What happens when two masters of populist, allegorical, entertaining screenwriting and a gifted, creative, intellectual director put their heads together with the goal of creating a film that is over-the-top even compared to the most outrageous masala Hindi films have to offer? Mr. India is what happens. Screenwriters Salim-Javed and director Shekhar Kapur, with some intrepid help from a terrific cast, pulled out every stop in this all-out goofy entertainer. It's self-conscious, it's ridiculous, and it's riotous fun - but there's a patriotic moral, too.
Arun Verma (Anil Kapoor) is a musician with a cheerful disposition who looks after a houseful of adorable orphans. When his natural charm ceases to satisfy the shopkeepers and landlords from whom he wrangles rice and credit, he sets out to find himself a paying guest to supplement his income. He rents a room to a persnickety, child-hating reporter named Seema (Sridevi) and they proceed to get on one another's nerves. Soon Arun learns that his father, a scientist who died when Arun was a small boy, had been killed by some goons intent on stealing an invisibility formula the scientist had devised. Now the goons are back, at the behest of their despotic boss, Mogambo (Amrish Puri), and they want not only the invisibility formula but all of India to boot. Arun learns of the terrorist tactics of Mogambo's thugs, who use such nefarious tools as tainted food supplies and explosive-rigged toys to sow the seeds of fear in the populace, and he decides to use the invisibility formula to mete out justice against Mogambo's army of evildoers, transforming himself into Mr. India, the invisible avenger of the people.
The best parts of Mr. India are the moments that are crafted with no purpose other than to showcase the stars' first-class shtick. In one delightful sequence, for example, Sridevi launches into an extended Charlie Chaplin impression that highlights her talent for adorable physical comedy; in others, she flings her dangerous curves across the screen in both a comical dance sequence and a passionate one. Amrish Puri is at his bug-eyed, scene-chewingest best in every one of Mogambo's scenes, preening and strutting and ingeiously crafting a seemingly limitless number of ways to utter the villain's signature phrase, "Mogambo khush hua." ("Mogambo is pleased.") These elements are brazenly, unabashedly entertaining in the manner in which Hindi films are particularly excellent; it is art without artifice. Even the big-hearted sweetness Anil Kapoor shows nurturing his passel of adorable orphans is calculated more to win the hearts of the audience than to support the story.
But for all its wanton crowd-pleasing, Mr. India is still a Salim-Javed film, and so the masala can be expected to be served up with an edge and with a generous side helping of social message. The former manifests in Salim-Javed's willingness to kill even some of their most loveable characters; the latter in Arun Verma's declaration, as the invisible force called Mr. India, of the power of the "aam hindustani," the ordinary Indian. The film's central message that larger-than-life forces of bloodshed and terror - represented by the larger-than-life Mogambo - can be stopped by the invisible yet undeniable power of the compassionate Indian citizen who looks out for the interests of his compatriots. Mogambo's critical error is to presume that Arun Verma loves his own life more than he loves his country; Arun's patriotism and his love for every citizen of India, is Mogambo's downfall. That's a heavy message indeed, that the commitment of the aam hindustani can defeat the devil himself; Mr. India works by lightening the load, delivering it in an outlandish and fun package.
Mr. India was my (long overdue) first Sridevi film, and for the record I absolutely can see what all the fuss is about. The three segments mentioned above - the Charlie Chaplin scene, the fantastic comedy number "Hawa Hawai," and the sensual song "Kaate nahin kate yeh din yeh raat" together represent a very nice sampling of her abilities. She is adorable and precise, thrillingly sexy and at the same time uproariously funny. It is Sridevi's misfortune that she reigned during a particularly bleak period of Hindi films, but I am nevertheless eager for more of her.