A mousey, easily bullied and naive small town girl buys her first car thanks to her first job in the Big City — translator and tour guide.
She gets scammed out of her Hyundai the day she picks it up.
The cops are no help, but a friendly stranger at the police station says “I know a guy…”
And that “guy,” a suave, mysterious and slippery criminal who cracks safes and aspires to a life in haute cuisine, calls himself “Artist.” He leads her on an odyssey through the Big City, to chop shops and organized beggar brigades, food stalls and slums, a quest that leads them both to a mobster who dotes on his fighting goat like its his own child.
Oh yes, there’s a winner of a screen comedy in “Chopsticks,” a Mumbai-set romp that never comes close to romping, but finds its caper comedy footing in a delightful third act.
Director/co-writer Sachin Yardi, who has done caper comedies before (“C Kkompany” never made it to the U.S.) can be accused of lapsing into “cutesy,” in the cloying music and a few of the situations. The real problem is the most elemental mistake in creating this comedy (for Netflix, in this case).
It’s an 85 minute movie trapped in a 100 minute film. It starts so slowly, lumbers through an hour of jokes that don’t translate, and even in its funnier, more brisk finale, could use a few more gags to make it sing.
So what I’m saying is, somebody snap up the remake rights. This should work, and can work better.
We meet Nirma (Mithila Palkar) beaming that “new car” smile.
Sure, she’s named “for a detergent.” She may be bullied at her job, translating for Chinese tourists as a guide working for the Taj Land’s End Hotel. And she’s small-town superstitious enough to wish the tiny Hyundai i10 had luckier numbers on the license plate.
But no worries. Get her guru’s sticker on the window, leave the plastic on the seats, pop in one of her self-actualization CDs — “”When s— happens in my life, I turn it into fertilizer!” — and as mom directs on the phone, she heads to Mahalakshmi Temple to pray, and maybe ask for a Hyundai blessing.
This is Mumbai, one of the most crowded places on Earth. Traffic is murder. She tries to park, entrusts an attendant to do it for her.
And he was no attendant.
One of the best reasons to hunt down foreign films is to get a taste of the culture, and comedies often do that best. We sample Indian bureaucracy and poverty (the Dharavi slums are must-see for Chinese tourists, where “Slumdog Millionaire,” and which Nirma tells her tourists (in Mandarin) that “is the only place in the world that makes more counterfeit goods than China!”
And everybody Nirma meets and tells her sad story to gives her that clucking, sad/mocking/understanding/affirming Indian head wobble.
Including the dashing crook squatting in an unfinished building with a mysteriously finished and fully-equipped kitchen. Veteran actor Abhay Deol has the matinee idol hair and the cool arrogance of a man in his element. He’s cooking when they meet, and mocking.
From “Couldn’t your parents find you a better name?” to asking if she studied English, demanding that she tell him the name of the fish she’s cooking, no, it’s “Salmon….the ‘l’ is silent…You should ask your school for a refund.”
But sure, he’ll help her find the car.
And along the way, he’ll pass along life lessons — about being confident, assertive, about not being naive enough to see that “everybody steals something,” and about how no matter how dire the situation she’s in, “There are always options.”
Artist cracks safes, picks locks and is pals with everybody who is anybody in the Mumbai underworld. But he’s seriously unhurried, and Nirma’s already been told she has three days, tops, to find her car before it’s re-sold out of town, or chopped for parts.
That’s a gripe about the movie, as well. There’s little urgency about it.
But great ideas and gags pop up, here and there. One of the city’s many impromptu street rallies, a traffic-killing parade, with music — no permits required — gives Artist the chance to show he’s too cool for school. He sidles up to a drummer, slips him a bribe.
Damned if the band doesn’t launch into the National Anthem. The dancing stops, and the marching. Every driver, cabbie, motorist and cop gets out of the car, stands at stock-still attention, and hears it out.
And when it finishes, the politician for whom this traffic jam parade is for follows tradition. “You can’t follow the National Anthem!” In America, we may play it at the beginning of ballgames, but apparently things work differently on the Subcontinent.
The villain who ends up with the car, the guy with the fighting goat (Vijay Raaz, menacingly funny) is a very humane mobster. He tortures a singer who owes him something by forcing him to run on a treadmill. And sing his favorite songs to him when he’s done.
And he takes it VERY personally if his chef has the temerity to serve lamb at a birthday party for the goat (named the Indian equivalent of “Armstrong,” even though nobody knows who Neil or Lance are).
Palkar’s in her 20s and looks about 15, which fits. She does well with Nirma Sahastrabuddhe’s character arc, from pushover to assertive. Remember, it wasn’t just John Wick’s dog that he lost. It was his car that got him worked up. People are like that, in Miami or in Mumbai.
Deol has a Brad Pitt swagger here, rolling his own smokes, at ease in any situation, unflappable even when things go off the rails, as they must. Artist is so cool that he keeps a photo of the extended family of India’s leading lock-makers on his wall.
“I feel we’re…connected!”
There’s a hand-held camera panicked chase (funny), a bit of heavy underlining of scenes with slogans written on cab windows –“Take Action, if you dare. If not, Endure.” Director Yardi isn’t subtle, but ladling in a song with “Death is inevitable” (like the rest of the film, in Hindi with English subtitles) as ironic counterpoint to a simulated “death” scene made me laugh.
I didn’t mind “Chopsticks” — the title is a play on the eating implement, and chop shops — which isn’t the same thing as a ringing endorsement. Finishing with a funny flourish helps. Call it a “near miss” comedy, with a bit of “better luck, more joked-up script, editing editing next time” written into Yardi’s contract.
Before making his next film, though, I’d suggest he get his agent to shop the remake rights around. Somebody could make this sing.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA
Cast: Mithila Palkar, Vijay Raaz, Abhay Deol with Sanjeev Kapoor
Credits: Directed by Sachin Yardi, script by Rahul Awate and Sachin Yardi. A Netlflix release.
Running time: 1:40