The Chetan Bhagat film is an interesting study in the vagaries of filmmaking. Bhagat’s style has always been eminently adaptable to commercial cinema, and his bland prose means that, much like chicken, it gets its flavour from the masala the director chooses to pour in. Three very different directors have approached his first three books in three wildly different ways, to completely different results. Three Idiots was a complete package, a well-oiled machine. Hello was a cut-and-run venture hoping that whatever bilge they pass off as a Salman Khan movie would make them enough money in ringtone royalties before anyone actually saw a frame. Kai Po Che! is a film.
It’s not a perfect film. Neither is it a particularly earth-shattering truth-revealing life-changing experience. Nor is it by any means indie. But it is an honest attempt at making a mainstream film that is legitimately good, retaining a humanity, a window into a director’s mind that actually contains neurons rather than spreadsheets. Not that that makes it unique in Bollywood, but it’s nice to see something from the Chetan Bhagat stable that worships at the altar of art rather than that of the bottom line. Where the story is sacrosanct, and must maintain believability even in the face of suspension of disbelief.
It helps that the story is a familiar one for director Abhishek Kapoor, he of the bromantic tragicomedy Rock On!!. Kai Po Che! has three, rather than four, bosom buddies who are united by a passion, then divided by familial and societal pressures, then reunited in a tearjerking finale. And, like Rock On!!, Kai Po Che! is at its best in its little, revealing moments rather than the overall plot, which is often formulaic, sometimes shoddy. With Amit Trivedi and Swanand Kirkire on board, it has great music.
The film deftly accentuates what’s best about Bhagat, while mercifully reining in his many weaknesses, to the extent that I had to read The Three Mistakes of my Life to reassure myself I wasn’t wrong in my opinion of him. For all the flak that he receives in these pages as others, Bhagat knows what young India wants, or at least what young, conventional, urban India wants. This is because he knows who young, conventional, urban India is. He tells it its own stories in its own language, and it loves him for it. He does this — and this is where his imitators fail — by creating relatable characters who have personality. My biggest — by no means only — grouse with Three Idiots was that it did away with the delightfully ambiguous character of Ryan and replaced him with that übermensch Rancho. In Kai Po Che!, the lead actors immerse themselves in their layered roles, showing hitherto undiscovered talent (it helps that the film does not revolve around one star).
However, Bhagat is prone to melodrama and, post his self-anointment as the voice of the youth, didacticism; the latter limited to spewing inane arguments for a fuzzy can’t-we-all-just-get-along-and- go-shopping worldview. Kapoor keeps both in check, though he is bound by the broad plot of the novel (and perhaps a clause in the rights agreement) to inject a certain amount of melodrama at regular intervals. As for the preachiness, Kapoor does away with the sermons on secularism, choosing to handle the climax on the post-Godhra riots in purely individualistic terms, foregoing the chance to make a larger societal point. True, this means the film lacks the power of a Parzania or a Firaaq when it comes to making a reckoning of the pogroms. But Kai Po Che! also avoids becoming a sea of platitudes or overtly divisive. Sometimes, the safer option is the better one.