Without intending to be, Bachchhan Paandey is a neat commentary on the options available to talented character actors in Hindi cinema. You can play it straight and escape with your dignity (Saharsh Kumar Shukla, Abhimanyu Singh). You can ham it up and book yourself a dozen other teeth-grinding roles (Sanjay Mishra, Pankaj Tripathi). Or you can collect the cheque and hope no one asks you why you’re playing the mute mother of Akshay Kumar, who’s just three years younger than you (Seema Biswas).
Then there’s Arshad Warsi, whose career has stagnated to the point that a third lead in a big film counts as an unqualified win. If you’re a Warsi fan—which is to say, a moviegoer with good taste—it’s impossible not to wince through the film’s ham-handed attempts to pay tribute to his legacy as a sidekick hero. “Secondary heroes often overshadow the real ones,” aspiring director Myra (Kriti Sanon) tells struggling actor Vishu (Warsi), citing Circuit in Munna Bhai MBBS. This is empty flattery; Bollywood is almost always at the service of the star. The one popular solo lead Warsi originated, the lawyer in Jolly LLB, was passed on to Akshay Kumar in Jolly LLB 2.
Myra and Vishu are in the dusty Uttar Pradesh town of Baagwa to stalk dreaded gangster Bachchhan Paandey (Kumar) and gather enough detail to make a film on his life. This was also the premise of Karthik Subbaraj’s deliriously entertaining 2014 Tamil film Jigarthanda, which has now, somewhat belatedly, been remade in Hindi. But while Subbaraj is a director with style to burn, Farhad Samji is basically a writer who has churned out so much successful cringe comedy for so long that he’s making his own films now. When the stuttering jokes commenced, I braced for a long, familiar slog.
Yet, as the film went on, I found I was rather enjoying myself, not a feeling I'm accustomed to when imbibing something by the writer of two Golmaals, three Housefulls and the matchless Street Dancer 3D. It’s not that the film was particularly good—it just wasn’t bad for a surprisingly long time. Gavemic U Ary’s cinematography was quite fetching. There were some nice throwaway details, like gangsters playing flip the bottle in the background, and Warsi’s perfectly timed “What’s up?” to a henchman on a deserted road in the dead of night. And one brilliant gag: gangster Kandi (Shukla) racing home in anguished slow motion, Tadap Tadap blaring on the soundtrack, to try and prevent a family viewing of a blue film.
After Paandey gets wind of his pursuers and decides to star in his own biopic, the film loses steam. Because it’s Kumar in the lead, there’s a tepid backstory that explains why Paandey became a brutal killer. Jacqueline Fernandez is mercifully dispatched after a few mispronunciations and a song; no such luck with Tripathi’s Gujarati acting coach. More fundamentally, the film never works out why Myra and Vishu, who are supposed to be relatable empathetic types, remain unperturbed by all the torturing and killing happening around them.
In the opening scene, as Paandey takes his time setting a journalist on fire, Pendulum (Singh) tells the victim: “This is just a formality. You’re already dead.” The line isn’t there in the Tamil film—which is notable only because there’s hardly another moment where Samji’s film improves on Subbaraj’s. The remake is just a formality. Jigarthanda has already killed.