In this age where being ‘intellectual’ is demonized you are not surprised when it is said that, ‘this film did not do well, because it was too intellectual’. In a nutshell, that is what happened to ‘Madras Cafe’. In reaction to that, John Abraham in his next venture seems to have reached the other end of the scale with a film which is hardly intellectual – Parmanu.
I am a firm believer that Hindi film industry serves a great purpose in filling in the information gaps in the world of ordinary Indians. And by Ordinary Indians I mean the graduate degree holders, typically engineers of this modern nation. For such people the intricate plot of Madras Cafe was a lesson in History. Over 70% of the crowd had no idea of what was going on screen, for them the boundaries between fact and fiction get blurred when the movie includes precise locations, date and timelines at beginning of a scene. Suddenly the time stamp in the corner of the screen makes them think that this might be a film based on real events, and at that very precise moment curiously they start finding the film absurd. This was evident from a remark I heard from the crowd. ‘lekin Indian army, Sri Lanka mein kaise!’, (What is the Indian army doing in Sri Lanka), in their minds Sri Lanka is that place where you send your cricket team when a few seniors need ‘rest’. Thus watching the Indian armymen in that country baffled a few, and finally the ball dropped when one asked, ‘ye real event pe based hain kya?’ (Is it based on real events). Thankfully, Somnath Dey and Shubendu Bhattacharya (writers of the film) were not in the theater, otherwise we needed to put them on suicide watch. The plot of Madras Cafe was well researched, elaborate, nuanced, with low dosages of action, and a John Abhraham delivering a performance which Sunil Gavaskar would have called as ‘a bowler, bowling within his limitations’. All this meant that most of the theater slept through most part of the movie, and virtually gave up on unearthing the plot, and most were relieved when the long film was over. The following sentence sums up the reaction in the crowd, ‘The movie was based in Sri Lanka, toh, Madras mein kya hua tha!!’ (then what had happened in Madras!)
The film predictably was a success in critical realms (non profitable realms) and dropped drastically in box office terms. The popular theory floated was that the film was too intellectual for Indian audiences.
Now identifying a problem seems to be the thing, however an unlikely memory comes to my mind. First year engineering, a subject called Engineering Drawing, had a book, rather had a 10kg block as a book ‘Phakatkar’, each chapter had at least a 100 problems solved. One of the topic was ‘lines’, the concept of looking at a line from various angles and views. Top view, side view etc and then drawing the entire ‘kachra’ on paper. The concept itself is esoteric, I mean looking at a 3D object in various views makes sense, however a line in any view is still a line! All you ended up was with a page full of lines and alphabets scattered. If this was not strange enough, there were problems with imaginary lines, two apples are hanging from a tree, if you draw an imaginary line joining those apple…. nothing further, even recollecting it is a pain. Anyways, come the semester exam question, exactly the same problem stared me, only mangoes had replaced the apples, rest values were same.
At that instant, I could identify that the problem was of lines, I knew the exact page number of textbook, the exact chapter number, the exact date and time when I had first read the problem, BUT, I could not recollect the solution! This gives us the first important conclusion of the day, “Just because you have identified the problem, it does not imply that you are in a position to solve it!”
Now the rational mind in you, referencing my example may say that, Identifying the problem may not be a sufficient condition to solve the problem, but it still is a necessary condition to solve it. And I want to shatter this myth, the only person in my class who got the problem right was a dude who drew random straight line doodles on paper and his expression was, ‘Yeh line ka problem tha kya!’ (was this a problem of lines!)
and then there is Einstein who said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”, re-emphasizing the fact that after you become famous, you can say anything, basically nothing about how to solve a problem and still people will put your poster on their wall (guilty!)
Back to ‘Parmanu’, John and Co, seem to have identified ‘being intellectual’ as the problem with their film, thus they decided to dumb down the film to make it palatable for a wider audience. Now remember, this is a film about nuclear testing, the film had to dumb down nuclear testing. It was a covert operation planned over years and the film needed it to be less complex. The film was aiming for a philosopher’s stone, can you really dumb down Integration and Differentiation into a multiplication table! (geek joke alert!)
The resultant solution envisioned by the creators ended up being a cross between Gadar and Style. The use of Hindi songs as password to enter a covert testing facility is the pinnacle of ‘Oh Shit, what is this’, and to add to the agony, the password has no relevance what so ever to the operation. Then there was the scene of Eagle eyes John Abraham spotting a spy satellite from ground with his naked eye. In parts the movie took inspiration from CID. In one scene the female officer is perplexed as to how John’s wife came to know about his ‘secret’ staying place, she asks John, ‘lekin usse pata kaise chala’, (how did she come to know), she repeats this about 4-5 times, and yet John is in a parallel universe worrying about some timing device. (Daya, kuch toh gadbad hai, Daya)
Thankfully the character names deviated far enough from the original names of the real architects of the test, otherwise we would have many tearing off the hair of their bald heads. Thus Parmanu ends up as a nothing film, it is not as articulate as Madras Cafe, neither is it outright dumb like a Houseful, it feels good in moments, however overall it is a disappointment. Disappointing because compared to Madras Cafe this film could have been made on a lower budget, Madras Cafe had multiple locations, Parmanu occurs only in a couple of locations, hence probably with a bit of effort it was possible to inject nuance and thrill in it without taking much commercial risks.
Now at this point you might think I am sounding like one of those couch potatoes who are good at point out mistakes, rather than do something creative and show how it is done. Well rest assured my concern for this film is purely patriotic, after all we run the risk of having an entire generation of young Indians who might reach the National Defense Academy and say ‘Chand sa rohshan chehra…..’ for opening the gates!