Ayushmann Khurrana plays Ram Parmar, or RP, a kind-natured theatre actor who, while rushing home after work one night, notices a random stranger trying to kill himself. RP stops the fellow – a homeless, heartbroken chap named Mandar Lele (Kunal Roy Kapur) – then proceeds to straighten out the poor sap’s life, first by allowing him to crash at the home RP shares with his girlfriend, then by reuniting him with his ex, ditzy florist Nandini (Pooja Salvi). But as often tends to happen in such films, RP ends up falling for Nandini too.
Based on the 2003 French film Apres Vous, set in a Parisian restaurant, Nautanki Saala stages its comedy against the backdrop of a long-running play. Although intended as a farce, the film is never as outrageous as it needs to be, settling instead for the kind of inoffensive silliness that’s often plain boring. RP’s attempts to break up Nandini and her new lover come off as infantile, and his unwavering commitment to help Mandar is puzzling after a point.
The film works best in its most zany moments, like the portion where RP mimes words and phrases discreetly to help Mandar get through an acting audition. Or an earlier scene where RP must read Mandar’s suicide note to his cataract-afflicted grandmother, changing the words as he goes to make it more upbeat. There are some nice supporting characters too, who pop up occasionally to deliver a few laughs. Like the effete producer of RP’s play, who is at his wit’s end with Mandar during his audition, yet agrees to cast him when RP offers a sweet trade-off. Even the Malayali hospital receptionist who needs an interpreter to unscramble her rushed instructions.
But alas such genuinely inventive bits are few and far between in this muddled film that becomes a sentimental love triangle midway. What sucks the soul out of Nautanki Saala is the unfathomable casting of the vapid female lead. Newcomer Pooja Salvi is about as expressive as a sack of grains. She contributes little here, beyond batting her eyelids while seesawing from one man to another.
Ayushmann Khurrana carries forward his confidence from Vicky Donor, yet he’s exasperatingly over-animated and too slick for a character that needed to ooze a naïve sincerity. It’s Kunal Roy Kapoor as the slobbering, sloppy man-child Mandar, who wins your heart with his nicely understated performance.
Like previous films directed by Sippy, Nautanki Saala has a winning soundtrack, and unfolds across real locations in South Mumbai, a part of the city rarely seen in our movies. Still, they contribute little to the film’s slight, over-stretched premise, and the portions at the theatre are needlessly long and not particularly funny.
I’m going with two out of five for Nautanki Saala. Sippy never brings the lightness of touch needed to pull off this kind of film. Like the title suggests, it’s all empty theatrics. And wait, the film also has the unique distinction of capturing one of the longest on-screen smooches in a long time…shot in such excruciating close-up that you might throw up your lunch.