Director Vibhu Puri makes a promising debut with Hawaizaada (“Free Flying”, according to the English subtitles), a historical fantasy about an Indian inventor who built an airplane eight years before the Wright brothers.
Legend has it that, in 1895, an unmanned aircraft built by Shivkar Bapuji Talpade flew for several minutes, though scant evidence exists to prove the story. A note at the start of Hawaizaada clarifies that the film is not biographical, but merely inspired by Talpade.
The truth of the legend isn’t as important to Hawaizaada as what it represents: hope. England ruled India during Talpade’s lifetime, a fact that the movie suggests as a possible explanation for why so little information remains regarding his experiments. If the world learned that an Indian independently built a flying machine, the British could have no longer justified their occupation by claiming that Indians were uneducated primitives in need of their civilizing oversight.
Ayushmann Khurrana plays “Shivy” Talpade, the clever but aimless son of a well-to-do Mumbai family. When his father throws him out of the house, Shivy moves in with Shastry (Mithun Chakraborty), an eccentric inventor who looks like a bespectacled Mark Twain. Shastry makes Shivy his apprentice, and they start building an airplane.
Shastry’s home is a wonder. He lives aboard a beached ship, cluttered with Rube Goldberg machines and models of his various inventions. The models — and the plane he and Shivy eventually build — have a cool steampunk aesthetic. There are dozens of birdcages, housing the pigeons whose flight patterns he studies.
The houseboat is but one amazing set in a great-looking film. Every location is full of detail, whether it’s a bedroom full of mirrors or a simple village street. Puri — who served as an assistant director on Saawariya and The Blue Umbrella, two visually sumptuous films — stamps his vision on every scene, right down to the richly colored costumes.
In addition to Shivy’s disapproving father and some suspicious British officers, the other wrinkle in his life is Sitara (Pallavi Sharda), a dancing girl with whom Shivy has fallen in love. She’s realistic about the infeasibility of their relationship, given their difference in social standing. But Shivy is both a romantic and a reformer, ever hopeful that love can conquer all.
Khurrana and Sharda make a likeable pair, with her playing the film’s most grounded character. Some of the acting is occasionally hammy, with Chakraborty the main offender.
A number of helpful characters fill out the story, including Shivy’s nephew/sidekick, Narayan (the adorable Naman Jain), and his old band leader, Khan (Jameel Khan).
Some of Shivy’s most ardent cheerleaders are women. Not only does he have Sitara in his corner, but also his sister-in-law and the wife of a local lord. The women know that Shivy’s success would strike a blow against both the British and the wealthy Indian men aligned with them. A new era of change — heralded by an airplane’s flight — could mean more opportunities for women.
Hawaizaada has a packed soundtrack, with some great songs. “Dil-e-Nadaan,” sung by Khurrana, is a standout. But a few songs feel like filler, stretching out a movie that’s already longer than it needs to be.
International audience members may find one plot thread confusing. Shivy and Shastry take some of their clues on airplane design from the Vedas, and they occasionally quote scripture that isn’t translated in the English subtitles. It’s not vital in order to follow the plot, but one does feel a bit left out.
Go watch Hawaizaada. Not only is it an uplifting story, but it’s a chance to experience the work an emerging director with a distinct aesthetic point of view. I want to see what Vibhu Puri does next.