Dir. Raj Nidimoru, Krishna DK
Goodness knows I have little love for the man-child archetype. Hindi films of this decade are strewn with impulsive, indolent young men who won't even consider pointing themselves on a trajectory toward adulthood until some eye-rolling, exasperated, competent young woman inspires them to grow up. From Humpty Sharma to Vicky Donor, young men have been cavorting across screens singing Yeh jawani hai diwani and cooking up Luv-shuv tey Chicken Khurana. It's a well-worn narrative arc, at best, even when played out upon men who are forgivably young – we can't really expect early 20-ish types to know better, after all.
But Saif Ali Khan is too old for this archetype, isn't he? A character he plays really should be over it by now. If childish hedonism is irritating in a man of twenty-something, it ought to be unbearable in a man of forty-something. And yet Happy Ending pulls off something a little clever – it's better than it ought to be, given the space it occupies.
Happy Ending works best when it exposes the vulnerabilities of its man-child, Yudi (Khan), a one-time successful novelist. Yudi has squandered every royalty check and every advance from his publisher, and has not produced a follow-up to the bestseller that made him briefly famous. And he's blown through a series of girlfriends who ditch him when they discover his resistance to commitment. (In what must be some sort of invocation of Chetan Bhagat, we are told that Yudi had eight-and-a-half girlfriends in five-and-a-half years.) But he does these things not out of arrogance, but out of insecurity.
The film lays bare Yudi's insecurities in a number of ways. One employs the device of his weird alter ego, Yogi (also Saif Ali Khan, with a long unkempt scruff of hair and beard and a mouth full of junk food). Yogi appears at Yudi's lowest moments of self-doubt and calls Yudi out on his attempts at self-deception, revealing the truth about Yudi's fears. Another clue to what's really going on with Yudi is a stash of half-completed manuscripts, smartly revealed relatively late in the film. Yudi's failure to produce a second book is not, as he proudly claimed early in the film, a product of willful refusal to work when he can have much more fun partying away his earnings. Rather, it's a profound imposter syndrome, a deep fear of being outed as a talentless hack who got lucky with his first novel.
Happy Ending addresses these insecurities by setting Yudi to work writing a romantic script for an aging Bollywood star, Armaan (Govinda, hilarious but underused). The script that Yudi writes becomes the meta-structure for the main story of Happy Ending itself, which is a straightforward romance between Yudi and another author, Aanchal (Ileana D'Cruz), and the act of falling in love and pursuing it is also the act that allows Yudi to finally finish a piece of writing. But what Aanchal teaches Yudi doesn't come in the standard format of a dour, mature girl lecturing a gadabout man-child until he tames himself for her sake. Aanchal throws Yudi's resistance to commitment right back into his face. She, too, is opposed to love and commitment; she cynically writes hit romance novels and scoffs with contempt at her own audience for lapping them up. And when Yudi finds, to his surprise, that he wants to advance the relationship with her, she gives him the same stiff-arming and euphemizing (“we can still be friends”) that he has given to his girlfriends throughout the movie.
Happy Ending's meta-narrative and twisty take on conventional romance stories is not without flaws. Wallowing in immaturity with Yudi is his best friend Montu (Ranvir Shorey), married to a shrill termagant who meets every hateful cliché of the old life-ruining ball-and-chain a movie wife can meet. This is unnecessary, and not funny. The film's attempt to balance this perspective of adult life as enslaved misery comes in the form of Divya (Preity Zinta), an ex-girlfriend of Yudi's, now a mother of three, who shows him a more nuanced view of the tradeoffs of growing up. But there is not enough of Divya to make up for the ham-handed use of Montu's horrible wife. Another serious wrong note comes toward the end, when a more recent ex-girlfriend, Vishakha (Kalki Koechlin), resurfaces to kick off a lengthy detour that could have been omitted entirely; the sequence serves not only to delay the inevitable climax of the story, but worse, to demote Vishalkha from a sympathetic if utterly annoying and delusional person (hilariously rendered by Koechlin) to another horrid misogynist stereotype, that of the woman who “traps” an unwitting innocent man with a pregnancy.
These missteps are frustrating because what is smart about Happy Ending has so much potential. But the movie does remain watchable and entertaining despite the clunkers, on the strength of the charm and likability of its principals, and the relatableness of their shared fear of making themselves vulnerable, whether by exposing their real work to the reading public or by exposing their hearts to love. Toss in a Govinda dance (what movie isn't improved by a Govinda dance?) and the result is a romantic comedy – a “romedy,” as Armaan would say - that isn't a half bad way to spend a chilly afternoon.