1 Star (out of 4)
Buy the soundtrack at Amazon
One of the reasons I started reviewing Bollywood films was so that I could warn non-Hindi speakers and those without Indian cultural roots about movies that don’t translate well internationally. Banjo is one of those movies. Botched English subtitles and not enough context make Banjo confusing.
There are a number of problems with the subtitles. Dialogue spoken by off-camera characters — including the narrator — is frequently not subtitled at all. When it is, the subtitling is incomplete or improperly synchronized. Even the spoken English dialogue is sometimes written incorrectly in the subtitles, so who knows how well the Hindi dialogue is translated.
The missing subtitles are troublesome because Banjo is already terrible in regard to context. It’s often unclear why things are happening.
Let’s start with the film’s female lead, Chris (Nargis Fakhri). She’s an American musician or DJ — the subtitles and dialogue contradict each other — in need of two songs to submit to a music festival in New York. She gets an audio file from her friend, Mikey (Luke Kenny) — whose name is written as “Mickey” — of a band performing at a Ganesh Chaturthi festival, and she drops everything to fly to Mumbai and find them.
For reasons that aren’t made clear, it is apparently impossible for Mikey and Chris to find the band he recorded at the festival. I guess simply asking people in the neighborhood is not an option, which is unfortunate because literally everyone knows who they are.
The band is fronted by Taraat (Riteish Deshmukh), the group’s vocalist and banjo player. His day job is shaking down people for money at the behest of a local politician, Patil. The other three members of the band are drummers: a mechanic named Grease (Dharmesh Yelande in an embarrassing wig), a paperboy named Paper, and another guy named Vaja.
With zero leads, Chris is forced to turn to the slimy uncle of her New York friend Mira (Shruthi Mathur). The subtitles cut out right as Uncle gives Chris an assignment, but this is what I surmise the assignment to be: go to a particular slum and take unflattering photos of it, and Uncle will use the photos to have the place condemned so that a rich builder can demolish it and build a high-rise. I have no idea how much of that Uncle directly conveys to Chris, but she heads to the slum, camera in hand.
There, she’s introduced to Patil, who may or may not understand why she’s really there to take pictures. I’m not sure. The guide he assigns to show her around is Taraat.
Here’s where the film really falls on its ass. Writer-director Ravi Jadhav doesn’t explain why, but apparently it’s disreputable to be a banjo player (or one of his backup drummers). This is kind of important because Taraat lies to Chris when she asks if he knows any banjo players. All of the conflict in the first half is built around this lie, conveniently maintained by no one slipping up and outing Taraat by accident.
After watching the whole movie, I have no idea why it’s so bad to be a banjo player. Maybe Indian viewers understand, but it isn’t explained in the story. Without context, the central conflict of the first half of the film makes no sense.
Then again, the conflict in the second half of the film doesn’t make any sense either. The truth is revealed, and Chris forms a band with them…wait, what’s her role in the band? She sings a few lines, but she doesn’t seem to write the music, so why is Chris suddenly in charge?
Chris sucks because she can only see her predicament in terms of herself. She NEEDS a song for the festival, and Taraat and co. HAVE to help her! She can’t understand why these guys who live in a slum want to be paid for playing and don’t like working for exposure.
She’s also totally, totally uncool. I’ve seen better dancing at an Iowa wedding reception than Chris’s rigid, off-tempo bobbing. The movie’s single dumbest moment is when another musician filches one of her belongings. “He stole the plectrum,” she yells. You know what a plectrum is? It’s a freaking guitar pick. No one calls it a plectrum!
Nargis Fakhri is miscast as Chris. A better choice for a cool American would be Lisa Haydon. Besides Fakhri’s stiffness, her delivery is all wrong when she speaks in her native English. I can only imagine how bad she sounds in Hindi.
Riteish Deshmukh is much more fun to watch in dramatic roles than in the slapstick sidekick parts that pay his bills, but he deserves a better movie than this. Banjo doesn’t make enough sense to enjoyable, despite a decent soundtrack. Skip it.