At its finest, Raja Natwarlal asks us two questions with considerable glee: why does a conman succeed? How does a conman succeed? The answers to these questions are carefully sprinkled throughout the film. The film implies that a conman succeeds not because he acts like a deceiver, but because he behaves like the deceived — seemingly unsure, gullible and naive. You can fool some people some of the time by telling them a false story, but if you want to hoodwink someone all the time, you need to tell an incomplete (and seemingly true) story, one that can be correctly and easily verified. Why? Because false stories come with a shelf life as they are completely untrue. An incomplete story, on the other hand, eschews scrutiny because it is — or at least appears to be — true; what’s withheld is its true, malignant extent.
You don’t expect Emraan Hashmi’s crowd pleasers to throw up interesting questions such as these. And, sure, Raja Natwarlal for the majority of its runtime unfolds like a typical Hashmi film: it fumbles, falters and falls on its head a number of times, and none of it is surprising because mainstream Bollywood films don’t usually set very high standards for themselves. But Hashmi’s latest fare is slightly different because when the film gets it right, it does get it right. What’s especially interesting about Raja Natwarlal is that it doesn’t wear its ambition on sleeve. Almost nothing about the film in the first 30 minutes is particularly interesting or original: the hero is a good-hearted crook; his love interest earns her living as a dancer in a seedy bar; he hatches a dangerous plan to get rich; in between all this, he also manages to sing three songs with his heroine. We have seen these kinds of films a lot of times. But, if you are willing to look closely, even this sloppy beginning has some redeeming elements: the chemistry between Hashmi and Deepak Tijori (Hashmi’s partner in crime) comes alive through smart, assured writing. I don’t remember the last time I saw Tijori in a role that had me hooked. And that’s the first sign of promise this film shows: its willingness to get certain, if not all, nuances right. In fact, it’s precisely why this film comes across as a frustrating watch at times. For every bit of adept acting and writing flourish, there are bits that irk you. For instance, a lot of plot points are left carelessly hanging early on in the film, and you wonder if they will ever get resolved. This incomplete writing not only smacks of laziness, but also comes across as a poor excuse to propel the plot forward. Quite a few romantic songs halt the rhythm of the film, and alter its tone. The perfunctory romantic subplot, that horrific Bollywood disease, keeps cropping its head as well.
But the film comes onto its own when the motley bunch of crooks tries to entrap a business baron (Kay Kay Menon). These small, quasi-comical scenes unfold with so much mischief that it’s difficult to not be interested. And these bits work mainly because the actors look completely invested in their roles. Good actors are great salesmen: they make you buy anything. Paresh Rawal and Emraan Hashmi pitted against Kay Kay Menon on paper sounds like a strange set up, but it’s this unlikely combination that constantly keeps you riveted. And then there’s a “twist” in the climax. More often than not, twists fail to work because they are designed to hide other apparent flaws of the film. We become so besotted with the clever ending that we fail to see anything else. However, here, the climax comes across as assured, even a little silly, and it works only because the film really believes in it. It’s a typical Bollywood ending that flouts the “show, don’t tell” rule (the climax could even be called a poor man’s Prestige), but it’s not really troublesome because it materialises on screen with much joy and devoid of any pretence. In times of people and films posturing to be someone or something else, the straightforward honesty of Raja Natwarlal is an endearing intrusion.
An edited version of this review was published at The Sunday Guardian