There should be a way to get unhinged Ranveer Singh performances without having to see Rohit Shetty films. Singh is not as effective here as Simmba, where he threatened us with a good time before the film collapsed on itself. But even in Cirkus—a considerably worse film—his exertions are something to hang on to (at least in the first half, after which he seems to run out of gas). When his voice goes high and his body arranges itself at weird angles, he’s more a Looney Tunes creation than a flesh-and-blood actor. It’s a pity no one can encourage his natural silliness the way Shetty does, for no Hindi director makes films that are more determinedly, defiantly stupid.
Cirkus begins in the 1940s, with a doctor (Murali Sharma) out to prove, for some reason, that upbringing matters more than bloodlines. As an experiment, he interchanges babies between two pairs of twins at an orphanage who are up for adoption. Both sets of brothers are named Roy and Joy by their new parents, circus-owners in Ooty and a wealthy couple in Bangalore. Ooty Roy develops his own circus act—‘the electric man’—in which he joins exposed wires on stage (a childhood accident has made him immune to electric current). Bangalore Roy is trying to woo heiress Bindu (Jacqueline Fernandez) without running afoul of her status-obsessed dad (Sanjay Mishra). I wish I could tell you something useful about the two Joys, but they’re just… there.
Bollywood rules dictate that separated twins must feel some unexplained connection that precedes their meeting. Thus, the electricity that courses through one Roy turns the other into a livewire, though he doesn’t know why. Naturally, a large part of the film is extended scenes of both Roys electrocuting people. It’s funny the first time and maybe the second, but after a dozen attempts you’ll start to wonder if actual electrocution is a worse fate than watching something this juvenile.
After the Bangalore Roy and Joy turn up in Ooty, the film becomes a series of mistaken sightings. Shetty doesn’t bother distinguishing the twins, which would've at least given Singh and Varun Sharma a chance to show some comic versatility. Both sets of brothers look, sound and act exactly the same. Both families live in mansions. Maybe that’s why the twins don’t meet till the very end: the viewer would barely be able to tell them apart.
It seems almost cruel to bring up RK/RKay in the same breath as Cirkus—one of the year's best and a leading contender for the worst. But Cirkus forces that comparison on itself by attempting to reference and pastiche ‘50s and ‘60s Hindi cinema. So you get songs from that era (‘Aao Twist Karein’, ‘Babu Samjho Ishaare’) used as comic filler and Mishra talking like Dev Anand crossed with Ajit crossed with David. It’s depressingly unimaginative—especially in a year where several Hindi films have made witty use of old songs.
After Singh gives up the ghost, the film becomes a purgatory of bad slapstick and recurring gags. Pooja Hegde, as Ooty Roy's wife, tries to play it straight. Shetty regular Siddhartha Jadhav shrieks and mugs gratingly as a criminal with a Little Richard bouffant. Deepika Padukone turns up, presumably to ask her husband what he was thinking when he signed the film, and hurries off after a forgettable dance number. The only performance with some wit is Vrajesh Hirjee’s sinister auto driver. It apparently took four writers—Farhad Samji, Sanchit Bedre, Vidhi Ghodgaonkar and Yunus Sajawal—to come up with ‘bulbul, hit me’ as the English translation of ‘aa bail mujhe maar’. And that’s the best joke.
I foolishly assumed a film called Cirkus might actually be interested in the workings or even the nostalgia of travelling circuses. But that would involve actual effort, research, thought put into design. So much easier to not have any characters apart from Roy and Joy who work in the circus. Similarly, why bother trying to figure out what Ooty and Bangalore might have looked like in the ‘60s when you can have sets that look like an Archies comic threw up?
Any such complaints will be dismissed by Shetty and team as the griping of elitist snobs. You see, they make films for real viewers—mass films, family films. I can picture one such unit out to see Cirkus: mom dozing off; dad bored out of his skull, wondering why he insisted on a family outing; daughter busy on Instagram; son making plans to watch Avatar again. No filmmaker working today has made a virtue out of doing less.