Early on in “Phas Gaye Re Obama”, a bumbling gangster in Northern India explains just how hard recession has hit the local kidnapping business. His henchmen, he complains, can’t afford to buy bullets for their revolvers, or petrol for their jeeps; even the outgoing-calls facility on their mobile phones has been disbarred.

This deliciously smart comedy from writer-director Subhash Kapoor stars Rajat Kapoor as Om Shastri, a desperate NRI from America, who must sell off his ancestral village property so he can save his home in New Jersey from being repossessed by the bank. Within days of arriving in the village, however, he is kidnapped by local crime-pin Bhaisaab (played by the excellent Sanjay Mishra), who dreams of a fat ransom in exchange for the NRI’s release. When Shastri reveals that he’s lost everything in the recent financial meltdown, Bhaisaab’s dreams are crushed. That is until Shastri himself, along with Bhaisaab’s trusted right-hand man Anni (played by Oye Lucky Lucky Oye’s Manu Rishi), comes up with a shrewd new plan that will make both the kidnapper and the victim richer by several lakhs.

Constructed from a terrific script that’s strong on plot and packed with crackling dialogue, “Phas Gaye Re Obama” is consistently engaging. Shastri plots his own ‘sale’ from one wisened gangster to the next unsuspecting crook, in what becomes a chain of hilarious cons. Along the way we’re introduced to a string of quirky, original characters that add colour to this palette.

Neha Dhupia stars as Munni, a dreaded don who despises men, and who’s dubbed herself the female Gabbar Singh. She surrounds herself by an army of tough-looking henchwomen with names like Kareena, Deepika, Madhuri, Rani and Preity, and spends her free time chipping away at male statues. Amole Gupte plays a permanently constipated minister who runs a professionally managed kidnapping-and-extortion company, where you’re provided with a receipt on payment of the ransom, and a one-year guarantee against a repeat abduction.

But the star of the film is Manu Rishi, who brings just the perfect degree of naïvete to his role of a gangster’s moderately-educated sidekick yearning for a better life. His character, Anni has his heart set on moving to America, and insists he’s got what it takes – he’s watched reruns of Obama’s famous “Yes we can!” speech repeatedly, he’s taking English lessons at a local coaching class, and he hasn’t missed a single one of Sylvester Stallone’s greatest action hits.

“Phas Gaye Re Obama” is unpredictable and surprisingly relevant, even if the film’s title (which seems to squarely blame the US President for the recent global recession) is a bit of a stretch. Cleverly written and sharply cast, it’s a film that delivers hearty laughs.

I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for writer-director Subhash Kapoor’s “Phas Gaye Re Obama”. Don’t miss it. It’s one of those rare Hindi films that’s funny and smart at the same time!

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