Cast: Kajol, Riddhi Sen, Neha Dhupia, Tota Roy Chowdhury
Director: Pradeep Sarkar; Rating: 2/5
For an industry snarled up in its own cynicism, Bollywood loves making decorative movies about dreamers chipping away at the odds. Pradeep Sarkar’s new film, Helicopter Eela, at least for its opening stretch of flashback, throws some glance at this irony: Eela (Kajol) is an aspiring playback singer humming her way up from jingles to remixes in cassettes-era ‘90s. The icons and idols she meets — silly cameos by Anu Malik, Ila Arun, Shibani Kashyap, Shaan; all of them gummily hair-coloured save for, of course, Baba Sehgal — treat her with nods of approval and welcoming respect. Eela smiles, bemused by the nonchalance of it all. Was it really that easy? Has she broken in already, just like that?
She sits admiring herself in an editing bay, replaying footage from her first music video, billed as the first Indian music video for the recently launched MTV, when her boyfriend calls her out to break the news: “Bhatt Sa’ab got a call from the underworld, shop shall be shut for a few months,” he whispers, as Eela bottles up her disappointment and feigns a distant practicality.
Such abrupt snuffing out of dreams can leave a lasting impact, and in Eela’s case, we see her sinking into the annoying identity of a helicopter mom. Her son Vivan (played by 20-year-old National Award winner Riddhi Sen) grows up to be a fine musician too — and we are left wondering if Eela’s elaborate surveillance is reflective of something darker than plain overblown parenting. Is she, unknowingly, killing the artist in him? Is preparing him, again unknowingly, for a world forever cramped for space?
At 63, Pradeep Sarkar is a respected veteran filmmaker, known for hopping genres and tackling a variety of subjects, but Helicopter Eela feels a touch out of his grasp. His efforts at capturing the hashtag generation through pop-up emojis come across as gimmicky, like some well-meaning uncle commenting ‘god bless’ on your hottest Instagram upload. Even Vivan’s look and wardrobe — boyband curls, shirt over t-shirt — seem referential to his angsty college-crowd milieu (or what Sarkar thinks is his milieu).
Meanwhile, Kajol, tasked with creating depth and disdain, fails miserably at both. It’s hard to feel for a mother who smothers her child with tiffin dabbas and admits herself to his college — but it's equally hard to feel for a spirited woman who needs constant prodding — and reverse ‘parenting’ — to chase her true self. The complexity might be real; it just doesn't translate on screen.
After much thematic playtesting (there's an absurd but fascinating sub-plot about the missing father), the story turns to a predictable ‘inter-college competition’ to reach closure. These portions are somewhat perked up by Neha Dhupia, as a bossy co-curriculum professor who tolerates no ‘drama’ in her dramatics class and lobs footwear at screechy performers (“Nishana acha hain apka, kabhi lagta nahi,” Eela notes to her in one scene).
Riddhi Sen delivers a nuanced performance as Vivan, working around the adopted Hindi and sounding almost sage-like for his age. “Listen to me, you need it…”, he entreats his mother over the phone, convincing her to find a life outside the dabba. His maturity is best revealed when confronting his estranged father (played by Bengali actor Tota Roy Chowdhury); It is the sort of scene where you expect an explosion — Riddhi makes do with a knitted brow.
Brimming with tender touches and earnest intent, this is a hard film to write off as a bad one. The story certainly has its moments, but the schmaltzy grammar adopted by Sarkar fails this messy story about prodigy mothers and prodigal sons. There are few surprises in this programmatic tale, with the music and background score cueing every emotional note and thinking for the audience. The climax erupts into a Bollywood extravaganza, after trying too hard to convince us it won't.
Helicopter Eela is too safe a film. It just doesn't take off.