Dir. Farah Khan
That extremely faint praise is a sign of how far the mighty can fall. Seven years ago I began my review of Om Shanti Om with the words "God bless Farah Khan." And though I misread Main Hoon Na the first time I saw it, it grew on me with rewatching. So it says something - and not something terribly flattering - that I went into Happy New Year with dire expectations indeed.
And in many respects, Happy New Year met those low expectations. The opening sequence is painful, an interminable, violent, and totally gratuitous fight sequence featuring Shah Rukh Khan, covered in mud and hosed down in extreme slow-mo. The introduction of Sonu Sood doubles the shirtless muscley-chest quotient, which I guess is okay if you are into that sort of thing. Sood's character has hearing damage, so his main contribution to the story is an endless and thoroughly unfunny string of misheard words. ("I'm Laila." "Kela? Oh I love bananas." Yes, really.) Abhishek Bachchan is as goofily cute as always, except for his character's bizarre trait: the ability to throw up on demand. (Who even thinks up such things?) And a good third of the movie goes by before the movie offers us anything resembling a woman, save the shrill, obnoxious elderly mother of Boman Irani's character.
The one female main character, when finally introduced, is Mohini (Deepika Padukone), brought on board to teach our band of misfits (the gentlemen listed above, plus the ever-adorable naif, Vivaan Shah, as a youthful hacker-nerd) to dance, so that they can enter a dance competition that will put them in proximity of a batch of diamonds they would like to steal for entirely noble and principled reasons. Mohini has some potential and Deepika Padukone is lovely and at times almost fierce. Yet when she's not teaching the team to dance, she's serving them tea (!) and sewing their costumes (!!). It seems she isn't hired just to be their dance teacher but also their mother and maidservant. But what really shoots the legs out from any personality Mohini might want to have is that she falls in love with Charlie (Shah Rukh Khan) only because he speaks English, and remains in love with him despite hearing him say awful, deplorable, degrading, and cruel things about her - not just once, but twice. For some who prattles on about "ijjat" as much as Mohini, she sure doesn't demand a lot of respect from the man she loves.
This is the problem with Happy New Year: The more I think, the more it crumbles. I am not usually an advocate of checking your brain at the door while watching Hindi films - you will miss a lot of richness if you do - but Happy New Year almost demands it. Despite its many weaknesses - the patently stupid plot points, the juvenile snickering at homosexuality, the almost complete neglect of female characters, and on and on - while it is happening, it is mostly watchable. Its full three-hour runtime went by pretty quickly, in a cinema full of laughing people. It's full of the kind of self-referential jokes with which Farah Khan loves to stuff her movies, and most of these are reasonably cute. The characters acknowledge the filmi nature of Abhishek's "double role" - he plays both a member of the team and the son of the chief bad guy, whom he impersonates, Don-style, at a key point in the heist. Mohini's introduction is a nod to Tezaab, coming in a nightclub full of fans chanting "Mohini! Mohini!" A brief appearance by Prabhu Deva also evokes classic Madhuri, as he reprises some moves from "Kay sera sera."
There are flashes of the smartness that was much more consistent in Main Hoon Na and Om Shanti Om. The very notion of a dance competition as the dramatic focus of a movie is pure throwback - think Disco Dancer and Hum Kisise Kum Nahin - that most filmmakers who are not Farah Khan would not even consider updating. And the smartest and funniest moment comes during that competition, when Mohini tries to pep-talk the team (at this stage Mohini isn't in on the heist plan) with an adaptation of the "sattar minute" speech from Chak de India, while Shah Rukh Khan rolls his eyes in winking exasperation. Somehow, in the moment, these signs of life make it possible to forgive the unutterably stupid (like a completely baffling scene in which the characters have a telepathic conversation in an elevator), the juvenile, even the offensive. Somehow, on balance, I smiled more than I groaned.