Jai Ho! Democracy is the kind of film that’s considered an outlier in Bollywood: it doesn’t feature a central character, songs or a popular mainstream actor. And although the film consists of an ensemble cast, featuring well-known, fine actors, none of them is an A-lister. Directors Ranjit Kapoor and Bikramjeet Singh Bhullar bore the brunt of this unlikely casting choice (the film had been lying unreleased for around a year and a half until Bhullar stepped in as a producer), but this decision also freed their movie. Jai Ho! Democracy, for instance, unlike many mediocre Bollywood productions, doesn’t shoehorn elements that don’t naturally belong to the film’s world — hero romancing the heroine, intrusive songs, he emerging victorious in the climax — and, instead, gets straight to the heart of its story, nearly never diverting from its course.
Jai Ho! Democracy opens to an India-Pakistan border that is simmering with tension. Soon, a hen is spotted in no man’s land, and both the sides lay claim to it. An Indian solider, who is a junior cook in the army, is sent to get that contentious hen back. The head of the Pakistani regiment, then, loses his cool and warns of dire consequences if the hen is stolen. You know where this is going. Jai Ho! Democracy doesn’t want to make any sense whatsoever and, given how deliberately cartoonish the film’s Indian and Pakistani soldiers are, it’s not such a bad thing. One nonsensical, but nevertheless comical, scene features miffed soldiers from both the sides hurling abuses at each other. Another scene has them standing near their respective borders, urging the hen to come to their side. These bits, both funny and silly, work, because they are a welcome departure from the simplistic, jingoistic war dramas that often come out of Bollywood. And it’s not surprising that the two films in recent times to have bucked that trend were conceived of as low budget indies — Filmistaan and Kya Delhi Kya Lahore.
But you wonder for how long will Kapoor and Bhullar manage to sustain your interest in a plot that is, at least at the start, completely irrational. Quite interestingly, the directors don’t restrain the film’s absurdity but take it further: by introducing another plot point that rivals the first one in gleeful silliness. As the tension on the border keeps increasing, there is a possibility of India waging a war on Pakistan. A committee, chaired by an ex-Supreme Court judge Ramalingam (Annu Kapoor), and comprised of six members from both ruling and opposition party, is set up to pass a bill, which will decide whether India should go on war. These members, as evidenced by their distinct accents, belong to the different parts of the country — Assam, West Bengal, Punjab, Tamil Nadu — and it’s clear that Kapoor and Bhullar are trying to paint a picture of the country’s decision makers through them: a group of people, fixated on fulfilling personal agendas, that fails to see the big picture.
What’s further heartening is that these scenes are not materialised through contrived or heavy-handed sermonising. Instead, the characters are allowed to revel in their silliness. And although there’s nothing highbrow about these gags, which are mostly devoid of nuance, they are also, quite laudably, simple, funny and unpretentious. Some jokes — for example, a 65-year-old politician (Om Puri) being persuaded to do sit ups because he was rude to the fellow members of the House — may appear illogical and stretched, but this elaborate comical absurdity befits the tone of the film, which is poking fun at, among other things, the Indian parliament: the ultimate House of the Absurd. However, some bits, such as a politician watching porn while his peers intensely debate an issue of national importance, are unoriginal (taken from a real-life incident) and, consequently, unfunny, but these slip-ups are few and far between.
Jai Ho! Democracy’s central premise — the tension between Indian and Pakistan army — is rooted in reality, but its characters, over-the-top, juvenile buffoons who are constantly complicating the problems they are supposed to solve, are often not. By placing such caricatures in a believable milieu, Kapoor and Bhullar’s film manages to satirise politicians, media and army men (and their jingoistic leanings) with ease. Having said that, the satire here is not particularly layered, profound or even rip-roaringly funny at all times but still reasonably impressive, because it is just wicked enough. But Jai Ho! Democracy, quite bizarrely, changes its tone in the last ten minutes, which has an Indian soldier (the junior cook who went to no man’s land) suddenly mouthing platitudes about the importance of India-Pakistan unity. No one will deny the sincerity of that sentiment or, for that matter, the film’s final few scenes, which are both rose-tinted and preposterous, but this unexpected change does make you think about those portions of the film that didn’t need a mouthpiece to get its point across.
An edited version of this review was published in Firstpost.