Banjo, directed by Ravi Jadhav, is an out and out commercial film. It’s also designed to service its lead who, like the lead of any self-respecting commercial film, can do just about anything. He can fight the goons, talk about the ills of society, fall in love, be the lead singer of his street band et al. He may be an extortionist but has a heart of gold. That way, Banjo is a star vehicle even if you mildly frown at the thought that the star here is Riteish Deshmukh. But Jadhav, who is established in Marathi, is making his Hindi debut here. And Deshmukh already has a strong Marathi following with his debut, another mainstream vehicle Lai Bhaari, having become one of the highest grossers. Banjo though has its heart in the right place. It’s about street musicians trying to gain a place in an increasingly western (and therefore privileged) dominated space. It’s Occupy Weekender (this literally happens). Like a good commercial film, Banjo’s core philosophy is being aspirational. We see Banjo’s hero introduced by having him come out of the sewage, covered in sludge and on to the big bright world. Sadly, it doesn’t amount to a satisfying experience.
That is mostly down to the fact that Jadhav never comes across as a director. He has all these ideas, he even has a great story but nothing on film is organic. A stretch involving Christina (Nargis Fakhri) hearing the band’s sound, packing the bags for Mumbai in search of the them is amateur at best, clueless at worst. For a story about hope and recognition, Banjo has a tepid beginning. A big deal is made out of the search for the band and it gives way to an unrequited romance that just doesn’t have juice. The only upside is it is milked for a few laughs – like when Taraat (Riteish Deshmukh) has his first shower in months and dresses up, or when he’s moonlighting as slum tour guide to Christina. A couple of weeks ago we had Katrina Kaif playing an NRI, almost as an excuse for her Hindi and dubbing skills. In Banjo we have Fakhri playing an Indian American, again as an excuse for her non-existent Hindi diction (in addition to it-does-not-really-matter-but-if-you-insist-ok-she-is-a-DJ-in-NYC). I wonder if Bollywood has cracked something that none of the Tamil-Telugu cinema directors could. Continue casting the actresses from the north even if they cannot speak a word of the language but give them roles so that even their bad diction and lip sync comes across as cute or at least convincing.
Ultimately, Banjo disintegrates under its own making. Most of it is predictable even if the general idea behind it is noble. One of the biggest let downs in Banjo is what it mainly stands for – music. Even a somewhat middling Rock On had great music from Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy but Banjo has at the most one catchy number that we hear during the aforementioned Occupy Weekender moment. It is set up to be tacky, starry and somewhat even mythical due to which it works. But beyond it, there is nothing in Banjo that isn’t dead on arrival. If only this material had gotten better treatment.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)