A few years ago there was a somewhat forgettable film called Cocktail which had two stars and a debutante. It was a time when Deepika Padukone was more a star and less the actress that she is today. Not that she isn’t a star today. While her stardom has grown, the good thing about Deepika is her acting chops have only gotten better. In Cocktail, the male star snoozes through a role he had done several times. The debutante managed to outshine both the stars and entered under the perennial what’s next column. It’s been a long wait. Diana Penty returns with a titular role in Happy Bhag Jayegi, directed by Mudassar Aziz.
Happy Bhag Jayegi is the kind of film where the title is all you need to guess the plot. It’s also built on a shaky premise so if you watch films for the plot, maybe this isn’t for you. But there are quite a few things to like in this comic caper. Happy runs away on her wedding day and a wrong jump lands her in Pakistan at the house of an ex-Governor. She’s lost to both her fiancée (Jimmy Sheirgill) and her lover Guddu (Ali Fazal). The only person she has on her side is Bilal (Abhay Deol), whose father has really high hopes from him. Not just any high but the high in Olympian proportions because he wants Bilal to be the next Jinnah and change the history of Pakistan. He has no other line in the film. He has just these words to say whenever he appears on screen – change the history of Pakistan.
The film begins with the groom doing a solo dance to Yaara O Yaara from the Sunny Deol starrer Jeet. At first it seems appropriate given the setting, Amritsar where the Deol family is bound to pull a large crowd. Sunny Deol strikes you in other ways too – the lurking ghost in Happy Bhag Jayegi, the India-Pakistan conflict and friendship, a jingoistic theme employed in full force by Deol in some of his films. But this film is not interested in any of those themes. It repackages this into a neat little toffee, using it for flavorful humor here and there and never crosses a line. The best use is probably in language – when Bilal and Afridi (Piyush Mishra) arrive in Amritsar, Afridi wonders if they’ll understand the language when Bilal orders him to ask for Guddu’s address. Afridi uses the word – nasheman – to ask if this is Guddu’s house and gets a response about Guddu’s inebriated state. It harks back to Afridi talking about Mirza Ghalib when he first finds Happy and how he wished Ghalib’s history was situated in Pakistan. It becomes a running theme for him – everyone from Kapil Dev to Yuvraj Singh to Taj Mahal, he wishes were from Pakistan. Never mind the irony that if only India had Pakistan’s fast bowlers! Piyush Mishra plays it beautifully. His voice has that timbre that makes Urdu, a language that already has a lot going for it, the “deadly language” that Guddu talks about, when he’s really inebriated (and we know from Gulaal that anything in Mishra’s voice sounds deep). In the first half, Mishra steps up but Deol plays it all too straight. In the film’s best scene, they are both trying to hoodwink Daman Singh Bagga (Jimmy Shergill) and the scene is well written and very funny. But there is a feeling that this could have been something else if there was someone other than Deol to match up to Mishra’s timing.
The other performer who always delivers, albeit in a role he can do in his sleep, is Jimmy Shergill. As Bagga, the conniving politician from Amritsar – poker faced charmer when dancing to Yaara O Yaara – Shergill has mastered the unspoken frustration on his face as Happy slips through his schemes time and again. The Rahul Khanna of the hinterlands – never the one to end up with the girl – Shergill gets in his films what Khanna never did in his mainstream career – meaty roles. Shergill laps them up the way Happy gets to her beer bottle – fast, with a lot of swag and a you-only-live-once attitude. He’s done them in the Tanu Weds Manu films and he does it again here, with even better results because there is no Kangana Ranaut to overshadow him. Shergill is the best performer here and that’s no backhanded compliment. But a part of me wished what if they had swapped roles? Of Bagga and Bilal. Bagga played by Abhay Deol (as unimaginable as it is) and Shergill as the unimaginative daddy’s boy from Pakistan. It would have been a new challenge for Shergill and something I am sure he’d have aced.
The film in the third act degenerates into a screwball comedy that doesn’t hold much water. Save for a joke or two in the corners, Happy Bhag Jayegi loses its fizz into an idiot plot. But there’s a lot to take from in this well put together fun from Mudassar Aziz. An in form Jimmy Shergill carrying a film all by himself. Piyush Mishra with impeccable timing and flawless enunciation. And it is heartening to see Diana Penty in a film of her own. Happy Bhag Jayegi could have been more about her and less about the men it trains its focus on. On both the sides of the border, two very similar guys fall for her – both passive, both indecisive, both puppets more than men. Happy deserves better. Diana Penty deserves better. It took four years for someone who impressed in her very first film to come up with another. She doesn’t disappoint. I hope we get to see more of her.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)