haired, buck-toothed Bakul sputters in confusion and outrage, Hasubhai spins a take about his mother being terminally ill, when his mother died years ago.
For some reason, Hasubhai sees in the nerdy Bakul a future son-in-law, who will love his daughter Tanisha (Dipna Patel), look after his business and agree to be a ghar jamai. Hasubhai’s wife Pramila (Swati Shah), deflecting the usual jibes about her weight, is taken in by the flattery of Tanisha’s Punjabi boyfriend Montu (Alekh Sangal). So, Hasubhai decides to give Bakul a makeover to make him attractive to his daughter.
Hasubhai figures out that Tanisha is drawn to the glib Montu because other girls flip for him, and she relishes the competition, so he decides that Bakul must get himself a fictional romance with none other than a film star Sonia Kapoor (Khatera Hakimi). He manages to con Sonia into posing for photos and a romantic-looking video with Bakul; the images go viral, putting the bewildered Bakul into a spot.
But this is more than a Punjabi-Gujarati face-off; Hasubhai himself is being blackmailed by a conwoman to whom he gave a lift when he was drunk (Gujarat is a dry state!) and she left a bracelet in his car to blackmail him later. A dumb Inspector Jhala (Sunil Vishrani) suspects Hasubhai of terrorist activity and tails him around; then there’s a don called Bade Bhai (Dharmesh Vyas) who is in love with Sonia and lands up in Ahmedabad to kill his supposed rival.
Amazingly, all these strands get sorted out in the end, and every time, Hasubhai is in trouble, his quick thinking gets him out of it. In the end he advises Bakul, lying on a gurney with a bullet wound, that lying is okay if it is for a good cause — Lord Krishna said so!
The film appeals to its target audience because it has everything they expect from Gujjubhai, and in spite of the crazy goings on, there is no overacting and very little slapstick — the dialogue (by Randeria) and the performances carry the film through. The innocent Bakul makes a perfect foil for Hasubhai.
Gujarati cinema is passing through a happy phase right now, but unlike Marathi cinema that is aiming for artistic highs, Gujarati films want to be crowd-pleasers, and their audiences like family comedies. As Hasubhai says in the film, Gujaratis are riding a wave —the Prime Minister is a Gujju, the biggest industrialist is a Gujju. It is a sign of the times perhaps, that the name of the greatest Gujju of all —Mahatma Gandhi — is not bandied about.
Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. She tweets at @deepagahlot
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