I am often much harder on films that have tremendous potential and take a few missteps, than I am on films that aim lower and squarely hit the mark. There is something particularly maddening about a good film that you just feel could have been truly extraordinary if something about it had been handled just a little differently. I'm sorry to say that for me, Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year is one such film.
Harpreet Singh Bedi (Ranbir Kapoor), known to his friends as HP, has graduated - but just barely. He's not a terribly ambitious fellow but he does have a plan to make himself a good living: he's going to be a salesman, and he lands a position with AYS, a computer firm. Soon, though, HP sees the dark side of AYS, when he encounters a customer who expects a hefty kickback in exchange for signing a deal. HP questions this approach to business, angering his boss Nitin (Naveen Kaushik) and the company director Puri (Manish Chaudhary), who cut off his access to sales leads and turn his coworkers against him. Desperate to prove himself, HP hatches a scheme to work behind his AYS bosses' backs to provide better value and superior service to the customers that AYS fleeces and neglects. With the help of an unlikely alliance of AYS employees, HP launches the Rocket Sales Corporation - named for the paper airplanes that his disgruntled colleagues continuously toss at his desk - and takes AYS on in the field, all the while hoping he won't get caught back at the office.
The elephant in the room during Rocket Singh is that his plan is flagrantly illegal and unethical. Instead of leaving AYS and starting his own company, HP and his team work out of AYS offices, piggy-backing on AYS infrastructure like office space, telephone services, and supplies. HP may be outraged at the high rates that AYS charges its customers, but the only reason he can afford to dramatically undercut them is that he steals from them right and left. Without that pesky overhead, the real-world costs of doing business, HP gets to undersell AYS while using the company's own infrastructure to grab market share at AYS's expense. HP's righteous indignation at AYS's corruption is substantially eroded by his own unethical approach, and his unilateral pledge to pay back the costs of all these stolen services just isn't enough to shore up his moral high horse.
This flaw in HP's character might be chalked up to the naivete of youth; but, unfortunately, it damages an otherwise charming film and squanders Ranbir Kapoor's very believable performance. Ranbir Kapoor here harnesses a more restrained and believable version of the manic energy that bounced him around the screen in Saawariya, the only other film of his I've seen at this writing. The result is a character I very much wanted to root for; the story's interference with that sympathy was frustrating, bobbing up in my mind at inconvenient moments.
Even so, Rocket Singh is a very well-made film with some unusual strengths. The casting of lesser-known or unexpected actors (such as perennial masala villain Prem Chopra as HP's cuddly grandpa) helps to lend the film an immersive realism that is unusual in the land of Yash Raj; the characters (for the most part) are more individuals, and less totems or archetypes. AYS's office manager Koena (Gauhar Khan) - one of HP's partners in crime - is particularly delicious; a smart, ambitious woman without any romantic notes in her story arc, she is the sort of character who is a rare treat in the cinema of any country. Even the immature, horny technician Giri (D. Santosh) is rendered as something more loveable than a pure walking stereotype of the porn-ogling computer nerd.
The AYS sales office is a sort of slightly cuter version of Glengarry Glen Ross, embodying every cringe-inducing stereotype of the sales environment in all its extremes of competitiveness and cruelty. Sexism is present and prevalent, whether in Nitin's persistent refusal to grant Koena a much-deserved promotion, or in the resigned glances shot between Koena and the office's one female sales agent when Puri drops crude comments. Other prejudices are exposed as well, as when HP remarks to Koena that the others should not have underestimated "me the Sardar and you the item girl." In letting such issues be prevalent without letting them take over the story, Rocket Singh avoids becoming a heavy-handed message piece.
In short, Rocket Singh is flawed over all, but its shining moments are bright and frequent enough that it amply rewards watching, despite the missteps. I only wish it had been scripted with just a little bit more care - it could have been not just a cute afternoon's timepass, but instead something truly memorable.