Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani is the next step in the transformation of Bollywood slapstick comedies into an internationally-viable form of entertainment: it’s actually funny.
Ranbir Kapoor plays Prem, president of The Happy Club, a sort of fraternity that’s a pretext for Prem and his friends to goof around, funded by money gently extorted from their parents. The club’s mission is to make people happy and unite separated lovers, and the group occasionally acts on its mission statement.
It’s during one of the attempts to unite two lovers — by way of kidnapping — that Prem meets Jenny (Katrina Kaif), a pretty girl destined to become the love of his life. There are obstacles to their union, including the fact that jobless Prem isn’t prime marriage material, nor is he the only one trying to win her heart. Plus, he’s too petrified to tell Jenny how he feels about her.
Ranbir Kapoor is the reason APKGK succeeds. Had Prem been played by frequent Hindi comedy leads Akshay Kumar or Salman Khan (who has a cameo that acknowledges his real-life romance with Kaif), Prem would get his way by slapping any friends or enemies who object to his plans. Because Kumar and Khan have muscular physiques, directors feel the need to put those muscles to use, even when it’s not funny or appropriate.
Tall and lanky, Kapoor makes Prem relatable. He gets his way by outsmarting his opponents and convincing his friends to help him; he’s not a bully. When watching comedies starring Kumar or Khan, I often wonder why their on-screen pals stick around, since they get thrashed as much as the bad guys.
APKGK relies on well-written jokes instead of crude sound effects like flatulence or slide whistles (one of my least favorite Bollywood gimmicks). By keeping the effects to a minimum, it forces the actors to make the situation funny, rather than relying on an auditory cue to alert the audience when something is supposed to be funny.
The movie has two faults that plague modern Bollywood comedies. First, it doesn’t know when to end a joke. The climactic showdown with the requisite gangsters is twice as long as it should be. Seeing someone lifted up by a jet of steam can be funny the first time; by the fourth time, it’s boring.
APKGK‘s second problem is more troubling, especially for international audiences. During a scene in which Jenny is being pressured to marry a lout named Tony, the prospective groom’s father says to Jenny, in essence, “Either you marry Tony willingly, or he’ll take you to his bedroom and make you his wife.”
Whoa! When did this stop being a comedy? Surely, the filmmakers intended only for the scene to make it clear that Prem needs to rescue Jenny ASAP, but the statement is so disgusting and out of proportion that it stops the flow of the movie completely.
While I don’t think any topic is off-limits in comedy, rape references in comedies should at least acknowledge the immorality of the act. The threat of rape is used so casually in APKGK (as it also was in Wanted) that it almost comes across as a viable way of making women compliant. International movie-goers (like me) may wonder if such threats are considered acceptable in India.