Expectations can be a burden, and “Happy New Year” is full of them: director Farah Khan and lead actor Shahrukh Khan (no relation) made two previous films, “Main Hoon Na” (2004) and “Om Shanti Om” (2007), which are somewhere between “very funny” and “classic of all time”, depending on who you ask, and there are a lot of people to ask, as both films were very popular. Not to mention the choreography of Farah who saved Shahrukh from falling off the roof of a train in “Dil Se”. For Western audiences unfamiliar with these titles, suffice it to say that the reunion of this duo of star directors is a big deal. And as if that weren’t enough, they have been developing “Happy New Year” to varying degrees for almost a decade now.
While there is a compelling argument that waiting for another “Om Shanti Om” or work of similar magnitude sets the bar unfairly high, even if you neutralize all factors, “Happy New Year” would be a surprisingly sloppy job. The idea is appealing, given the director’s immense skills as a choreographer and visual stylist and his skill at comedy. The son of a convicted thief assembles a team to exact revenge on the sinister tycoon who framed his father for stealing a set of priceless diamonds. To do so, the avengers must participate in a dance contest. The execution of this premise is extremely erratic; there are few films in memory that jump as radically between outrageously offensive comedy and totally disarming hilarity as this one.
It is this mercurial aspect of comedy that makes you hesitate before calling it openly homophobic or racist. There are gay panic gags from nasty straight men next to a clumsy but clearly affectionate normalization of gay desire. There are some really shocking moments of racism towards East Asians (including a “they all look alike” joke which, although scorned by another character on the screen, is still a “they all look alike” joke in 2014) next to a whole subplot where Shahrukh shows how progressive he is by being nice to a North Korean child.
Most of the first half of the film, up to the intermission, is a bit of a mess. The second half, with more dancing and the development of the plot of the robbery, is much more fun. The robberies are very well directed, a devouring absurdity in the spirit of “Ocean’s Eleven” or the remake and sequel of Shahrukh Khan’s “Don” that defies logic and even rational linearity throughout, and they are very amusing. But it’s the dance sequences, with the costume design that melts the cerebral cortex, and Farah Khan’s choreography – not his best work, but even a slightly weird Farah Khan rises above the norm – that make the whole enterprise worthwhile.
The fact that the sum total of the company is “a bunch of movie stars having a little fun and dancing” should not entirely serve as a downgrading of the film. Abshishek Bachchan is surprisingly remarkable in his dual role as the bad guy’s son – with blue contact lenses and a hilariously accurate American accent – and the uncontrollable drunk that the good guys recruit because he is an impersonator. Bachchan, often a deadly stiff actor and dreadful dancer, looks here as if someone has opened his physical comic valve and gives his loosest and funniest performance in years, if ever. And as for his dancing, well, the fact is that the heroes here are bad dancers. Deepika Padukone’s role as the professional who’s supposed to get her in shape is pathetically small and undemanding; to hire a star of her caliber for such an undemanding role is excessive. But this is one of the main reasons why “Happy New Year” works: everyone in the movie is a star.
It is, to say the least, Shahrukh Khan who acts at the height of his powers. The fact that Padukone cites one of his best moments (a motivational speech he gave to the women’s field field hockey team he coached in “Chak De! India”) with the genders reversed before an angry response from SRK says a lot about the movie as a whole. This and other references to his past glories only underline how much of the film is on autopilot. But, as with the director, even the lower SRK is better than most. The difference is that there are many other movie stars who are much more involved in the same scenes than he is.
If “Happy New Year” is someone’s name