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House on fire

THE MAGIC OF cricket, weddings and popular Punjabi culture is redoubtable but just how far does Bollywood think it can ride on it? Director Nikhil Advani’s Patiala House is a good reason to ask this very pressing question. Somewhere in the premise of the film there was a possibility to explore interesting themes — the malleability of pride and prejudice, the yoke of history, the identity of the individual against that of his community and the interplay of these factors in the idea of nationalism. A Sikh migrant from India (Rishi Kapoor) spends his life-fighting racism in Southall, a suburb in London. A generation later, his extended family led by son Gattu (Akshay Kumar) is struggling to break out of the patriarch’s repressive value system and fulfill their individual aspirations.

As soon as the conflict is set up, Bollywood’s Frankensteinian devices take over. The ‘heroine’, Simran (Anushka Sharma), is introduced because the hero must have a love story. She is loud, ‘carefree’ and acts as a catalyst in the revolution that is about to brew in Patiala House. At some point in the film, she says, “Show me a character that does not have a back story and I will show you a flop film.” What she does not take into account is that a back story will do nothing for a character that is plain implausible. A girl who is put there to yell at a stranger unprovoked and then stalk him to make him ‘fulfill his dream’ cannot be explained as normal.

Flimsy characterisation — a regular Bollywood nuisance, runs through the film. Every character is a two-dimensional representation of a function needed to take the story to its predictable end. The patriarch Kahlon hates the Brits because they hated him. His wife is a suffering, submissive consort and Gattu is a repressed hero who will dazzle the world (no less) with his brilliance; but only as a duty to his extended family. Kumar, who has clearly come of age as an actor, sets the perfect pitch and tone for his character but is given no depth or nuance to play with.


Gattu wants to play cricket. As a British citizen he can only play for England, which offends his father’s patriotic pride. So he is asked to keep a grocery shop and that is that. Our hero spends the next decade or so walking around depressed with his shoulders drooping. Suspension of logic does not work in a film that is meant to make you identify with the protagonist. But even more problematic is the script’s lack of gumption. It never wades into the depth of conflict. For instance, Kumar does not have to play India even once. And there is no genuine debate between characters representing different ideas.

The film is beleaguered with poor dialogue — the most underrated malignancy in Bollywood today. Then there are the clichés of plotting — a heart attack for a turning point as the worst of it. It need not be reinstated that the collective weight of these formula devices stifles the themes this film could well have explored.

Problem is, it is no good as a potboiler either. While the director manages to inject it with sufficient emotions, there is not enough substance to hold them in. Sure, the song, dance and cricketing action is easy on our palate, but it is so assembly line, it makes you worry about the apocalypse — a day when all that is left of the Indian taste will be one single product called the McDalMakhni.

Originally published in Tehelka.

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