One way or another

RATING >> *****

SERVANTS HAVE ALWAYS existed in Hindi films, usually hovering on the margins of texts that are not about them. The character of the loyal retainer, often also the family conscience (usually called Ramu Kaka and epitomised by the tremulous AK Hangal), occasionally got a fresh spin when played by a star at the height of his popularity — Rajesh Khanna in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Bawarchi (1972), Govinda in Hero No 1 (1997). Then there were the films of the 1980s New Wave, where the plight of the maid was often used to evoke comparison with the predicament of the mistress (Arth [1982], Kamla [1984]). But very rarely have we had a film in which servants are neither appendages, nor foils, nor incognito heroes. Barah Aana is that rare film.

Director Raja Menon places a driver, a watchman and a coffee shop waiter at the centre of the action, providing a belowstairs version of life in the metropolis that is sometimes acerbic, but never humourless. The script is slight, but manages to seem spare rather than sparse, lifted by some outstanding wry dialogue (“Man nahi lagega toh chhod denge,” says one character trying to persuade another to join his kidnapping venture) and highquality performances all round. Naseeruddin Shah, playing the polite but taciturn chauffeur to an insufferable socialite (the perfectly-cast Jayati Bhatia), gets a droll back story that partially helps explain his mysterious silence, but Arjun Mathur’s barista and Vijay Raaz’s watchman only have the present to work with — which makes their well-rounded portrayals all the more impressive. Mathur (last seen as Farhaan Akhtar’s earnest theatrewaala friend in Luck by Chance) puts in a charming turn as the young and ambitious waiter who’s sure he’s won the heart of regular firang customer (radiant Italian actress Violante Placido), while Raaz, who gets the greatest arc of transformation in the film, morphs brilliantly from hunched-up and mousy to swaggering and self-assured.

The slum where the three live appears somewhat staged, and there’s a Doordarshan-serial-like quality to the recurring drunken-conversations-by-the-sea and telephone shop interludes (which are not aided by Tannishtha Chatterjee’s underwritten and overplayed appearance as the flirtatious Rani). But Menon manages to preserve a lightness of touch that, in a film about the have-nots finally turning on the haves, is invaluable.a