Director: Shree Narayan Singh
Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Shraddha Kapoor, Divyendu Sharma, Yami Gautam, Farida Jalal, Supriya Pilgaonkar, Atul Srivastava
Set against the backdrop of the picturesque hilly town of Tehri in Uttarakhand, Batti Gul Meter Chalu begins on a rather attention-grabbing note – with an archery competition in the dark, where the winner gets enough fuel to keep the neighbourhood community centre’s generator running for six months. If this unusual motivation behind winning the local competition does not sufficiently stir your curiosity, a few fused light bulbs later – added to the rampant town talk of electrical grid failures – let you have a sneak peek into what dominates the existence of the inhabitants. Acute power shortages, and ironically, inflated bills.
Amidst near-perpetual darkness engulfing the city and mostly nondescript lives of the locals, there is however, a trio that finds its joy and light in the idiosyncrasies of its ordinary existence. Sushil Kumar Pant (fondly addressed as SK by his friends, played by Shahid), Sundar Tripathi (Divyendu Sharma) and Lalita Nautiyal (Nauti) are childhood friends and thick as a bunch, despite their wildly different personalities.
SK is a crafty lawyer, who doesn’t mind breaking the law to make a buck, whereas Sundar, entrepreneur-in-the-making is the gentle one, and more of a straight shooter. Nauti, the feistiest of them all, is an aspiring fashion designer aiming for the stars, is outspoken and can easily be slotted into the stereotype reserved for Hindi film heroines, which, as the norm goes, hardly scores any brownie points for how the movie perceives women.
From sneaking out to their favorite adda and drinking till they drop, to chatting and joking about mundane, everyday stuff, the three friends find easy comfort and boundless platonic love in each other’s company. Until, Nauti wakes up one fine day to realize she is of marriageable age, and decides to navigate this new path by dating the boys in turns, for a week each. Needless to say, the arrangement to find the perfect “husband material” in this slipshod fashion is childish, to say the least. At its worst, it spells disaster and brings about the ruin of their years-long camaraderie. And eventually the narrative of BGMC.
Their predictable friction notwithstanding, the real backstory is that of faulty meters and extortionate bills, which, naïve and honest Sundar becomes a poster victim of. With a bill of a whopping 54 lakhs to pay, his printing press business practically comes to a standstill, and with no respite in sight due to a callous, insensitive system, Sundar is driven to the edge. Quite literally.
This medley of events doesn’t quite seem like a tremendous lot to carry, and yet, BGMC takes an arduous 1.5 hours to get to the core – time wasted in picking apart pointless nuances of the trio’s friendship, and squeezing in out-of-context song-and-dance routines on ludicrous lyrics such as, and I kid you not, When you getting Gold, Why go for Tamba. And of course, time spent in establishing and re-establishing the authenticity of the pahaadi/Garhwali setting, courtesy an excessive use of words like “bal” and “thehra”. After hammering the local dialect into our eardrums as a suffix to practically every sentence uttered by literally every character in the movie no less than twenty times within the first twenty minutes, I figured the makers could easily have titled the movie Batti Bal, Meter Thehra.
However, that is not the only exasperating bit about BGMC. The movie, which actually delves into the menace of power shortage, the role of corrupt private electricity companies and (as we come to see later) and the absolute inefficiency of the government in living up to the thousand and one promises made in recent years (cough, cough, “Acche din” subtly couched as “Badhiya din” in the movie), only in the second half, slips and trips ominously, much like the subject it deals with.
The second half follows almost the exact same graph as the director’s 2017 feature Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, with minor differences. In Toilet, what begins as a Prem Katha becomes a full-fledged documentary of social activism, replete with viral videos, protests and an ode to the government’s unfailing work towards improving and maintaining national hygiene. In BGMC, we are treated to the explosive effect of social media virality and innovative, eye-grabbing protests yet again (with people from over three states sending in fused light bulbs to the electricity provider’s office), however this time around, it is intended to be a mockery of the government’s failure in addressing a basic, fundamental right of the common man – access to electricity supply. Most denizens in the hinterlands of the country have to go without power supply for weeks and months on end, living crippled lives, despite the gazillion welfare schemes promised by the government – the fact that BGMC even attempts to broach the subject and make hard-hitting notes about the same is praiseworthy. However, a gauche execution of the same belittles even the best of the makers’ intentions, clumping it as trivial and farcical by the end.
For instance, during the second half which primarily deals with a courtroom drama, Shahid Kapoor as the common man’s representative – in a laudable turnaround from his cocky, crooked avatar in the first half – thinks nothing of shooting witty repartees and sexist jokes at the defence lawyer (Yami Gautam), possibly to diffuse the seriousness of the matter being dealt with. From body shaming Gulnaar (Yami’s character) to asking her out for coffee as an aside to their cross-examination, it is obvious the makers have left no stone unturned in playing to the gallery. And while it does draw cheap laughs from the spectators in the courtroom and the theater-going audience alike, it blatantly undermines the very message it so grandiosely wants to convey to the aam janta, thereby diluting the narrative of the movie further down.
Despite a weak script flagging off in places, the lead actors and the supporting cast do an earnest job in portraying their respective roles. Shahid as SK plays every bit the arrogant, witty, wicked chap in the first half quite effectively. From his deliberate swagger right in the opening scene, and his surefooted moves as he attempts to woo Nauti, to his greyer-than-grey shades with the friendship going haywire, he hits the right notes with each emotion. It is however, the ‘good boy SK with a change of heart’ version of Sushil the audience is bound to love, as he combines equal parts shrewdness, aggressiveness, empathy and a sense of justice to fight the villains. The collective cause Sushil goes on to represent makes him the hero, almost akin to David fighting Goliath, and will likely strike a chord with the masses. Special mention to his grasp over the pahaadi dialect (however infuriating the utterance of ‘bal’ and ‘thehra’ might be), his ability to shift gears and convey a different persona in the latter half, despite his basic character staying consistent.
Divyendu Sharma as Sundar plays the gentle, meek ordinary guy with much needed restraint, and manages to hold his own, despite Kapoor’s boisterous performance taking up a huge chunk of the screen time. Shraddha Kapoor is relatable as Nauti, but is relegated to the background post-interval and does no more than huff and puff in the guise of playing part-time social activist.
The most regrettable bit about BGMC though, is that it fails to utilize veteran talents such as Farida Jalal and Supriya Pilgaonkar, who are completely wasted in this venture. So is Sushmita Mukherjee, whose character as the judge has been dealt with quite irresponsibly in this venture – from discussing cricket amidst court proceedings to merely pursing her lips at SK’s outrageous conduct – she is made out to be a mere caricature. It is evidently intended for some easy laughs; unfortunately, Mukherjee is no Saurabh Shukla, who famously carried his role as the seemingly laidback but principled judge in both the instalments of Jolly LLB – with just the right degrees of sobriety and panache.
Yami Gautam’s performance as Advocate Gulnaar Rizwi? Well. Silence.
The cinematography is blotchy, and impresses in bits and pieces, and so is the music. With the exception of Atif Aslam’s Dekhte Dekhte, the composition is nothing to write home about. Add to these flaws, the movie clocks in 161 minutes of run time, which makes Batti Gul Meter Chalu look like a hapless bulb blinking on for dear life, testing reserves of your patience.
As you walk out of the theater, you feel neither indignant nor concerned about the common man’s plight. In short, meh.
(purely for a brave attempt at dealing with the crucial issue of power shortage, the lead actors’ performances and the occasional bouts of laughter)