The Hindi phrase “Atithi Devo Bhava” translates as “A guest is a god,” meaning that one should treat guests with the utmost respect. That sounds fine until one realizes that “atithi” more precisely means an unexpected guest.
For most Americans, that conjures up memories of the time your mother-in-law dropped by on a Friday and declared she was staying the weekend, then complained because the sofa bed was lumpy, and because you didn’t have any grapefruit in the house while she was on an all-grapefruit diet. But that situation is hospitality for amateurs.
I know a married couple in Chicago who hosted both of their mothers — who only speak Turkish — in their one bedroom, one bathroom apartment. At the same time. For a month. That’s the kind of extreme hospitality Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge is about.
The movie (the title of which translates as “Guest, When Will You Leave?”) stars Ajay Devgan and Konkona Sen Sharma as Puneet and Munmun, a happily married couple with a six-year-old son. Puneet works as a screenwriter and Munmun as an architect. They live in a modern one-bedroom apartment in the city.
One day, Puneet’s uncle arrives at their apartment building unexpectedly. Puneet doesn’t remember this uncle, but admits that he could’ve forgotten him in the decade since he left his small village for the city. Uncle Lambodar (Paresh Rawal) explains how he’s related to Puneet’s deceased father, and the two get Uncle settled into the family apartment.
Uncle (which is how he’s primarily referred to in the movie) proceeds to turn the couple’s life upside down. Since he doesn’t understand what Puneet and Munmun do for a living, he assumes that they can wait on him hand and foot. He rattles off a list of six or seven dishes for Munmun to prepare for him, since he only wants a “light” dinner. He spends the rest of the night fouling the apartment with his chronic flatulence.
Uncle Lambodar isn’t an unlikeable boor. He’s a decent guy who’s simply clueless about what life is like outside of his village — not that he’d have a clue about how annoying Puneet and Munmun find him anyway. They do most of their grumbling behind closed doors, grimacing with every new demand Uncle makes. They yearn for Uncle to leave but are too polite to ask how long he plans to stay.
The veneer of politeness is what makes everything in Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge work. Devgan is at his funniest when holding a blank expression on his face, conveying contained rage to the audience and nothing in particular to Uncle Lambodar.
Likewise, Sharma’s best moment consists of her repeating an elaborate list of snacks and beverages Uncle expects her to prepare for him and his friends, as though she enjoys being treated like a servant.
But Rawal is the star of the movie. By underplaying the performance, he imbues Uncle Lambodar with humanity, rather than letting him exist as an irritating plot device. Lambodar is exactly the kind of person about whom people amend any complaints with the phrase, “…but he means well.”
Because this is the type of slapstick comedy that’s trendy in Hindi cinema at the moment, it contains its share of slapping. There are also the requisite goofy sound effects, including an elephant trumpet. But strong performances by actors with serious dramatic credentials elevate Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge above other movies in the genre.
Note: If the song “Jyoti Jalaile” sounds familiar, that’s because composer Vishal Bhardwaj adapted it from the song “Beedi” from his movie Omkara, turning a lusty bar tune into a devotional number. Like Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge, Omkara also stars Ajay Devgan and Konkona Sen Sharma and is co-written by Robin Bhatt.
*Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge‘s runtime is listed as 2 hrs. 35 min. Including previews, it’s really closer to 2 hrs. 5 min. — a more appropriate length for a comedy.