Bangistan’s simplistic take on religious tolerance and racial profiling is shallow and boring, and the movie is unwilling to commit to an identity. Is it a comedy? A satire? A serious commentary on social issues? Even the lead actors seem to be performing in two different films.
Satire would seem to be the obvious choice given Bangistan‘s plot, but it’s not presented with enough cleverness to count as such. With an international forum on religious tolerance on the horizon, radical Hindu and Muslim sects who profit from the enmity between the religions are in panic mode. Separately, each sect chooses a devotee to pose as the member of the rival religion and set off a suicide bomb at the conference, derailing peace plans.
The Muslim man chosen to pose as a Hindu is Hafeez (Riteish Deshmukh), a disgruntled call center employee who’s sick of the people he calls assuming he’s a terrorist as soon as they hear his name. His unknowing Hindu counterpart is Praveen (Pulkit Samrat), a struggling actor and true believer in his guru’s cause.
Both men train to impersonate someone of the other religion. Hafeez learns yoga, and vegetarian Praveen eats chicken. They both note passages urging non-violence in the religious texts they study, but it doesn’t make them question their assignments.
Hafeez and Praveen end up renting rooms in the same boarding house in Poland, where the conference is to be held. They become friends, there are misunderstandings, blah, blah, blah. The story is stale, and it unfolds at a tedious pace.
It’s hard to develop affection for the bumbling duo because it Deshmukh and Samrat seem like they are acting in different films. Deshmukh — by far the superior actor — plays Hafeez as cerebral and conflicted. Samrat’s Praveen is alternatively glib and fervent. He’s either completely unaware of his impending death, or martyrdom is the only the he wants in the whole world. Regardless, Samrat does everything at full volume.
International audiences may not get a whole lot out of the mistakes Hafeez and Praveen make in their impersonations. A bit in which Hafeez nearly ruins a funeral by suggesting a widow immolate herself along with her deceased husband only works if you’re aware of the ancient tradition (and the bit isn’t as funny as it could have been anyway).
The reductive approach the film takes to racial profiling is disappointing. In his disguise as the Muslim, Allahrakha Khan, Praveen is regularly asked if he’s a terrorist or if he has a bomb. Most bigotry is rarely so overt.
Writer-director Karan Anshuman botches instances of more subtle profiling, too. When the customs official at the airport in Poland flags every Muslim in line for extra inspection, she recognizes Hafeez’s fake name — Ishwarchand Sharma — as Hindu and lets him through. I can’t speak for Poland, but I doubt that most Americans would be able to make such a distinction. To most Americans, “Khan” is a bad guy from Star Trek, not a terrorist moniker.
At times, Bangistan is downright stupid. At one point, Hafeez and Praveen are caught in an explosion, and the movie cuts to various international news broadcasts reporting that two men died. This is supposed to prime the audience for an emotional reaction when Hafeez and Praveen stand up amidst the rubble, very much alive.
How did the news channels get their information before people at the scene? Did no one bother to check if the men were actually dead? Why would they report a story they didn’t verify? It’s stupid, cheap, and lazy, just like the rest of Bangistan.