Kai Po Che: Bad Stories Don’t Exist, Botched Executions Do

There are times in most young men’s lives when desperation leapfrogs at them and corners them to cogitate that clock is ticking fast, that they need to do something worthwhile in their lives before it’s too late. And their want is mainly borne out of the milieu they have been raised in. So, a guy in a decrepit town in Bihar turns to IIT coaching classes, a guy in the rut of a mundane, humdrum engineering job turns to CAT/GMAT coaching classes, a guy in sordid bylanes of Chicago begins harboring his long, stifled NBA aspirations. In such a case, it is not unusual for a guy in Ahmbedabad to nurture dreams of floating his own business. “We can’t be in this locality for our entire lives, can we?” Govind exhorts two of his directionless friends. The want to break one’s ennui becomes pronounced – ambition married with desperation. And hence, all the aforementioned options become not only ways of elevating one’s current societal status, but also become a ticket to a better life. Most of the times,the only ticket. Especially in a country like India, where basic lifestyle fluctuates dangerously as you traipse down the economic pyramid, and where there are limited ways of measuring success, middle class aspirations acquire a completely different hue.

If not anything else, Govind knows one thing for sure: he can’t sustain his entire life teaching math tuition. He doesn’t want to. Bigger and brighter things in life are tied to business. That’s his ticket to a better life – opening a sports equipment shop in Ahmedabad. Accompanying him are his two friends – Ishaan, once a famous district cricket player, now relegated to his own house in front of a TV set, reluctant to make any meaningful conversation, and Omi, a self-content drifter. One of the more interesting things about Kai Po Che is how it delineates male bonding. Most Bollywood movies sketch male bonding sloppily. They treat all male protagonists with one broad sketch; a cursory look at them and you would be at a loss to spot who is who. That’s not how it happens in real life, because sometimes merely one small trait can set friends apart from each other. No relationship is binding enough that it makes you forget who you are fundamentally. One of the reasons why Dil Chahta Hai quickly became a significant male-bonding movie, as it was one of the first ‘buddy movie’ that not only treated the equation amongst friends seriously, but also examined the lives of respective friends in considerable detail.

Kai Po Che

Govind is driven by money, Ishaan is driven by passion. Things in Govind’s life are mainly binary: right or wrong. Ishaan’s life has a lot of scope and space for things in-between. Govind is resolutely headed towards a better future, and he’s ready to sacrifice everything for that — his present, his popularity amongst his friends, any moment that coerces him to be lax and accommodative. He doesn’t drink and he’s a lot cautious about dropping his guard. He’s not someone who you would call ‘cool’. On the other hand, Ishaan and Omi are everything you would expect twenty-something-year-olds to be. But that’s the thing about friendship; it can seamlessly shelter multiple aspirations, oddities, and grievances. Friends cannot be tied under one thread, and it’s neither necessary nor important that the equations among all the three friends be similar. And the movie nails this facet with such precision that it’s heartwarming, and reaffirming that nuances have not become hostages to box office receipts yet. Govind knows that Omi and Ishaan bond well, that Omi cares more about Ishaan than he cares about him, and he doesn’t reflect upon it begrudgingly but rather accepts it serenely. Because, what Omi ideally wants from a friend is not something Govind can be, and he doesn’t want to be. There are no sour threads here. Omi and Ishaan can lose themselves for the sake of friendship, but one can’t say the same about Govind. Selfishness is not really a bad trait as it is so often unfairly portrayed in pop-culture.

And, it’s heartening to see a character as nuanced as Govind. When most of the characters in our movies are larger than life, ready to sacrifice anything for their friends at the drop of a hat, Govind’s pragmatism is refreshing. When Omi and Ishaan are sitting in a car’s front seat, inebriated, talking about their present and how beautiful and perfect it is, Govind is sitting in the back seat of the car, and what does he do? He has no interest or participation in the conversation. Instead, he is busy caressing the plastic wrapped seat of the car. That’s his dream. Raj Kumar Yadav is a stunning talent. In multitude of scenes, his eyes display a genuine, wronged hunger that we have often seen in people who have been cornered enough in life. He brings to Govind a certain scary inhibition, as if someone scared of hoping more, because whatever he aspires ultimately gets obliterated. Someone who’s lumbering the tender line between having lost it all and standing a chance to win it all. If Nawaazuddin Siddiqui ruled the roost in 2012, I hope, just based on this performance alone, Raj Kumar Yadav conquers 2013. His next movie is Hansal Mehta’s Shahid; I sense he’s going to go full throttle in that one.

