Besharam begins with Bheem Singh Chandel (Javed Jaffrey), money launderer extraordinare, lecturing a novice politician on the ways of money laundering. “You put the money here,” he says, putting out his hand, pausing for effect. Hanging in the balance is the audience’s first impression of Abhinav Kashyap’s follow-up to the force of nature that was Dabangg. You almost expect drumroll before the pithy gem of dialogue that establishes him as the badass the scene is desperately trying to make him look like. “…and the money reaches Switzerland.”
That first moment falling flat sets the tone for much of Besharam. Kashyap’s basic approach in Dabangg — ’70s-inspired sensibilities and plenty of references to popular Bollywood tropes — continues in the film, but neither the writing nor Ranbir Kapoor’s performance take the film to anything resembling the heights that film reached, or for that matter, anything that is extraordinary in any way. Kashyap is quite adept at setting up great moments, but rarely follows through with anything of either style or substance.
It’s not as if the film is downright unwatchable. Compared to many of the other imitations the success of Dabangg has spawned, Besharam is sterling stuff. It has a few smart moments — Rishi Kapoor’s Gadar imitation, for example — that film buffs will enjoy, but only if they are willing to wade through reams of inanities and a plot that is about as unconvincing as a plot can get, even in Bollywood.
Babli (Ranbir Kapoor) is a master car thief. He is, as the title suggests, utterly shameless, defined by his shamelessness. It is worth looking once at the definition of shame: “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour”. However much the film keeps saying that shame is overrated, it’s a vital mechanism of self-regulation that keeps us from being complete jerks. It’s that little voice inside our head that would tell us that stalking a woman while making lewd gestures is not so much macho romance as sexual harassment. That even if the woman, like Tara (Pallavi Sharda) in the film, does not pull out the pepper spray or press criminal charges, it is inherently wrong.
But concepts of right and wrong are lost on Babli, explained away in a single atrociously-delivered soliloquy about having to grow up hard. Instead, he unabashedly continues his courtship of Tara, professing his love for her at her home, in her office, in a song-and-dance sequence on the streets. But his love for her is seemingly only manifested in words; never does he actually do anything nice for her. (All his niceties, his gifts, are reserved for her mother, a popular Bollywood device that would enormously interest Freud.) Nor does he have one of those actual romantic moments that Bollywood usually throws in when the leading man is as inept in getting the girl. But then, he steals her car by mistake. (He doesn’t realise it’s hers, but she was driving it when he first saw her, and it isn’t like the parking lot — of her office — he picks it up from is full of A-Class Mercs. Are we really to expect that an ace car thief doesn’t know the car the woman he stalks drives?) Once he finds out it’s hers, he offers to take Tara to Chandigarh and retrieve it from Chandel, who he sold the car to. It is on that road trip, during what is presumably a long, unnecessary detour through rural Punjab, that Tara, an independent working woman, for no discernible reason beyond the fact that Babli is doing her a favour for the first time, falls truly, madly, deeply in love with him.
What little rootedness the film does achieve comes from the performances of Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh. Their love, at least, is relatable, and as a married police couple — Inspector Chulbul Chautala and Head Constable Bulbul Chautala — they provide the film both its comical as well as its truly emotional moments. Chulbul having to awkwardly ask Tara for a bribe at his wife’s insistence, for instance, is both comical and truly emotional. It’s enough to wish that instead of this sterile, hackneyed exercise, Kashyap had made the film about their relationship. I’d watch Rishi Kapoor play a Basil Fawlty-like cop, being henpecked daily by his wife to think of their retirement.
“Sirf Chulbul naam rakh dene se koi dabangg nahin ban jaata,” Ranbir tells his father at one point. It is advice Ranbir himself, and Kashyap, would do well to keep in mind.