Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Diljit Dosanjh, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Manoj Pahwa, Seema Pahwa, Annu Kapoor
Director: Abhishek Sharma
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
It is 1995. Bombay is on the cusp of becoming Mumbai. A 28-year-old Ghatkopar-born Sikh lad is looking for a bride. His search for a suitable girl is scuppered by a son-of-the-soil sleuth who snoops around, digs up dirt on him and puts paid to his marriage plans. The low blow triggers an unseemly game of one-upmanship between the two men, dragging their unsuspecting families into the long-drawn fracas.
That, in a nutshell, is what Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari, a capricious comedy directed by Abhishek Sharma (Tere Bin Laden, Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran, The Zoya Factor) is about. Despite two buoyant central performances from Manoj Bajpayee and Diljit Dosanjh, it falls way short of realising its full potential as a romantic comedy with genre-defying ambitions. Chucklesome? Mildly and sporadically. Hilarious? Not by a long chalk.
Rohan Shankar's screenplay, standing on the back of glib contrivances, rarely goes beyond referencing 1980s and 1990s Hindi films and television shows (Damini, Karamchand. Shrimaan Shrimati, et al) by way of period detailing.
To evoke an era before smartphones, flash drives and sting operations entered the lexicon and our lives, it throws in pager or two, a clunky tape recorder, a moped and a character who declares that the world is five years shy of the new millennium and takes note of the use of the word 'cool' to denote something other than just the temperature. And when did we last hear a wedding band play Meri pyaari beheniya banegi dulhaniya (Sachcha Jhutha, 1970) in a Hindi film?
The title may evoke the vastness of the solar system but the film does not come anywhere near piercing the stratosphere and soaring. Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari is a lightweight film that stays firmly anchored to a wholly middling foundation. When it isn't funny, it is dispiritingly puerile.
To return to the story, the younger guy is Suraj Singh Dhillon (Diljit Dosanjh). He runs a dairy products business that his father (Manoj Pahwa), a migrant from Moga, set up before his only son was born. His mother (Seema Pahwa) wants him to find a bride. He himself is in a bit of a hurry. He does not fancy wasting his youth among the buffaloes.
Wedding detective Madhu Mangal Rane (Manoj Bajpayee), an unmarried man who has taken it upon himself to expose all the bad boys out there, is the disruptor. He lives in a Girgaum chawl with his beautician-mother (Supriya Pilgaonkar), with whom he is constantly at loggerheads, a cynical uncle (Annu Kapoor) who doubles up as the sleuth's assistant, and younger sister Tulsi (Fatima Sana Shaikh), who has a secret life outside the confines of her conservative middle-class Marathi home.
Suraj believes that Tulsi is a "sundar, sanskari Bharatiya naari ka asli roop". He learns soon enough that his assumptions are way off the mark. When the girl, who has ambitions that put her on a collision course with her meddlesome elder brother, places all her cards on the table, she sparks another facetious turning point in the tale.
What Mangal and Suraj do to each other, and how and why, constitutes the substance of the film. If only the script had more acumen and acuity, Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari would have been what it aspires to be: a tongue-in-cheek take on the insider-outsider debate that has raged in Mumbai's political arena for decades.
The film is purported to be a tribute to a city that never sleeps but runs on dreams. However, the conversation about who belongs here and who doesn't is never more than peripheral to the plot. It is brought up only in passing and never with sufficient force.
By far the most interesting aspect of Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari is the playing off of Manoj Bajpayee against Diljit Dosanjh. In a movie that has the former in a key role, you do not expect his thunder to be stolen by another actor. Dosanjh comes tantalisingly close to pulling off the impossible.
The Punjabi actor-singer's controlled verve gives the film a degree of pleasant jauntiness. It is easy to warm up to the performance because of the bubbly nature of the role. Dosanjh adds appreciable warmth to it.
Fatima Sana Shaikh brings to her role an inner strength tempered with outer serenity, proving that she is an actress who clearly has it in her to step up her game in more demanding outings (we saw flashes of that in Netflix's Ludo).
Bajpayee's character is of a completely different timbre from that of Dosanjh's. It has multiple shades and moods. This isn't simply because he assumes several guises, including that of a woman who performs a religious ritual for her husband's health and well-being even as she gossips with another devotee in order to ferret out info about an about-to-wed man. His sleights are ever so subtle, a perfect foil to Dosanjh's far more straightforward and instantly winning act.
It is difficult for an actor to pass himself off as the son of an actress who, in real life, is in the same age bracket. While Supriya Pilgaonkar is delightful as the feisty matron whose beauty parlour shares space with Madhu Mangal's detective agency, there are times that the duet jars a touch. But the two actors are so good at what they do that, after a point, one stops being overly piqued by the discrepancy.
More than anything else in the dotty tit-for-tat caper film, it is the clash of two acting schools - or rather, of a school on one hand and a lack of it on the other - that is worth watching. The former is obviously represented by Bajpayee, the latter by Dosanjh. The roles and the approaches differ majorly but both hold their grounds, making for an intriguing spectacle. If only this had been a more substantial rom-com than it is, the two actors might have lifted the film out of its morass of ordinariness.
Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari is too focused on the clash of cultures and temperaments - Suraj is happy that he can read a comic book in two hours while the ambitious Tulsi Rane is an avid lover of Marathi theatre - to notice that it isn't really saying anything of true import. That is a pity. Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari would have been a significantly weightier deal had its intent been translated into action in a more meaningful and measured manner.