Nautanki Saala! is a mostly-great comedy that squanders the goodwill it builds in the first half for the sake of a melodramatic second half. All its good aspects aren’t enough to make up for an obligatory “happy ending” that feels forced and undeserved.
The story primarily takes place inside a theatrical production. RP (Ayushmann Khurrana) is the director and star of the fictitious play Ravaanleela, a re-imagining of a classic fable that repositions the story’s villain as the lead character. The theme of the play parallels RP’s own story, as his good intentions give way to felonious deeds.
On his way home from the theater one night, RP rescues a man, Mandar (Kunaal Roy Kapoor), who’s trying to hang himself. Rehabilitating sad, oafish Mandar becomes RP’s primary occupation, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend, Chitra (Gaelyn Mendonca), who’d like to be the focus of RP’s attention for a change.
Mandar makes slow but steady progress after RP casts him in the play in the role of Ram, the story’s traditional hero and the mortal enemy of RP’s character, Raavan. RP tracks down Mandar’s ex-girlfriend, Nandini (Pooja Salvi), in the hopes that she’ll finally take Mandar off his hands. He gets in over his head while breaking her out of her current relationship, accidentally becoming the object of her affections in the process.
When the story stays within the physical confines of the theater, Nautanki Saala! is hilarious. The vibrant sets and costumes add visual interest and a sense of whimsy, providing the ideal backdrop for the movie’s funniest scenes. Mandar’s audition for the role of Ram is the film’s high point. He stumbles through his lines while RP tries to convince the producer, Chandra (Sanjeev Bhatt), that hapless Mandar is really an artistic visionary, not an inept actor.
Khurrana and Kapoor are both terrific. Grim-faced Khurrana plays up RP’s growing frustration, banging his head against any flat surface when his plans repeatedly fall apart. Kapoor (who is almost unrecognizable from his role in Delhi Belly) gives Mandar just enough charm to make his bumbling endearing, rather than tedious.
The movie grinds to a halt when the action moves outside of the theater, which it does for most of the second half, as RP tries to get Nandini to consider reuniting with Mandar. RP’s scenes with Nandini aren’t particularly funny, and there’s no urgency to them once he starts falling for Nandini himself.
RP’s infatuation with Nandini is the movie’s real problem, because she’s a terrible match for him. Nandini admits that she’s desperate to be in a relationship with anyone, just so she won’t be alone. She’s gullible enough to fall for all of RP’s tricks. The fact that she was once in love with a dud like Mandar should automatically disqualify her as potential dating material.
Nandini’s only appealing qualities — such as they are — would seem to be her good looks and her eagerness to have sex with RP: something we know she’s already done with Mandar, and likely with her current boyfriend, the moronic cheater Loli (Rufy Khan).
RP is a successful, clever guy who already has a beautiful, live-in girlfriend with a hot body, so why would he confuse Nandini’s sexual overtures with true love? The fact that RP is willing to trade in Chitra for a woman who’s needy, dim, and has an established record of bad judgment regarding men diminishes him as a character. Once RP falls for Nandini, the movie becomes a tedious slog, culminating in a disappointing ending that isn’t as happy as the filmmakers think.