Quite early in Karan Anshuman’s debut, Bangistan, a Bangladeshi cab driver in Poland named Tamim Hussain (Chandan Roy Sanyal) meets the film’s two leads, Hafiz Bin Ali (Riteish Deshmukh) and Praveen Chaturvedi (Pulkit Samrat). When Tamim introduces himself, Hafiz is interested to know whether he’s a Muslim. Tamim says he doesn’t have a religion. “Citizen Hussain,” he says and the scene lingers for a while. Ah, Citizen Kane (the iconic 1941 Orson Welles film) — that’s the ‘joke’ here, you tell yourself. For a 135-minute comedy, this silly reference should not be the funniest bit about the film but, sadly, it is. A little later in the film, two cops crack down on Praveen’s door. One of them introduces himself as “Wai Kar Wong.” This one’s a film reference, too; “Wong Kar-Wai” is a well-known Hong Kong filmmaker. In another subsequent scene, Praveen looks in the mirror, and abruptly goes, “Humse baat kar rahe ho? Yahan toh koi nahin hai. Toh kisse baat kar rahe ho (You talking to me? There’s no one else here. Then who the hell else are you talking to)?” This one references Robert De Niro’s lines from Taxi Driver. No, still not funny. Let’s consider another scene — one more accessible — in the film’s climax, where the head of Islamic militants (Kumud Mishra) is talking to his Hindu counterpart (Mishra, playing a double role). “Aman ki chah kise nahin hai (Who doesn’t want peace)?” says the former. The latter asks, “Chaa lijiyega (Will you have tea)?” You have to have a heart of stone not to feel bad for Mishra, who is quite watchable in this film, for agreeing to be a part of this embarrassing mess.
It’s evident that Bangistan is quite silly, and that’s not a bad thing in itself. But characters behaving silly for nearly two hours of the film’s runtime don’t make the film interesting by default; them being self-aware of their goofiness does. You also need incredibly talented actors to sell lame jokes — say, someone like Govinda of the ’90s or Arshad Warsi on a very fine day — but Deshmukh (who, like in most Bollywood films, is underutilised) and Samrat (just about passable for the most part but completely out of depths in the climax) are not even close to being as zany as this film expects them to be. The main problem, however, doesn’t just lie with the performances.
These characters are so poorly written that you neither care about their buffoonery nor their journey. At the film’s beginning, Hafiz and Praveen are presented to us as two ordinary drifters who are easily swayed by the misguided rhetoric of religion. So, in the film’s climax, when one of them suddenly emerges with a nuanced viewpoint on global harmony, you are left wondering and perplexed. Moreover, Bangistan revolves around its leads’ hefty transition — of two terrorists morphing into peace-loving idealists — but nothing about them in the film convinces us of that weighty change. What’s worse, nearly everything in this film signals lazy storytelling. Its central conceit, of two terrorists changing religions to fulfill their monstrous goals, rings false and comes across as both hurried and unconvincing. Similarly, the film’s eponymous country, Bangistan, doesn’t add anything to the narrative; North and South Bangistan, dominated by the Muslims and Hindus respectively, could as well have been Pakistan and India. The major characters in Poland — the cab driver, the waitress, the arms dealers — irrespective of their nationalities, all know fluent Hindi. You expect such convenient tropes in a bad Hindi film made three decades ago, not from a film made in 2015, when even big budget films have upped their game.
But, you wonder, even the assured writing and inspired performances could have helped Bangistan only as much, because the film’s motif — the dangerous divisive powers of religion — has been discussed and debated to such great lengths that it’s become trite and uninteresting (a hurdle that even a film like PK, which was much funnier than this, failed to cross). However, Bangistan’s ultimate undoing lies in its desperate lunge towards delivering a message in the climax: here, Anshuman’s at his most clueless, pausing the story to allow Hasan’s preachy banalities to take centre stage, and it’s this bit that really irks about, and fittingly encapsulates, this film: its absolute unwillingness to take chances, to buck the rules, to soar beyond the cushy confines of unending mediocrity.
An edited version of this review was published at Firstpost.