Fifteen years ago when the multi-hyphenate Priyadarshan’s Hulchul – adapted from the Malayalam film, Godfather – hit theatres, Bollywood’s idea of comedies involved a fair degree of sexism. The director’s immediate competition was David Dhawan, whose films at the time (Mujhse Shaadi Karogi, Partner) were littered with more than one doltish damsel-in-distress. One of the highest grossing movies of 2004 was Masti, a sex comedy that glorified adultery on the big screen. In comparison, Hulchul’s patriarchal, woman-hating Angar Chand (essayed with panache by the late Amrish Puri), seems tame.
Still, the movie follows suit with a premise that has an all-dude household hang a “women not allowed” sign outside their haveli, just incase the undertones of misogyny are jarringly clear. Yet, there was a dose of wholesomeness in the film, similar to what Priyadarshan brought in every comedy, that separated it from the others. Its primary contrivance of a group of men hating on women didn’t seem to be derived from a place of mockery as much as it felt like a reflection of social realities.
On the face of it, Hulchul is a sweet, rustic story of two young lovers, Jai (Akshaye Khanna) and Anjali (Kareena Kapoor) who belong to feuding families and try to convince them to make peace for the sake of their love. The plot itself has some truly underrated gags like Arbaaz Khan, Jackie Shroff and Amrish Puri discussing their version of incel theory, a sprightly performance from Arshad Warsi, and the classic Priyadarshan climax scene that had the entire cast embroiled in a rambunctious rumble at the shaadi ka mandap. It’s a classic Priyadarshan joint, replete with exaggerated tomfoolery, a generous dose of confusion, and affable protagonists; the sort of film that you find yourself warming up to, without really intending to.
Hulchulcame at a time when this brand of harmless Priyadarshan comedies were the talk of the town: After gaining credibility with the evergreen Hera Pheri, the director delivered a hit in Hungama just the previous year. In that sense, what modern Hindi comedies owe Priyadarshan is similar to what modern Hindi gangster films owe Ram Gopal Varma: a solid foundation, a blueprint of the average Indian moviegoer’s movie appetite. The director’s outings were synonymous with striking a peculiar balance between mass comedy and subtle social commentary, a quality that Rajkumar Hirani would polish and run with, in the coming years.
Take for instance, Bhagam Bhag and Malamaal Weekly, films where he offered a scathing insight into the struggles of the downtrodden while also throwing shade at the overtly affluent. There are things that you came to expect out of Priyadarshan comedies. His films boasted a recurring posse of performers like Paresh Rawal, Asrani, Rajpal Yadav, Om Puri, Manoj Joshi, and Johnny Lever, who would never fail to leave you in splits. More often than not, the trajectory of the protagonists were predictable: they were usually down-on-their-luck folks getting into sticky situations because of their own greed or short-sightedness. This is as true for Jai and Anjali in Hulchul as it is for Baburao, Raju, and Shyam in Hera Pheri.
But despite his formulaic approach, the sheer recall value of gags, dialogues, and moments that found the pulse of middle class comedy in Priyadarshan’s films are what sets them apart. One need not look further than Hera Pheri for proof of his impact on pop-culture. Such was the magnitude of the film’s cult that in the midst of forgetting a line in our fifth grade play, my classmate decided to do his best Baburao Apte impression instead of saying his line on stage. The cheers he got for uttering “Woh toh mast tel mein fry kar ke kha gaya’” was louder than any other reaction I’ve heard during any Peter Pan recital. There’s something to be said about the enduring ability of Hindi comedies (Hera Pheri, Malamaal Weekly, Bhool Bhulaiyaa) which existed in the pre-meme era of the Internet becoming the primary fodder for memes. Priyadarshan is one of the few directors (apart from Rajkumar Hirani) who has a monopoly on this: You remember a Priyadarshan film even today because its characters don’t let you forget them.
Yet like all trends, Priyadarshan’s rule over Hindi comedies came to an end, almost unremarkably when the director, who boasts of an illustrious three-decade-old career in Malayalam, Telugu, and Tamil cinema, tried his hand at a drama. The much hyped and equally jinxed Billu was received tepidly at the turn of the decade, arguably a solid evidence of how the director should have stuck to his guns.
A decade later, it’s exactly this school of thought that Priyadarshan – readying up for his Bollywood comeback (the director is making a sequel to Hungama) – seems intent on channelising. Talking at the ongoing International Film Festival in Goa, the director reflected back on his Hindi film career, confessing that he shifted to Bollywood primarily for entertainment. “I stopped making comedies in Malayalam films and went to Hindi films for glitz, glamour and money. I went only for entertainment to Bollywood. I don’t want to do any experiments in Hindi films,” he said. It’s perhaps perfect timing that this declaration coincides with news of the director reuniting with Akshay Kumar for a comedy film. Maybe today, Priyadarshan choosing not to experiment with his filmmaking might just end up being Bollywood’s biggest experiment.
This article was originally published on Arre
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