There’s also a neat little subplot in the movie – the one revolving around a child prodigy, Ali. He has got the talent to hit the ball out of the park, when and as he desires. But talent is a strange beast. Ones who are deprived of it, sit on the sidelines and merely gape others unfurl their madness. But, a more important thing, and something that’s seldom a part of our discourse is, have we ever stopped to think what happens to those who are bestowed with such talent?  Do they ever stop to think how blessed they actually are? And, do they ever stop to think whether their offhandedness about their own talent is nothing but an insult to a plebeian who would do anything to become them? But more importantly, what do you do with your talent? Ali is a gifted cricketer, but he couldn’t care less about his abilities to pound the cricket ball. He would rather play marbles with his friends. (This facet was explored in more depth in Bhagat’s novel). At some point in the movie, you can see Ishaan being peeved with Ali. Ishaan is perplexed how Ali can waste his talent. Ali can easily be a national level player, if he put his heart into the game. But Ishaan never asks Ali whether he wants this in the first place. It’s strange; the ones who are deprived of it, always take talent for granted.

Ali-Ishaan’s relationship has strong resemblance with the relationship shared between Will Hunting and Professor Lambeau in Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting. Will Hunting is a gifted individual, who can solve complex mathematical equations nonchalantly, but he’s a janitor and doesn’t have any exalted mathematical aspirations. This perplexes Professor Lambeau. How can someone be oblivious to his own strengths? He constantly pushes Will to go into a direction he is indifferent to. He keeps telling Sean (Robin Williams), Will’s psychologist and Lambeau’s college friend, that they have got to give this kid a direction, that he can contribute to the world and they can make it possible. Sean retorts the following:

Direction is one thing, manipulation is another…maybe he doesn’t want something that you want. There’s more to life than a fucking fields medal.

Is it horribly wrong that Ali doesn’t want to pursue something he’s naturally gifted in? Of course, this is a digression and as I had mentioned, the novel touches on this more concretely, while the movie just hints at this aspect. But how different is Ishaan from Professor Lambeau fundamentally? Ishaan couldn’t get into the national cricket team, similarly, Lambeau couldn’t change the world with his talent. They both just fell a notch short. But, is that reason cogent enough to shove someone into a direction one doesn’t feel strongly about? The debate about what is good for one’s own self and what’s good for the world can go on, but am glad that the movie at least touched upon it fleetingly.

As almost everyone has agreed upon and noted that one of the more remarkable things about the movie is its writing. And that opens a separate discussion all together, because at the root of this movie’s writing is someone who has become a national obsession. Till a couple of years back, only two ‘Cs’ in India were people the most vocal about – cricket, and cinema. Now, that list has another entry – Chetan Bhagat. Almost everyone, whether one is an avid reader or not, has heard of Chetan Bhagat, and everyone has an opinion about him, and it encompasses a wide range. But, most discussions on Chetan Bhagat are lost in generalities. I think any discussion on Chetan Bhagat or for that matter on anyone who creates anything in art can be benefitted by tracing the person’s trajectory: from where did he start to where did he finally end up. Also, the discussion has been clouded and hijacked by primarily those who have not read Bhagat, or at best, have only read a novel or two of his. Barring his last novel, I have read his first four novels, so I don’t say anything based on hearsay, or in vacuum, but only from my experience.

Chetan Bhagat’s first novel, Five Point Someone, was a very interesting attempt just on the basis of its sheer audacity. At that time, Indian publishing industry had already decided what it wanted to read, and what the people of our country wanted to read. Similar to how things were at esteemed movie production houses in the country, where they were just recycling the same stories repeatedly and were insulated to any new ideas. Bhagat’s debut novel shattered that myth. Personally, it also did something more important.  Back then, as a teenager, I thought IIT was the answer to all questions in my life, and am sure, I wasn’t the only one. Bhagat’s novel was a great starting point in dispelling that myth, that just like anyone else, IITians are not infallible. And no one institute and no one exam can be, and should be, more important than one’s own sanity. Everyone craves an alternate point of view, especially if it comes wrapped with a certain naivety and honesty. So, despite pedestrian prose, some formulaic, trite set ups, and certain traits that comprehensively cripple Bhagat’s oeuvre, Five Point Someone was a very laudable attempt.

