हँसी तो फँसी
Dir. Vinil Mathew
Before I launch into gushing praise for Parineeti Chopra - and believe me, I am fully sold on this fearless, appealing young actor - there is something else that needs to be said about Hasee toh phasee ("she smiled, so she's snared").
I would wager that when Sidharth Malhotra was a boy, he wanted to be Shah Rukh Khan when he grew up. He clearly studied him hard, practiced the moves, executes them faithfully during song sequences. He has the tight-lipped dimple-forcing smile down cold. He can reproduce that playful arch-the-eyebrow, bobble-the-head swoony smile when dancing with a pretty girl. He arches his back and flings his arms at just the right angle. But there is a crucial difference between his Nikhil in Hasee toh phasee and Khan's romantic heroes: Nikhil is a nice guy. Not a smarmy, arrogant jerk with an alleged heart of gold. Not a stalker or a deceiver, not full of himself, not dripping with confidence that all he has to do is stand there and wait while the girl-du-jour runs trembling into his arms. Nikhil is just a genuinely sweet fellow trying hard to do the right thing.
Nikhil is different from many more recent romantic heroes, too. He is not a man-child in need of the taming influence of a more mature partner, like Ranbir Kapoor so often renders (e.g. Yeh jawaani hai deewani, Wake Up Sid). He is not sullen and too serious, waiting for a manic-pixie-dream-girl savior to teach him how to loosen up, like Shahid Kapoor in Jab We Met. Nikhil doesn't have all his stuff together - his business ventures are false starts that leave him begging for funding in increasingly bold ways - and he has an overdeveloped sense of loyalty that keeps him stuck to his fiancee Karishma (Adah Sharma), never responding in anger even when she says unconscionably cruel things to him. But Nikhil is unusually calm, genuine, and sweet for a filmi hero. You don't have to dig past any grating boys-will-be-boys personality traits to find the creamy center. That fact alone makes Hasee toh phasee refreshing and pleasant.
Enter Meeta (Parineeti Chopra), a socially inept, chemically altered, peculiarly intelligent woman, and indeed the unlikeliest filmi heroine. Meeta is damaged in a variety of ways, some more vaguely specified than others. She may have a history of drug abuse - the characters who make this assertion might not be the most reliable interpreters of her behavior - but at any rate she is, in the film's present, dependent upon a cocktail of antidepressants that she prescribes herself. Forgery, kleptomania, and financial shenanigans all appear on her resume, but Meeta is also evidently a brilliant, if unconventional, chemical engineer. This is sort of the character who, usually, is at best a comic sideplot, the heroine's weirdo college friend - but here, she is the lead.
She is also profoundly lonely. In exile from her family and her country for seven years, Meeta is starved for compassion. She has suffered verbal abuse that is so intense as to be hard to watch, shredded by an overbearing uncle while other family members look on; no one stands up for her (until finally someone does). These scenes exemplify the sneaky richness of Hasee toh phasee, the moments in which it conveys a great deal in a relatively subtle way. Though it only happens twice during the film, the non-response of Meeta's family members suggest that this uncle's verbal sledgehammer threatens all of them with some frequency, bullying them into silence. And it helps explain a little of Meeta's symptomized peculiarity.
In short, Meeta is a character with a whole lot going on. And Parineeti Chopra internalizes this many-tentacled beast of a backstory, rendering a performance that is vulnerable, sincere, and extremely appealing. Chopra throws herself into such unconventionally weird and likeable characters with great fearlessness, and it makes her an actor I want to see again and again. She showed it in Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl and shows it again here: a willingness to sacrifice glamor for the sake of telling a good story about a very interesting young woman.
Nikhil is all but overwhelmed by Meeta's weird intensity, compelled by compassion and affection to take care of her, offering her the friendship and sympathy she obviously craves without understanding that need herself. And likewise, Sidharth Malhotra is all but overwhelmed by Parineeti Chopra. Whether attributable to good direction or his instincts as an actor - it is hard to know which, in just his second film - Malhotra has the good sense to get out of Chopra's way, to let Meeta be the bigger personality. Malhotra gets first billing but Hasee toh phasee is Parineeti Chopra's movie.
And it is successful; often funny, often very touching, with just the right mixture of humor and yeh-shaadi-nahin-ho-sakti type melodrama. It is not without warts; Chopra's nervous tics might be a little overdone for some tastes, and the pace flags a little bit in the last third. The technobabble around Chopra's engineering project is a little silly, and Nikhil's quest for funds is perhaps not that well thought out. But these are, for me, small quibbles with a film that is a solid effort for first-time director Vinil Mathew. It advances the territory staked by the likes of Jab We Met and Band baaja baaraat, a satisfying exemplar of a newer breed of romance with substantive female leads and male leads displaying traits other than manic energy or unaccountable arrogance. I'm ready for more.