The infamous 1995 Purulia arms drop case forms the backdrop of writer-director-producer Anurag Basu’s new film starring Ranbir Kapoor and Katrina Kaif. Remember Purulia, the episode involving a large cache of weapons mysteriously expelled from an aircraft passing over villages in this West Bengal district? Remember the many conspiracy theories floated around it? If you do not, a quick google search will remind you how huge a news story this was back then, and what an unlikely subject it is for a mainstream Hindi film with the appearance of being a light-hearted entertainer.
That pivotal plot point is not the only unconventional aspect of Basu’s Jagga Jasoos. The film’s defining feature is that it is a departure from the traditional Bollywood musical, and a bow instead to Broadway and old-style Disney’s take on this artistic genre.
Both points are driven home without delay and with gusto during Jagga Jasoos’s thoroughly enjoyable and intriguing opening sequence in which cartons of arms and ammunition fall from a plane on to a television crew at work in the Indian countryside. This is our introduction to the character played by Saswata Chatterjee, who appears to be either a documentary filmmaker or a news TV producer. The media and politicians are all agog at this bizarre case, news anchors deliver their bulletins and netas their reactions in song, and there is enough energy on screen at that point to light up an entire multiplex.
Cut to a pretty young woman played by Katrina Kaif, who appears to be a teacher narrating stories of the orphaned boy detective Jagga (Saravajeet Tiwari) to very young students — or perhaps readers of her books — via song and dance.
Jagga has a stammer that he masks in silence. One day Chatterjee — who nicknames himself Tutti Futti — enters the child’s life and guides him to use music to overcome his speech disability. From then on, Jagga begins to converse through melody. Tutti Futti adopts him and they lead a happy life in Manipur’s Ukhrul district, before fate intervenes and separates the father from the son. Lonely Jagga (now Ranbir Kapoor as a schoolkid) has a curious mind, which leads him to solve mysteries that baffle even the police.
How long will Basu manage to sustain interest in a format so rarely used in Bollywood? Why did Tutti Futti disappear? What was the secret behind the arms drop? Is Kaif a mere sutradhar or does she have a role in Jagga’s life? These questions keep us going through the first half of Jagga Jasoos when curiosity combines with Pritam’s cleverly conceptualised compositions (if you have a taste for Broadway-style musicals), Shiamak Davar’s imaginative yet uncomplicated choreography and Allan Amin’s breathless action.
The dip in the second half is almost tangible. Part of the reason is that by then, we have witnessed Kaif’s entry into Jagga’s life, so that her continuation as storyteller immediately before and after the intermission (in an observer avatar far removed from what she is to Jagga) does not gel. Her role as narrator is overplayed post-interval. More to the point, Jagga Jasoos takes too long to get to what you gradually realise is its primary point, that point being Tutti Futti’s connection to Purulia. Although the music, dance and stunts continue to be delightful, their appeal begins to feel like style working over substance, and packaging over content.
Basu’s screenplay zigzags about too much in the second half, leading to lack of clarity. Too many things seem to happen for effect rather than with good reason (how, for instance, does Kaif’s Shruti Sengupta, know African culture enough to charm a bunch of policemen in an alien land?) and there is too much back and forth in Tutti Futti and Jagga’s life timelines leading to confusion.
Kaif and Kapoor were dating when shooting for this film started. Their real-life break-up is said to have caused the inordinate delay in its making and release. You would not be able to tell that from their pleasant chemistry on screen.
Saravajeet Tiwari who plays little Jagga is sweet. Kapoor throws himself into the role of Jagga Senior with gusto, and is fun to watch, especially as he dances with charming, unself-conscious abandon to the song ‘Galti se mistake’ with his schoolmates. It does take a stretch of the imagination to accept this strapping, mature-looking 34-year-old as a schoolkid — especially when the screen is packed with actors who mostly look much younger, and especially because a dialogue at one point tries to convince us that he is younger than Kaif (uff, come on!) — but his magnetic personality overcomes that incongruity.
The older Jagga’s styling seems to have been inspired by Herge’s Tintin comicbooks — he has even borrowed the Belgian boy detective’s famous quiff. In an obvious tribute to Herge, the sutradhar’s stories of Jagga are contained in comicbooks which she likens to life.
Kapoor and Basu also manage to ensure that Jagga’s stammer is handled with sensitivity and does not at any point become a source of humour aimed at him. Oddly enough, in a scene in which Jagga interacts with Saurabh Shukla and his cohorts, Kapoor seems to briefly forget his stammer completely. This is disappointing because he is remarkably consistent with it in the rest of the film.
Basu uses his leading lady intelligently. Kaif has been getting more comfortable before the camera with each passing year. She still does not have much acting depth, but is well-suited to this role of a clumsy, slightly ditsy, spirited woman.
Like its main stars, Jagga Jasoos is a great-looking film. It has been shot in South Africa, Thailand and Morocco, with Darjeeling being the location in India. S Ravi Varman’s visuals are extravagant, and well-suited to the film’s massive canvas. Barring the glaring CGI work on a giraffe couple and some terribly done SFX involving ostriches, this is an eyecatching film.
Jagga Jasoos brings together a range of quality ingredients, but something has gone wrong in the cooking of it. It is highly engaging up to a point, but needed tighter writing and direction to stay on course. The plus point for me is that a hard-core mainstream director and two out-and-out mainstream stars have invested themselves in such an experimental project. While that is not enough, it is still something worth celebrating.