It takes a special kind of skill to make intelligent nonsense. Bengal still celebrates the nonsensical rhymes of poet Sukumar Ray, even a century after they were written. Hrishikesh Mukherjee exploited this genre in classics like Khoobsurat (1980) and Jhoothi (1985). But most filmmakers will tell you that it’s difficult to make a self-aware nonsensical film. After all, not everyone is Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Exactly 20 years ago, Kamal Haasan released Chachi 420, the Hindi remake of his Tamil film Avvai Shanmughi which was in turn a remake of Robin Williams-starrer Mrs. Doubtfire.
It remains one of the most intelligent nonsensical films that Bollywood has produced.
Like in the original, the film sees Kamal Haasan pretending to be a woman so that he can be his daughter’s nanny.
However, Chachi 420 might be considered a good remake because of how it indianises the whole story. Even if it uses the trite tropes of mainstream Indian cinema, where the rich girl marries the poor boy, the conflict is efficiently staged in the film’s first 10 minutes. Jai Prakash Paswan (Kamal Haasan) is an assistant choregrapher in the movies, not very well off when compared to his industrialist father-in-law Durgaprasad Bhardwaj (Amrish Puri). Durgaprasad disapproves of Jai for his unstable job and his meat-eating ways in spite of being a Brahmin. He doesn’t miss an opportunity to say ‘I told you so’, when his daughter’s marriage ends in a divorce.
Chachi 420 works as an all-round ‘entertaining film’ because even as the plot twisted around to accommodate the insanely diverse skills of its lead actor, it has clearly-defined supporting parts. And they’re played by a brilliant ensemble of actors – Tabu, Amrish Puri, Om Puri, Paresh Rawal, Ayesha Jhulka, Nasser, the brilliant Johnny Walker in what would be his last role, and Baby Sana (who grew up to become Fatima Sana Sheikh from Dangal). Each character is so well-acted, that two decades after the film’s release it becomes impossible to imagine anyone else apart from Om Puri as P.A Banwari Lal or the Maharashtrian landlord Hari Bhai played to perfection by Paresh Rawal.
Because the film revolves around a ‘Bollywood choreographer’, the movie exploits many meta-filmy references. The gag where Jai is applying for the nanny’s job from a PCO and he needs to give her a name, is pure genius. Scrambling to put together a name for himself, he first says ‘BEST’ reading from a bus passing by and then sees an advertising hoarding of ‘Lux’ adding a ‘Mi’ and figuring out his first name ‘Laxmi’. But then Laxmi what? He reads out another Makar Sankranti hoarding and comes up with ‘Godbole’ – adding Kitna achha naam hai as an after-thought. These little touches prove Haasan’s mettle as an actor. When Hari Bhai gets a rose from Laxmi, we hear the flute which Jai deems as woh background music hai, usko jaane dijiye.
The film’s bizarre premise required a score to complement it. And in stepped Vishal Bhardwaj (only a musician then) as he scored brilliant songs with rich, zany lyrics (by Gulzar) like Dauda dauda bhaaga bhaaga sa, Chupadi chupadi chachi or even Jaago gori – making it a fine melange of mainstream Bollywood music with western orchestration.
Haasan doesn’t miss a single beat in this one, rolling out one gag after another. Whether it is the running joke about Banwari and his brand-new cellular phone, or juggling her three different different husbands, Haasan ensures that his character is relatable even in the most ridiculous sequences. But the film wouldn’t be what it is, if it were only a series of gags. Chachi 420 is after all the story of a father’s yearning to spend time with his daughter. And the great lengths he would go to make that happen.
Jai is directing his life on screen, the same way Kamal Haasan manages to weave the film’s chaotic subplots into one ‘happy ending’. That’s what makes Chachi 420 such a memorable film, even after 2 decades.