Con movies are fun. Watching a likable, charismatic hero pull off a big, bold heist is simply satisfying. The characters don't even need to have the moral high ground for a movie to be fun and loveable - Bunty aur Babli are no Robin Hoods but one can't help rooting for them every step of the way. And when the con is for a morally good cause - like the fast one pulled in Bluffmaster to teach the hero the error of his ways - it can be even easier to get behind.
Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl is a movie of this type - four women band together to out-con a con man who has taken three of them for a ride. The women are clearly on the side of justice, even if their extralegal methods are somewhat unconventional, and this, plus some sparkling and lively performances, makes them very sympathetic. Their target (Ranveer Singh), who goes by many names - they mostly refer to him as Bloody Kamina, or BK - is, in contrast, hardly sympathetic at all. He has a handsome smile but otherwise a smarmy, slimy air; knowing what he's made of makes it hard to dredge up any concern for him at all.
And that, unfortunately, undermines the central twist of the film. Ishika (Anushka Sharma), the talented, ruthless salesgirl that BK's three victims hire to put the con on him, supposedly falls in love with BK, and he with her. It's a nice idea, but it is the weakest aspect of the movie. After their cracklingly effective chemistry in Band baaja baaraat - one that earned an absolutely breathless gushing review from me - here Anushka Sharma and Ranveer Singh fall a bit flat. Part of the reason is that the movie does not spend as much time laying a foundation for their connection as Band baaja baaraat did; in that movie, the relationship between their characters was central to every aspect of the film, while here it is considerably more incidental. But worse than that, there is nothing substantive for Ishika and BK to build a relationship upon. Each has lied about who they are; each plays a role in hopes of fooling the other. On what basis do they fall in love? Only because the script says so, and this is the most unsatisfying kind of film romance. As good as they were with the strongly scripted character arcs of Band baaja baaraat, Anushka and Ranveer do not seem up to the task of filling in the holes here.
There is more mild dissatisfaction in the movie's resolution. Although BK earns his redemption, he does so by getting the better of the women. So instead of triumph, the women - who have already suffered quite a bit at BK's hands - are delivered a humiliating defeat. They do not cause BK's change of heart through their cleverness; rather, BK on his own does them the kindness of repaying what he conned from them. Despite the best efforts of these very smart, resourceful women, the man remains in control - and it is his volition, not theirs, that determines the ultimate outcome. I reluctantly admit that this didn't bother me much when I watched the movie; I went along fairly uncritically for the ride. But several people have since brought it to my attention, and it has become an irritation to my feminist sensibilities that, once perceived, cannot be unseen. It has soured this otherwise enjoyable movie in my memory.
Despite these weaknesses, though, Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl is entertaining to watch while it is happening, largely on the strength of the characterizations and performances of BK's three victims. These women are cleanly and consistently written, individual and each charming in her own way. The spearhead of the operation to beat BK at his own game is Raina (Dipannita Sharma), a resourceful and ambitious young executive who brings all her business skill and contacts to bear on her mission of revenge. It's satisfying to watch Raina channel her anger - and embarrassment - at having been conned, focusing it on a methodical, business-like approach to turning the tables on BK. And BK's most timid victim, the young Lucknowi widow Saira (Aditi Sharma), presents the most substantial character arc, as she grows in confidence and strength over the course of the film.
But Parineeti Chopra completely steals the show here in her debut role as BK's third young victim, Dimple. Dimple may be a bundle of Punjabi stereotypes - boisterous, crass, angry - but Parineeti brings her to life with a charming fearlessness. Cursing, yelling, sobbing, gobbling down snacks, frantic with immature jealousy over BK - whatever Parineeti does as Dimple she does with complete abandon. I thrill to see young female actors willing to throw their bodies into thoroughly unglamorous roles. Like Konkona Sen Sharma in Aaja nachle, or Parineeti's older cousin Priyanka Chopra in Barfi, Parineeti Chopra shows impressive readiness to sacrifice conventional sex appeal for the sake of embodying her character and telling a story. The result is a magnificently and thoroughly appealing (if unconventionally so) performance that shines on its own as a compelling reason to watch this movie. One has to look forward to what else this promising young actor can offer.