No Country For Satire

Not too long ago, small, sharp and witty takes on society, religion and politics like Peepli Live, Tere Bin Laden, Phas Gaye Re Obama and Jolly LLB burst upon the mainstream Hindi film scene within a space of a few years. The age of cheeky satires was well and truly thriving. Moreover, even audiences seemed to have been enjoying these largely irreverent takes on the environment and issues around them. People, in a way, had learned to laugh at themselves. 
Suddenly, however, they’ve seen enough. They’re tired of laughing at their own flaws, because there are only so many ways to make the same point over and over again. Most of the Indian satirical comedies that have released in the last few years have been repetitive, loud, slapstick-y, confused (drama or parody, or both?) and have been trying too hard. It’s not like there are not enough problems in the world to be cheeky about, it’s just that filmmakers seem to be running out of ways to do this. 
Let’s take a look at some of them in 2014 and 2015, and the reasons they didn’t quite hit home: 

Serial satire offender Pulkit Samrat – a.k.a Baby Salman – ends the film with an impassioned, over-the-top speech about corruption and abuse of power right to the faces of the perpetrators. There is truth in these words, albeit one that barely registers because of the 106 long minutes taken to reach this moment. Salman Khan had produced this 2014 disaster, one that reveled in self-referential inclusions like a dhaba with Wanted parathas and Dabangg daal, but the plot was too messy and amateur-ly executed to make an impact. A hat-tip to the best-of-them-all Jaane bhi do yaaron isn’t enough either to un-do the harm of the mandatory two-bumbling-reporters tale, and their journey through the murk of politics, ministers, money laundering, journalism in the capital. 
The penny was dropped at making Jaccky Bhagnani a 28-year old Prime Minister who takes over the post through ‘inheritance’ and a perverse representation of the rules of the constitution. When Bhagnani speaks about things like taxation bills, financial reforms and farming aid, it looks like a rich daddy’s kid mugging up clever terms to impress the owner of a toy store. The intentions may have been spunky and young, but there’s nothing striking about a kid with a live-in girlfriend taking over a country in the most superficial, teeny-bopper way possible.
It was the casting that saved this film from calling into pieces of clichéd messages. Parth Bhalerao, as the only kid who could see a noble ghost (Amitabh Bachchan), exceled and made this adventure far more than it would have looked on paper. The second half is preachy and reminiscent of a mix between Aarakshan and Baghban, and many other self-righteous vehicles out there, which almost results in a 160-minute cameo-peppered misfire. But eventually, this superstar vehicle, just like another one later on this list (PK), stands out ironically because of famous actors delivering relevant messages. 
A cash-strapped rural Muslim family owns a goat named Shahrukh (no relation) in a village. This creature becomes an icon, thanks to mischievous doings not dissimilar to the kind that led Paul The Octopus to global superstardom. Despite a solid setup, sound craft and an exemplary bunch of actors, this story heads nowhere. The satire is too consistent, and the same ignorance repeats itself in different ways. Inexplicably, there is no third act. It feels like the filmmakers had an idea, ran out of unconventional characters, and didn’t even bother to end on an ambiguous note. One couldn’t help but wait for the ‘End of Part 1’ slate at the end. Another Shahrukh film, wasted. 
Perhaps the closest satire to an all-out success, Filmistaan is a smart, layered and well-made take on cross-border rivalry and religion – starring actors that made more out of their characters than most others. As a character piece and a tribute to Bollywood and cinema in general, Filmistaan flies, but falls well short of the finish line due to an inexplicably out-of-tone dramatic last act. It could have worked as an untiring situational comedy without the heavy handedness of borders and all-out antagonists.
This Delhi-based social satire is tragic for the way it intersperses ghastly commercial indulgence with genuinely poignant moments. The story is constructed as a loud comedy of errors initially, and revolves around two sons who want to give their dead Gandhian father (Anupam Kher) the ultimate tribute, an official 21-gun salute. For this, they must crash the corrupt Chief Minister’s funeral and, well, you know the rest. Despite a few inspired monologues, there are too many parallel tracks, and too much noise in the beginning for this movie to even be considered as a genuine contender. 
One of the few relatively decent satires, Zed Plus balances topicality with wit, but ultimately, like many others, gets greedy and carried away with its idiosyncratic assortment of characters and situations. Adil Hussain carries it as the proverbial ordinary man stuck in an extraordinary situation, but is let down by a long, obvious and un-subtle third act that is as much of a crime as Filmistaan’s. At least, there was hope. 
I’m starting to notice a trend with the mainstream satirical films of Bollywood. PK has perhaps the maximum amount on its plate, and rides largely on Hirani’s observational intricacies and writing. On its own, an alien being controversy-bombed in India is a funny concept, and Hirani succeeds in getting all his messages across – once again, right till a messy end, that combines chance, drama, contrivances and commercial elements to almost destroy the witty, sharp scenes preceding it. In many ways, this film became what a large-budget OMG! Oh My God aspired to be, but had the same trappings as any other low-budget satire. 
Paresh Rawal appears in this one in a very interesting and perhaps the most relevant milieu in context of a political satire: Ahmedabad. He is a typical Gujarati businessman, and is wary of Muslims, until he is forced to learn their ways in order to justify a convoluted plot (he discovers he was adopted, and is not a Hindu). With Annu Kapoor as his Muslim counterpart, this satire again utilizes the fraud-godman device, and is funny only till it decides to get Bollywood-y and serious on us. The climax is forced, tacky and absurd, leaving a bitter taste in the mouth after a mainstream story that could have captivated with clear focus and better writing. 
Shockingly, this one comes from the dialogue-writer of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. A chicken wanders into No Man’s Land at the Indo-Pak border, and both armies send their cooks to claim this utterly unpatriotic bird. The media—headed by whom else but an anchor that demands answers for a nation—elevates this into a crisis that forces a motley parliamentary committee to assemble behind closed doors. If the film had concentrated more on the idiotic LOC soldiers, this film wouldn’t have become a winding, long, unfunny, painful and blabbering farce that the five-six senior actors of the committee make it. Virtually 80% concentrates on their inane discussions and choice of humor, with clichés about the media and politicians everywhere. Poor chicken, and poor soldiers, who eventually resort to alcohol, puns and songs. 
The sad part about this one is the fact that it resorts to slapstick, bad acting, Hirani-inspired righteous monologues and Pulkit Samrat to ruin a perfectly good and creative setting. It even creates a fictional country called Bangistan, and simplistically divides them into two religions – with both sending their own terrorists to disrupt a religious conference in Poland(?). The compromises made are too obvious, with random song-and-dance sequences thrown in to decorate Western frames. Riteish Deshmukh deserves better, and the writers mess up what could have probably been India’s first quirky terrorist comedy