If a franchise is returning, and a lead actor must go, then you ought to do this silently. For reference: over two decades of K-serials on Indian TV.
Bunty Aur Babli 2, a sequel/reboot directed by Varun V Sharma, bungles this simple rule. It recreates, in its opening credits, a collage of memories from the first film. How nostalgic, the film says, B&B sitting outside the Taj Mahal, B&B dressed up as monks, B&B on the bike. They're back, you see…. Rani Mukerji and Saif Ali Khan.
In fairness, Saif is all right. If you aren’t consciously thinking of Abhishek Bachchan, he just about blends in. The issue is, this is the sort of sequel that keeps harping on the past. It repeatedly makes direct and indirect references to Shaad Ali's 2005 comedy.
Kajra Re, a hit track from that film, plays in one scene. Rani's striking costumes, which sparked a trend in its time, are back again. I felt like I was reading a glib, desperate job application. "I once did this, I once did that…"
Despite an invitation to come serve the country in the first film, tricksters Rakesh (Saif) and Vimmi (Rani) have stayed put in Fursatganj. They live a quiet, ordinary life: jobs are mentioned but never dwelt upon. Oh, and the kid's grown up too (worryingly, some would say). One evening, on the news, Rakesh sees their old insignia pop up. What's more, it’s attached to a crime much in their style. Someone's stealing their brand.
The new 'B's - so to speak - are Kunal (Siddhant Chaturvedi) and Sonia (Sharvari Wagh). They're both engineers, which explains less than it should. The film, mercifully, spares us their backstory (to a degree at least).
We meet them as fully-formed criminals - young, smooth, digitally-adept and exceptionally quick on their feet. Their first con involves selling a bunch of uncles on a made-up holiday. Gradually, they step it up, going national under the 'Bunty Babli' tag.
The rest of the film writes itself. Senior cons want their twerpy juniors caught. The juniors won’t fall that easy. Dancing between them, like a string, is a cop played by Pankaj Tripathi, who looks so bored that he arrives into the film literally asleep.
Pankaj, it must be said, hasn’t been in best form. One of our finest and funniest, he's been turned into a kind of furniture in these movies. If Cristiano Ronaldo wanted to just play friendlies, he'd probably ape Pankaj. I love the actor more than anyone else, but also wish he got a move on. Sampling the 'tinde' from Vimmi's kitchen, he breaks into a broad grin - a look Pankaj has repeated in 700 prior films or so.
Rani and Saif have done some of their best work together. Sadly, much of that spark is missing in the new film. Sharvari and Siddhant look out of depth in the small-town scenes (the latter still has his Gully Boy twang). In fact, it's when the film finally suits up - in Goa followed by Abu Dhabi - that their characters come into their own. Rani, too, finds her comic chi, madly riding a quad bike through a beach.
Heist films, even comedic ones, need some element of danger. In Chor Machaaye Shor (2002), for example, Bobby Deol is relentlessly chased by cops. There are chases here too, but none too fun. Spotting a lanky Kunal in the crowd, a middle-aged Rakesh gives chase. He slips and falls, and we see children pelting him with water balloons.
This cartoonish tone is perhaps why the film needs its characters to justify themselves every half-hour or so. The youngsters are shown as a woke bunch. Their scams, though criminally-intended, always lead up to some good. "We take just 20 per cent of the money," informs Kunal, beaming like Bill Gates.
I mentioned the small-towns. It's a world Yash Raj Films was starting to explore in the 2000s; Bunty Aur Babli was among their better attempts. The original film lent a hearty dignity to its leads, while placing their aspirations at the center of their cons.
The sequel, which proudly spouts the word 'jugaad', ends up insulting that ethos. It draws a spurious line between hardship and criminality. All a bit strange coming from a banner built by struggling outsiders.
Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Rani Mukerji, Siddhant Chaturvedi, Sharvari Wagh, Pankaj Tripathi
Director: Varun V Sharma