Malayalam Reviews

Mera Naam Shaji Review: Nadirshah’s Comedy-Thriller Is An Awful Mess

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Director: Nadirshah

Cast: Nikhila Vimal, Asif Ali, Biju Menon, Baiju Santhosh, Ranjani Haridas, Sreenivasan

 

Nadirshah entered film making after making a robust career as a writer-singer of parody songs and as an organizer of stage shows involving film stars and mimicry artistes. His three directorials – Amar Akbar Anthony, Kattappanayile Hrithik Roshan and the latest, Mera Naam Shaji – are entertainers that exist in the same universe as his songs and comic skits. They proudly cater to the taste of an audience that liberally sanctions and celebrates political incorrectness. The films mock modernity, values that are deemed progressive, and more importantly, the concept of ‘depth’ in art and people. In Amar Akbar Anthony (2015), his directorial debut, a comedy set around a residential colony in Kochi, the villains are two men – an artist and a Bengali immigrant laborer – thus conforming to the middle-class’ deep-seated prejudices against shabbily dressed outsiders and thinkers. Kattappanayile Hrithik Roshan (2017) pretends to evoke sympathy for its dark-complexioned protagonist while what it actually does is join the mob in body-shaming the young man and his ambition to be a film star.

Mera Naam Shaji (2019) is an attempt at confusion comedy woven around three characters whose paths cross one day. Instead of a seamless narrative, the comedy-thriller has scenes that look like stand-alone skits are stacked up unevenly. Instead of good humour, we get crass jokes plagiarized from stale WhatsApp forwards and Facebook troll pages. A dark-complexioned comedian is cast in a passing scene where he is laughed at for his appearance and caste. Only that this time, the screenplay is too choppy to make any sense. The connections between the characters are feeble, and quite early into the film, the plot goes irretrievably haywire. The stereotypes and the crowd-pleasing techniques that saved the actor-singer-director’s previous films are awfully dysfunctional in Mera Naam Shaji.

The film is founded on the prevalence of the name ‘Shaji’ in Kerala. It is an indigenous name that means nothing. No religion, cast or creed can lay claim on it. Since its mundane and shallow, it’s also regarded plebeian. The three protagonists –all of them with the name Shaji – lead unexceptional, routine lives. One of them is a lowly thug who lives with an ever-bickering wife. The second one is an affable taxi driver who admins three WhatsApp groups in his free time. And the third one is an unemployed youngster with a broken heart that he tries to mend with booze every evening. The film pits them against a bunch of rich marine engineers and their wives who speak fluent English and party in luxurious resorts. The core of the film is this battle of classes – the straightforward poor and the morally decayed rich. In the climactic sequence, the thug delivers a spiel to the upper-class macho men on how to domesticate their women and lead a happy family life.

Nikhila Vimal, one of the most promising young actresses in the industry, gets a frivolous role to play, as a damsel in distress, the former lover of Shaji George (Asif Ali). She isn’t given a chance to speak much although most of the film’s second half involves the men’s efforts to save her from the hands of the villains. Instead of giving us snapshots from the time the youngsters were in love, thus establishing an emotional connect, the film treats us to a lazily conceived song where the lovers dance and sing with a bunch of backup dancers on a set, reducing their relationship to a circus of sorts. Ranjini Haridas, the television personality who faced the ugliest internet bullying a few years ago for speaking out against misogyny and living life the way she wanted to, plays a supporting role. Her character, a modern woman who smokes, drinks and speaks English-tinged Malayalam, is slapped and harassed for talking back to men, but it is not hard to see that it is to the actress’ real life persona the film attempts to draw the ire of the audience.

Biju Menon sleepwalks through a role that poses him no challenge. His thug is a shadow of the character he played in last year’s very hilarious Padayottam. Actor Baiju Santhosh, who has been hanging around in the film industry for the past three decades in minor roles, is one of the three protagonists here, taxi driver Shaji. It turns out casting him in the role was the only smart thing that Nadirshah did. Although this isn’t the best role he has done in the recent years (he was great even in passable comedies like Drama and Vikatakumaran), Baiju lends the character an interesting personality that the writing doesn’t mean. He effortlessly evokes the people we meet and forget on the road. The many phone calls he makes to his homemaker wife (Surabhi) from his car are delightful. The couple fight a lot, sometimes over a minor slip of tongue that he makes, yet reconcile in a fraction of second. The actors’ sensible performances make it possible to see the shine of friendship that they share.

*****

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