MUMBAI—The importance of film titles in this era, correction, any era, cannot be overstated. Deserving films have not even got openings because of titles that are (a) incomprehensible (b) not apt (c) say nothing about a film’s content and (d) mislead/misguide about the storyline. It plays a very crucial part in the face-value and allure of a film and can undo so much hype in one stroke.

In an era where music attracts (and is used as a valuable promo tool) only in one in 25 films, and when stars act in less than 25 percent of the total moves, the ‘christening’ of a film has a very big role to play.

This is the first blow “Firangi” suffers – most non-Hindi belts do not know that the word means “foreigner,” and since the trailer shows the film isn’t a comedy and is set 90 years ago, the negative impact is even more. How on earth will a sufficient audience come in the first place to spread what might be a positive word-of-mouth?

So will there be a positive word of mouth? Unfortunately, no is our answer even in this vital aspect. For one, the film is set in a period with which there is no relatable equation. For that to happen, we must have a decent biopic (“Rustom”), a story told with a tremendous passion (“Lagaan”), or a universal subject (Gadar: Ek Prem Katha”). This film lacks all these virtues, and that is blow number two!

Though there is the germ of a good story here (a love story intertwined with a wider story of a village being threatened by the combination of a shrewd foreigner and a money-crazy ‘rajah,’ as kings were called then, and the way they use the man in love as a scapegoat), the screenplay lacks grit and grip. It moves between the intense and the farcical at whim, and in the final analysis, gets very absurd as well as hackneyed. The bored audience (after 160 endless minutes, easily 45-50 more than warranted by the idea!) couldn’t care less if the rajah and his foreign accomplice get their just desserts or not.

Worse, the hero Manga (Kapil Sharma) is shown as generally spineless, driven more by his desire to marry his love Sargi (Ishita Dutta, who just married in real life days before this release!) than to do what is kosher and also in the interests of his nation. Indian film audiences have never “evolved” (if that IS the word) to accept a hero who is actually almost a zero. When his reel opponents in the village shower encomiums on him towards the end, it sounds like facile glorification!

Finally, the tenor of the film is so heavily Punjabi (which this time is thematically right, but adds to the lack of pan-Indian appeal) and the songs almost entirely in that language that the film loses whatever sheen it would have added if all things else were right. This might have worked as a Punjabi film, which we know is this director’s forte.

And as we notice in retrospect as an observation, it is only Tamil and Telugu directors who are skilled at crafting both their and Hindi cinema in a way that connects with both local and all-India audiences. ALL other regional filmmakers woefully fall short at this acumen of crossing the parochial barrier!

Briefly, this film is about the humble Manga aka Mangatram, a peasant who is jobless but has the skill of curing people’s back ailments with a single kick, which is a God’s gift. This gift earns him the job of an orderly with Britisher Mark Daniels (Edward Sonnenblick) who is in cahoots with the local king, Raja Veerender Singh (Kumud Mishra), to build a “sharaab ki factory” (brewery, we presume!) and so need a fertile land like the riverside village, which must be evacuated. The two use Manga’s innocence to help the villagers sign off the land when their drinks are spiked, they fall unconscious, and their thumbprints are obtained on a legal document!

Spirited Rajkumari (Princess) Shyamli (Monica Gill) is the sole child of the king and returns – Indian values intact but Indian accent gone! – from her educational stint at Oxford. When Daniels wants to marry her, the shrewd king makes him sign a deed where Daniels will only get 40 percent of the profits from the “factory.” But Shyamli detests the man and tells her father that she is “today’s girl” and learns from Manga what her father and his intended son-in-law have done. The deed has to be now stolen from the royal safe. And Shyamli and Manga hatch a (needlessly elaborate and rather ‘filmi’) plan to retrieve the document.

The music is a complete letdown and the background score barely better (both by Jatinder Shah). The cinematography (Navneet Misser) suitably gives a dated feel, but most of the sets (Raashid Rangrez) look too fake and plastic. Editor Omkar Nath Bhakri seems to be on holiday, confused by the overdose of material. He has no will to find the way to the film’s success!

Director Dhingra shows promise in spurts but does not seem to realize that the film is going awry. A small example: why did Manga have to run away with the legal document when the idea was just to destroy it? That gives rise to a needless chase that takes almost 10-15 minutes of time, and a contrived end with Gandhiji coming in—Amitabh Bachchan’s voiceover, done in good faith, is seemingly not enough for Dhingra, Sharma, and team!

Kapil Sharma’s transition to serious acting is laudable in intent and successful, but for some places where we can close our eyes and imagine him to be sounding just like when he is mock-serious on his shows. His expressions need to be worked upon, though he is quite extraordinary in the short party sequence where he is found weeping by Shyamli. If he has to experiment with more big-screen hero roles, he should first take intensive training in ‘tallafuz” (diction and all its nuances), junk his overt Punjabi tenor and act like any other Punjabi leading man in Hindi cinema by unlearning his regional attributes.

Ishita Dutta has nothing to do but use her big eyes to make coy, upset and happy expressions, but Monika Gill has a better-defined role and does reasonably well. Kumud Mishra shines, Rajesh Sharma as Sargi’s father is brilliant as usual, and Inaamulhaq is alright, heavily typecast in his acting. Vishal O. Sharma as the ‘pehelwan’ (wrestler) and the actress who plays Manga’s grandmother is very impressive and quite impressive respectively. But the film isn’t even remotely impressive.

Rating: **

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