Motichoor Chaknachoor, directed by Debamitra Biswal, opens to a young girl in Bhopal, Annie (Athiya Shetty), who has only one ambition: to settle abroad. Annie – an anglicised version of “Anita” – wants to do so, because of peer pressure. Almost all her friends are in foreign lands, and she’s suffering from a severe case of FOMO. Annie has no other interests or inner-life; an arranged marriage is her only passport.
Pushpinder (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), on the other hand, is a 36-year-old man, who works in Dubai and has recently returned home for a break. He’s ageing and wants to settle down soon and, in his words, “any girl – just about anyone – would do.” In the film’s own characterisation, Annie is attractive, Pushpinder ugly; however, he’s literally where she wants to be. On top of it, they are neighbours. You can see where this is headed.
Over the last few years, dramas centred on small-town India have become a sub-genre of their own. These films usually have second-tier stars, are committed to realism, and play out as comedies. Motichoor Chaknachoor snugly fits into that mould. Since it’s a film set in a small town, so its characters are defined by a ‘quirk’: here they’re not fluent in English. So in the first few minutes, we hear a flurry of mispronunciations: “Internat”, “Kanada”, “Gila-mur”. The characters are unaware that the joke is on them.
Sometimes Biswal and co-screenwriter Meghvrat Singh Gurjar try too hard to make us laugh, making their characters inauthentic. At one point, a woman says “kandam” — a north-Indian slang for “problem” – while her neighbour hears it as “condom”. It plays out like a funny scene, but it has scant reasons to do so – the listener, from the same town and conversant with this lingo, would already know the word’s meaning. The ‘joke’, in such a case, is for us.
The filmmaker wants to talk to the audience while using his characters as a prop. Trust Bollywood filmmakers to exotify their own people and milieu. But perhaps it shouldn’t come as such a big surprise, because small-town India and its people are, for many Hindi filmmakers, still not real. They are always present to serve some function – their utility more important than them being people.
The above example, to be sure, isn’t a one-off case; there are several scenes where the ignorance of these – what’s that word? – “vernacs” are amped up for laughs. The film also goes after a stocky peripheral character – someone Pushpinder is about to marry – fat-shaming her relentlessly, in multiple scenes and multiple times in a single scene.
The film gathers some momentum and purpose when it gets to the crux of the story: Annie wooing Pushpinder, because he’s her escape ticket. Siddiqui – who has had an indifferent year, with some bizarre and staid roles – is an enjoyable presence. Pushpinder, defeated and dejected in matters of romance, is an oddly detached figure; Siddiqui plays him like a cool cat, a man who has figured out the punchline before the joke is over.
But the film’s secret trump card – and real surprise – is Shetty, who looks comfortable in her role, has a captivating screen presence, and has a great knack for comedy. The actors are also helped by clever dialogues, with a keen sense of wordplay (some unfortunate instances such as “kandam” and adulterated pronunciations aside).
Motichoor Chaknachoor, unsurprisingly, is funniest in this portion. But more than just funny, the film touches on the transactional nature of modern marriage and, indeed, romance. It’s quite clear that Annie does not love Pushpinder, that she’s just interested in Dubai. Pushpinder, too, only claims to love Annie; he hardly knows her.
For him, it doesn’t matter who she is, but what she is: a young, attractive woman – someone way out of his league. And yet, there they’re – holding hands, impressing each other – doing everything that comes with the ruse of love. This comedy, then, all of a sudden becomes cynical, even dark, and the makers could have taken it much further if only they were aware of the sporadic profundity of their own story.
Instead, the film devolves into a generic romantic drama with some predictable plot turns, plots holes, and customary clichés. But Motichoor Chaknachoor, even while slipping up, manages to remain funny. A film with an inherent light material should have challenged itself more – it is content to float when it should have plunged.