My Mumbai Mirror column:
Watching Happy Bhaag Jayegi is an enjoyable way to think about the Indo-Pak relationship in Hindi cinema.
The runaway bride is a recurring motif in contemporary Hindi movie comedy, appearing in variants as different as the 2011 Salman Khan-Asin starrer Ready and 2013's Shuddh Desi Romance. But although this is the comic premise with which Happy Bhag Jayegi begins (and from which it takes its name), the film's more significant humorous track draws on a different Bollywood subgenre: the cross-border comedy.
Penty's long-limbed, moonhphat Happy ends up, by a stroke of bad luck, in a getaway vehicle that leads her not to her lover's embrace, but to Pakistan. The morning after her truck-ride, she wakes up in a grand mansion belonging to a father-and-son politician duo. Played by Javed Sheikh and Abhay Deol, the Ahmeds are known to their loyalists and hangers-on—meaning apparently all of Lahore—as "Janaab Senior" and "Janaab Junior".
The rest of the film involves the hapless Janaab Junior (Deol) trying to restore Happy to her layabout Amritsari beloved, Guddu (Ali Zafar). With the aid of his faithful family retainers—Mamu and Iffat Bi, right out of an '80s Pakistani teleserial, his fierce and aristocratic fiance Zoya (Momal Sheikh) and a wonderfully crackpot policeman by the name of Usman Afridi (Piyush Mishra), Janaab Junior (Deol) must contrive to keep Happy out of sight of his domineering father (Sheikh) — while subverting attempts at abduction by her jilted groom Bagga (Shergill, marvellous in a tweaked version of his stood-up-at-the-mandap character from the Tanu Weds Manu films). The writing is nowhere near as funny as screenwriter Himanshu Sharma's TWM, and Penty is inconceivable as a paratha-making Punjaban, but the film remains an enjoyable bit of silliness.
Watching Happy made me realize that Bollywood's cross-border plots devolve into two broad kinds. One is the nationalist we-will-go-across-and-kill-the-terrorists plot, usually containing RAW and ISI agents, secret identities, and wish-fulfilment of both the revenge and romance variety: think of Baby, Ek Thha Tiger, Agent Vinod and Phantom among others. The other kind tends to be grounded in the idea of people from both countries being able to establish a warm human connection, despite the obstacles placed in their way by politics, religion and highly-policed state borders.
Interestingly, this second plot often plays out through a specific narrative. That narrative involves a character being stuck on the wrong side of the border — and having to be rescued or helped to return to the right side. The grand romantic version of this is probably the Yash Chopra love story Veer Zaara, in which the Indian stuck in Pakistan is the film's hero — Shah Rukh Khan as Squadron Leader Veer Pratap Singh — and he's stuck not just in Pakistan but a Pakistani prison.
Recent variations have sidestepped the romance for something different. Nitin Kakkar's 2014 Filmistaan centred on an aspiring Indian actor who is mistakenly abducted by terrorists and finds himself tied up in a Pakistani village. The huge 2015 hit Bajrangi Bhaijaan made the person stuck in the wrong country a child — and she is imprisoned not by the state or by other people, but by her lack of language. She is mute, and so cannot tell the good Hindustanis that she comes from Pakistan.
By having their protagonists unable to tell that they're not in India, these films underline our cross-national similarities. "Yeh Pakistan hai?" Filmistaan's abducted Sunny (Sharib Hashmi) inquires of his burly captor (Kumud Mishra) in disbelief — there's little about the desert village he's in that suggests he's in another country. In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, it is the adults around the mute child who can't imagine that she might not be Indian.
Happy, too, falls into this category. "Main Pakistan mein hoon?" asks a shell-shocked Diana Penty, having been so far unable to tell that her unwilling hosts are Lahori. Later in the film, unsuspecting uncles accept Happy as a visiting cousin from Karachi, and we tour a Lahore that combines strolling camels, park joggers and laughter clubs like any north Indian city.
But twinned with similarity comes difference. In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, it was an overly simplified version of 'Pakistani' culture: burkha-clad women, non-vegetarian food, etc. In Happy, it's a highfaluting register of Urdu that is milked for laughs: Piyush Mishra induces many giggles as he speaks of refraining from maikashi (drinking), inquires if this is Guddu's nasheman (nest) and recommends a qailulah (an afternoon nap) to Bagga.
The leg-pulling isn't one-sided: if the film's Pakistani elite is feudal, pompous and thinks nothing of calling in the army and police to solve personal problems, the Urdu-uncomprehending (if reluctantly impressed) Punjabi listeners are loud, boorish and lawless. And yet everyone's really quite good at heart. In these times of high-decibel nationalist nastiness, Happy's gentle ribbing seems welcome.
Published in Mumbai Mirror, 21 Aug 2016.