You’ve got to get yourself into a Bollywood headspace when settling in for “Dasvi,” an Abhishek Bachchan star vehicle about an ignorant Indian politician who goes to prison and sees the light — and gets his GED.
Be prepared for how handsome the lead is and how beautiful his co-stars are.
Brace yourself for subtitles. Whatever India’s relationship with English, much of the movie, like most of everyday discourse, is in Hindi.
Expect a couple of song and dance numbers, and a LOT of musical montages as our under-educated hero, a disgraced chief minister of his state, learns about the Hindi and English languages, math and chemistry and Indian history on his journey to enlightenment.
And count your blessings when considering that the typical Bollywood (style) musical never tells a simple story in the 75 minutes necessary when two to three hours, sometimes more, will do.
“Dasvi” is only two hours and five minutes long. Lightweight.
But even as it drags, as is inevitable in something so light that’s stretched out beyond reason, it manages clever touches, funny characters and witty exchanges as it imparts its lesson about the importance of education to a thoughtful, considered and compassionate life.
And Bachchan (“The Big Bull,””Husband Material”) is dashing, first scene to last in this journey from arrogant, caste-favored mustache-twirling villain-for-life to humbled man who learns from “gurus” — his fellow prison inmates — what an educated, cultured and qualified person needs to know to govern a gigantic, complex country like India.
Kickbacks, political favors, adoring crowds organized by his staff and travel in Mercedes SUV convoys are the life of Ganga Ram Chaudhary, the latest in a family of politicians to serve as chief minister in Harit Pradesh.
He’s never learned anything but how to grift the system and exercise his privilege, because that’s what “the chair,” his job, requires. “The Chair rules” is all he’s needed to know.
But a teacher recruitment/kickback scandal brings him down so abruptly you’d swear this movie would be over in an hour. Sure, he’s able to appoint his meek, known-nothing wife (Nimrat Kaur) to his job before he’s hauled off. No, he won’t bow to enter the tiny door to the prison where he’s to serve his sentence.
“I never bow! I would rather lose my head than bow” to enter prison.
But once inside, his special treatment includes delivered meals and a private room with an office, computer and phone. He just might be able to run his political empire from there.
Only meek little Bimla develops a taste for power herself. Once she stops sleeping through legislative sessions, that is.
And the new prison superintendent (Yami Gautam) is all over Chaudhary, and the sycophantic warden (Manu Rishi Chadha) whom the disgraced politico appointed to that job. His privileges end, and it takes a good while — and a song and dance or two — for him to figure out a way out that doesn’t involve feigning illness or bribes.
“Dasvi” — the title translates to “tenth,” which might be Chaudhary’s place in the family succession, or any number of others things as it is not explained — is most impressive in the long sequence of study sessions where our anti-hero learns about his country’s history, literally dreaming he’s intervening in this incident or that one involving Gandhi or other major figures on India’s 20th century history.
His gurus — the dwarf inmate named Ghanti (“Bell,” played by Arun Kushwah) and the prison librarian, nicknamed (say it aloud) Rai Bareli (Danish Husain) among them — are engaging characters who could have used a few more scenes.
Instead, the film sets up the wife’s political treachery (sabotaging his education for political gain) and the superintendent’s obvious chemistry with this “problem” inmate, who may be doing this GED thing as just a stunt to get out of prison labor.
Given the sort of upbeat, frothy and chaste samosa Tushar Jalota’s debut feature is, that “chemistry” plays as a non-starter.
Bachchan is good enough in the lead — charismatic, blustery, aloof and when need be, funny — that many of those shortcomings don’t matter.
It’s not classic “Bollywood” and never more than simply on a par with much of the comic film fare coming out of India these days — pleasant, but kind of bland, jaunty but meandering, lacking the pace and the edge to set itself apart from the rest.
But it’s just like Netflix to finance something India would formerly have had to travel to a cinema to see, a light but socially conscious comedy with songs and dances to break up the civics lesson.
Cast: Abhishek Bachchan, Nimrat Kaur, Yami Gautam, Manu Rishi Chadha,
Danish Husain and Arun Kushwah
Credits: Directed by Tushar Jalota, scripted by Suresh Nair and Ritesh Shah. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:05