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Old Delhi normally gets a bad rap in movies, which like to contrast its grungy, tumble-down buildings and loose electric cables with the wealthier, more genteel New Delhi. Rajma Chawal, directed by the versatile Leena Yadav, is instead an undisguised love letter to the narrow alleys and friendly denizens of the old city and its busy market street Chandni Chowk. Starring Rishi Kapoor as an aging businessman who’s lost his money and two cool young actors as star-crossed lovers, it’s a very Indian rom-com whose broad comedy is amusing enough but ultimately a local flavor, like the dish of red kidney beans that gives the film its title.
Yadav began her career in television and entered the film world with two Bollywood titles, Shabd and Teen Patti, then made an unusual move into art house with her prize-winning 2015 drama Parched. With its bright colors and music, simple story and warm characters, Rajma Chawal is positioned somewhere on the edge of mainstream and aimed at younger viewers. It bowed at the Mumbai and London film festivals, and will be released on Netflix.
It’s unhappy moving day for Kabir (Anirudh Tanwar), a sad-eyed young musician who is still reeling from his beloved mother’s death. He detests his self-centered father (Kapoor) who is responsible, in Kabir’s view, for not taking her to a good hospital while there was still time. Now he’s being forced to move from their pleasant house on a leafy street to the slumlike Old Delhi, much against his will.
In reality, their new home is spacious and gracious with two servants. The neighbors include a colorful cast of supporting characters who form a tight-knit group of community support. To help the father communicate with his unresponsive son (Kabir won’t even friend him on Facebook), they set up a fake account in the name of the good-looking “Tara,” to whom Kabir starts pouring his heart out. Even as father and son sit at the dinner table, typing on their phones and apparently in separate worlds, they exchange feelings and ideas mediated by Tara. Obviously, this trick is going to backfire in dad’s face eventually.
In fact, Tara turns out to be the old account of the independent-minded hairdresser Seher (Amyra Dastur), who wears her own long hair in a razor cut on one side, with a bar code tattooed on her neck to indicate her rebellious modernity. She and Kabir meet face to face in a club where he’s singing with his new band, and it’s love at first sight. He has some tussles with her pesky ex-boyfriend, but there’s no doubt who’s going to win out.
As his gloom lifts, the film takes off. In a joyful song and dance sequence through the streets and squares of Old Delhi, bursting with color and life, Kabir finally sees the neighborhood through his mother’s eyes and falls in love with it.
The problem is dad, who has been paying the cash-strapped Seher to lead Kabir on, and now the honest-hearted girl has to make a painful decision that will take the rest of the film to unravel. Briefly stepping out of his comic role, Kapoor deepens his character in a really nasty scene in which he insults the woman who has brought so much happiness into his life and his son’s. This is too much for his good-hearted neighbors, who leave the house with a disdainful, “They don’t even have a TV, how can you expect them to have feelings.”
The highly professional tech work avails itself of international talent, with the ever-lively editing smoothly handled by Thom Noble (Witness, Thelma & Louise) and the joyous, colorful cinematography courtesy of Moulin Rouge! DP Donald McAlpine.
Production company: Saarthi Entertainment
Cast: Rishi Kapoor, Anirudh Tanwar, Amyra Dastur, Aparshakti Khurana, Harish Khanna
Director: Leena Yadav
Screenwriters: Vivek Anchalia, Manurishi Chadha, Leena Yadav
Producers: Gulab Singh Tanwar, Leena Yadav, Aseem Bajaj, Swati Shetty (Netflix)
Executive producers: Antara Banerjee, Naved Farooqui
Director of photography: Donald McAlpine
Production designer: Sonal Sawant
Costume designer: Ashima Belapurkar
Editor: Thom Noble
Music: Hitesh Sonik
Casting directors: Mahesh Balraj, Mandar Gosavi
World sales: Netflix
Venue: MAMI Mumbai Film Festival (Discovering India)
Running time:118 mins.
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