With Sparsh and Chashme buddoor, director Sai Paranjpe had already proved to me her great skill at presenting down-to-earth, real, sweet stories about believable characters, so I came to Katha ("fable") with high expectations. I was not disappointed.
Rajaram Purshottam Joshi (Naseeruddin Shah) lives in a chawl, a kind of boarding house common in Bombay. A hardworking office clerk, Rajaram is pleased when he is promoted to permanent status at his company, and looks forward to celebrating with his neighbor Sandhya (Deepti Naval), a charming girl with whom he is quite obviously smitten. Soon Rajaram's childhood friend Vashudev (Farooq Shaikh) - he prefers the hip nickname "Washu" - arrives, and casts a spell over all the residents of the chawl - including Sandhya. He even cons Rajaram's boss, landing himself a job as Rajaram's superior. Rajaram sees through his friend's slick-talking charm, but with his gentle demeanor he is powerless to stop the juggernaut that is Washu in pursuit of something - or someone - that amuses him.
Just as in Sparsh and Chashme buddoor, Sai Paranjpe shows her gentle touch in Katha, offering characters who are real, relatable, and engaging. In particular, just like Chashme buddoor, Katha offers adorable humor without outlandishness, real-life believable situations that make the audience laugh because it's not difficult to project them onto ourselves and our neighbors. The portrayal of life in the chawl is particularly charming and satisfying, and is itself a reason to see the movie for anyone interested in workaday Indian life. The chawl is a tight-knit community is like a small village or, as one character in the film analogizes, a great joint family, in which individuals and families live in small flats centered on a common courtyard and shared water and other utilities. There is a bitter barren woman who yells at children playing in the courtyard; a newlywed couple who rarely emerge from their rooms but whose giggles can be heard through the closed shutters; a disabled man who asks incessant favors from every visitor; a grandma who cooks yummy snacks for every young visitor she receives; a couple, whose son is a doctor in Canada, who love nothing more than to show off their richly appointed flat and their refrigerator and television; and more. Paranjpe paints the inhabitants of this microcosm with great vividness and affection, and their interactions are tremendous fun to watch.
The enjoyable bustle of the chawl forms a delightful backdrop for the interactions of the main players (they even serve as a Greek chorus of sorts, especially in the film's wonderful songs). The principals' performances are all executed without flaw, especially those of Naseeruddin Shah and Farooq Shaikh. Naseeruddin Shah is at his droopy, sad-sacky best; Rajaram wears his frustration physically as Washu runs circles around him, projecting a confused and adorable mixture of disdain and admiration for his friend's antics. And Farooq Shaikh nails Washu's puff-chested confidence to perfection. In Chashme buddoor, Farooq's character was charming in part because despite being marginally smarter and more competent than his friends, he was still mostly a dork. The same is true here, with a faintly sinister edge since Washu is, at base, a con-man. But the joke which Paranjpe lets the audience in on - a joke that escapes Washu - is that Washu is nothing more than a small-time con, not half the player he thinks is. For example, while Washu both cons and cuckolds Rajaram's boss, it's established early on that the boss is a weak target, not a very bright guy to begin with. The result is a sense of desperation and cheapness about Washu, as if he's conned his own low-watt self right along with the easy marks he chooses.
And so, as in the titular fable that provides the film's bookends - the story of the tortoise and the hare - Katha ends with the satisfying feeling that the wheel will turn and both Washu and Rajaram will get what they deserve from the universe. And we, the audience, get a warm, delightful, and utterly charming film, another very, very fine feather in Sai Paranjpe's cap.