In any artist’s career, what they do next after their breakthrough is perhaps the most closely-watched and anticipated move of their early careers. The difficult second album of a band, the second season of a fashion house, and of course, the next film from a team who first hit came out of nowhere to impress us. That team would be the one who did Band Baaja Baaraat — one of if not the favourite film of mine last year — including director Maneesh Sharma, writer Habib Faisal, and actors Anushka Sharma and debutant Ranveer Singh.
Well they and many of BBB’s technicians are back, exactly one year later, with another film with the delightful title of Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl. Bigger budget, bigger cast, bigger expectations from BBB fans like myself (and everyone else who came to it later on to see what we were banging on about) — could it possibly hope to live up?
Well, in a word: Yes.
In Delhi, Dimple Chaddha (Parineeti Chopra) falls for her handsome gym instructor Sunny Singh. Earlier in Lucknow, Saira Rashid (Aditi Sharma) encounters gentle textile merchant Iqbal Khan. And later, in Mumbai, corporate executive Raina Parulekar (Dipannita Sharma) tries to buy a painting from gallery owner Deven Shah. In each case, deals are made, money changes hands, and soon the men disappear, leaving behind only a phone number with Shah Rukh Khan’s classic line from Baazigar as the caller tune.
Sunny, Iqbal and Deven are all, in fact, the same person (Ranveer Singh, of course), a conman they dub ‘Bloody Kameena‘ when they realise the connection between them. The trio, working mostly on the tenacity and wits of Raina, manage to track him down to Goa under a new alias. But instead of calling the police, they decide to turn the tables on him, to con the conman, and hire crafty department store saleswoman Ishika (Anushka Sharma) to be their lure.
Like Band Baaja Baarat before it, Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl’s plot is straightforward, simple, and fairly predictable. And exactly like that film, this is one of its merits, as said plot eschews much of the filmi melodrama one usually expects of Bollywood potboilers. Instead, it serves as the backdrop for Habib Faisal trademark witty dialogue and Devika Bhagat’s lovable characters, for Maneesh Sharma and cinematographer Aseem Mishra’s well-observed visions of four very different parts of India.
A lot of Ricky Bahl’s charm is, like its titular character*, a sly con-job. You’d think from watching the trailers that you were in for another Yash Raj film where the bronzed hero & heroine walk towards the screen in slow motion for two hours (I’m looking at you, Badmaash Company), and instead you get a movie in which the hero is really a side character. The majority of the screen time and character development is given squarely — and to this reviewer’s glee — to the female characters. I can’t think of many mainstream Hindi films with four well-written, distinct female leads that wasn’t trying to be a Big Issue melodrama or a niche titillation fest.
*(Face it, a film called Ladies vs. Bloody Kameena sounds like a bad Ram Gopal Varma film.)
And given the brief that it is all about the Ladies vs rather than the Ricky Bahl, it’s nice to see that the film then never takes the easy way out of cheesy melodrama or revenge fantasies, turning its characters into violent buffoons or immaculate righteous crusaders. Nobody is innocent in Ricky Bahl; each of the three marks is willing to bend the rules and commit or sanction crimes long before they’ve been had by the conman. They’re eager to project their desires and self-interests onto this man who comes into their lives, and more often than not he barely has to lift a finger to take their money. It’s a credit to the writers that for these actions the characters are neither spared nor villified.
The actors themselves are all more than up to the task. In his second celluloid outing, Ranveer Singh takes on four or five characters, each distinct and convincing; Sunny, Iqbal, Deven, Diego, Vikram are all themselves, but just beneath the surface you can see Ricky. Singh is certainly making good on the promise shown in BBB, and one hopes that his next, whatever it is, gives him a chance to to play with some of the edge he shows in small glimpses here.
Anushka Sharma, of course, is similarly a treat to watch, with great nuance where the role requires it (as it often does). The titular trio of Ladies aren’t given the kind of task she is, but they do their jobs well. Dippanita Sharma plays the strong, determined go-getter without turning her into a cold-hearted corporate bloodhound, and Aditi Sharma never reduces her character to just the meek, conservative small-town girl. Spoiled, love-struck brat Dimple, though, is played with aplomb by Parineeti Chopra, who delivers much of the movie’s comic relief with carefully observed mannerisms & firebrand dialogue. Of the three marks she’s had the most intimate feelings for the conman, and the writers never forget that.
I mentioned in my review of Band Baaja Baaraat the subtle but important things it does, and I feel Ricky Bahl is similarly tuned; there doesn’t seem to be a lot going on, but dig a little deeper and it has all sorts of things to say, and says it with the lightest of touches. Habib Faisal’s dialogues, once again, are the glue that holds all of it together. While the English subtitles are adequate, they are only that, and much of the cadence and wit, the subtext, just will not translate. You’d need a novelization to do it justice, perhaps, and that wouldn’t have any song and dance sequences! Or the great performances. Or the way each location is shot in a way such that it inhabits the frame rather than is splashed upon it.
I was not expecting much of Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl. Too often the ‘quick follow-up’ leads to disaster, or worse, forgettable mediocrity. It doesn’t quite have the whizz-bang freshness of Band Baaja Baaraat — how could it? — but as difficult second albums go, it’s quite the accomplishment.