In how many ways can you make a film about three friends set in the cultural background of India? 3 Idiots, ZNMD and Dil Chahta Hai are modern films about friendship and male bonding that earned wide critical approval for their fresh characters and sincere scripts. These were great buddy films that should have exhausted all compelling ways to speak of strong friendships. Kai Po Che, directed by Abhishek Kapoor, who also directed Rock On, should have been a film too vulnerable and defenseless to the pits of unoriginality. Miraculously though, it unveils a new and pleasing perspective and tastefully fulfills our cinematic expectations.
The film, which is an adaptation of Chetan Bhagat’s The 3 Mistakes of My Life, is set in Gujarat and is about about Ishaan, Govind and Omi – three friends with classically contrasting personalities. Ishaan (Sushant Singh Rajput) is a cricket fanatic who has taken it upon himself to train Ali, a gifted young boy from a low-class Muslim community. He is aggressive, hot headed, intense and idealistic. Govind (Rajkumar Yadav) is a financial fanatic. His mathematical mind devices the business model for the sports shop and coaching center the three friends decide to start together. Omi (Amit Sadh) is the son of a temple priest who is boorish in manner but loyal as a basset hound. He manages to dig out the money for their sports enterprise from his uncle who is a political leader in a right-wing Hindu party.
The first part of the film is full with gentle, balmy moments that emphasize the strength of the bond between the characters. As in all praised portrayals of friendship, there is the shining star – the champion in heart and spirit, the character who is the soul of the friendship, who throbs with life and seizes our hearts from the start. Here, Ishaan embodies that character. We feel for him the way we felt for Rancho (Aamir Khan) in 3 Idiots, Arjun (Hrithik Roshan) in ZNMD and Akash (Aamir Khan) in Dil Chahta Hai (although they all typify different personalities). We glow when he smiles, we celebrate his successes and lament his losses. Govind is the chap with a strong head over his shoulders and whose earnestness you begin to respect increasingly as the film progresses. Omi is the archetypical boring and banal guy who also occupies a definitive place in all such buddy-bonds. He’s mostly predictable but his political background propels the latter part of the plot and gives him a crucial part in the film.
As in all other movies belonging to this genre, their rare and real friendship is ruffled by circumstances and the tenacity of their relationship is tested. Things get grimmer in the second half when the film traces the real events of the Bhuj earthquake and Godhra riots that wrecked Gujarat between 2001 and 2002. This lends a rich sociopolitical background to the movie and offers an effective albeit not overly focused revival of regional history. The plot consequently concocts itself into a fascinating and potent mix of friendship, politics, love and cricket. For those who, like me, haven’t read The 3 Mistakes of my Life this could seem like an overdose of ambition. But the film progressives seamlessly, without ever evoking the impression that it carries too much on its shoulders. Particularly notable is one of the last few scenes in the movie that is fraught with personal and political tension and makes you realize how much you care for its characters. Another memorable scene is contained in the first half where Govind and his love interest Vidya (Amrita Puri) are performing Garba. It’s a charming moment imbued with innocence, colorful costumes and romantic playfulness where we witness a usually guarded Govind let go and leap to dramatic dance steps.
If you think about it, the film contains no awe-inspiring, despair-inducing, sidesplitting, soul-crushing, conscience-crazing moments, and still works. The strength of this movie lies in its sensitivity. Despite fitting into an increasingly popular category of films focussed on male bonding, it is unique, authentic and as alive as life. It’s uplifting to see more and more Indian movies occupy this kind of middle ground between art and commercial films – films that aren’t preachy with an aim to radicalize us or render us more conscious. These are films that are subtly introspective and that simply tell us a good story with spontaneity and lack of pretension.
The movie has received wholehearted nods of approval from the biggies of Bollywood and important critics such as Pritish Nandy, Taran Adarsh and Aamir Khan and currently has a rating of 8.1 on IMDB. The music by Amit Trivedi is thoroughly refreshing and the performances by newcomers Sushant Singh Rajput, Rajkumar Yadav, Amit Sadh and the film's female respite Amrita Puri are perfect to a tee. Kai Po Che is likely to be the highest grossing newcomer/nonstar-starring film of all time and nothing could be better deserved. Chetan Bhagat’s son Ishaan debuts with a small role in the film, making this a multi-momentous film for the writer. The writer, who co-wrote the screenplay for the movie, has been called everything from genius to idiot during his career, but the skyrocketing success of 3 Idiots and now Kai Po Che seals his place as a respectable personality in the cinematic and literary world. Kudos to Abhishek Kapoor who managed to make not one, but two consecutive and largely successful films dealing with manhood and friendship. Kai Po Che is indeed as good as films about three friends and male bonding are ever likely to be which is brilliant news because they can finally stop making them now.