But something important happened after Five Point Someone: Bhagat began to pander. And the greatest disservice a writer can do to oneself is by insulating one from criticism and think that the audience – the paying public, knows better at all times. Call it snobbery, or call it misplaced arrogance, there’s only one thing that speaks to me above all the melee – the audience doesn’t know everything, in some cases, the audience doesn’t know anything. Wielding the power to buy something doesn’t make one omnipotent. Had that been the case, technological innovations would have been minimal, we would all have been smugly using the same old devices. Steve Jobs articulated this sentiment rather succinctly:

It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.

Every great piece of art has ever been created because the creator never pandered. Think Tarkovsky, think Lars Von Trier, think Godard. Not that Bhagat was in such esteemed list to begin with, but even within his realm, he sold out a little too soon. By chaining himself to the whims of market, something he has been quite vocal about, his subsequent books went on to become one embarrassment after another. And there’s a reason behind it, although Bhagat writes about contemporary India and its denizens, all of his novels lack something that saves and elevates a mediocre novel: complexity and ambiguity. He paints everything in broad stroke and hence, conveniently polarizes two sets of characters in his book: In Five Point Someone,nerds were unequivocally evil and didn’t know how to enjoy life (a stereotype that 3 Idiots further perpetrated, one of the many reasons that make 3 Idiots an exceedingly mediocre movie. Anyone who has studied in or even strutted in an engineering college campus would know it’s a ludicrous exaggeration), in One Night at the Call Centre, the call centre manager again, was an unreasonable buffoon, all Americans were dumb. For someone who claims to write about Indians and their conundrums, it is surprising to see how linear his characters are, and how less he knows about them. And he revels in generalization, remove that from his book, and you would be left with an acknowledgment page.

But still, there has to be something about his books that appeals to people. Three out of five have already been adapted for the big screen. One of them went on to amass more than 200 crores at the box-office. You can attribute one book to fluke, at most two, definitely not five. That brings us to Kai Po Che and the novel from which it has been adapted, The 3 Mistakes of My Life. And it’s important to juxtapose both of them because more often than not, a good novel seldom gives rise to an equally adept movie adaptation. Making a fine movie from a mediocre novel is almost unheard of.  

As a novel, The 3 Mistakes of My Life is particularly singular, for just on the basis of Bhagat’s writing, you can divide the novel in three parts, and each one-third of the novel is progressively worse than its predecessor. However, the first one-third of the novel eschews the usual Bhagat’s melodramatic shenanigans and is largely finely written. He captures the ethos of India’s small town and its people perfectly, something that has been repeatedly marginalized in our pop-culture for quite a long time. There are lots of stories hidden in hinterlands of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Gujarat. India is not just Delhi, Bombay, and Punjab. Although as the novel progressed it quickly became squeamishly jingoistic (there’s also a scene in the novel where Ali is offered to play for Australia, but he refuses the offer because….erm, that’s what a true Indian would do, right?), yawningly melodramatic, and formulaic.

But the writing in Kai Po Che is so spot on that it miraculously tiptoes around and avoids almost all pitfalls of Bhagat’s writing in The 3 Mistakes of My Life. The movie is peppered with myriad deft touches that the novel is bereft of. I would not be surprised if someone picks up the novel after liking Kai Po Che and still ends up hating it. Which brings us to an important point: in that case, essentially there are no good stories or bad stories, only skillful or sloppy executions.

Abhishek Kapoor is fast becoming an interesting and important voice in Bollywood. His last outing, Rock on,was a mighty fine movie too. The only major flaw that ails Kai Po Che is its last twenty minutes, and its propensity to shy away from Gujarat riots. Since this event ties everything together in the movie, and is based on one disturbingly true event, it is surprising how ineffective the riot sequences appear in the movie.

Kai Po Che is the sort of movie India needs the most right now. A movie that reeks of, looks like, and behaves like the India we know, the India we have grown up in. There are so many stories hidden in those cricket grounds, there are so many Ishaans who wanted to play for the country, but couldn’t…what happened to them? There are so many young men who tried finding solace and answers in violence…what happened to them? There are so many young men who tried breaking the shackles of their own mundane, humdrum lives. Some succeeded, others remained hidden in obscurity…what happened to them?

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