Subhash K Jha: Rocket Singh, like its uncompromising protagonist, stands tall

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It is very important to understand what cinema means to you. Is it just a vehicle to indulge in mindless diversion? In that case Rocket Singh – Salesman Of The Year is not your cup of tee-hee.

If cinema as a popular and predominant work of art is meant to make viewers reconsider the quality of their lives, then stop right here, take a deep breath and plunge into the mundane world of the Punjabi munda Harpreet Singh. Like Sid a month ago Ranbir Kapoor plays a somewhat aimless guy who’s just out of college wondering what to do next. That’s the moment when we jump into the lives of Sid and Harpreet, so similar in their soporific world-view and yet so diametrically different in their journey from premature jadedness to premature wisdom.

Shimit Amin’s earlier inspirational work Chak De was far more aggressive rabble-rousing and flag-waving in its aspirations. Rocket Singh is a far more gentle tender and non-cynical work. Its opinion on contemporary corruption is tinged with warmth humour and a subtle regard for office politics seldom seen in our films.

A section of viewers may just perceive Rocket Singh as a stubbornly niche film on the politics of computer hardware. This is as shallow a reading of Shimit’s cinema as looking at Chak De as a ‘hockey film’ or Paa as a paean to progeria.

Some viewers habituated to being spoon-fed large helpings of elemental emotions by filmmakers who think masala is what makes entertainment palatable, may find Shimit Amin’s approach to the protagonist Harpreet Singh’s tale almost arrogant in its selfregard and disdain for the qualities that make socially-purposeful cinema engaging to the man in the backseat…

Outwardly Amin and his brilliant writer Jaideep Sahni(whose words move effortlessly from stinging social comment to conversational candour) don’t seem to care whether the audience joins them in their scathing often frustrating sometimes humorous and mildly touching search for a centre to Rocket Singh’s life.

But make no mistake. This film really cares about the environment of indolent debauchery that has crept into the working-class lifestyle. The office details are so dead-on in recreating the deceptively dynamism of an office-going entourage , you wonder if Ranbir and his writer and director spent quality time in a slothful hierarchy-motivated office.

Ranbir’s journey from professional disgrace to personal and public redemption echoes Shah Rukh Khan’s voyage from the damned to the extolled in Chak De. Except that Ranbir’s playing field for pitched battle of the conscience is more in his mind and soul than a topographical reality.

As the protagonist gathers together his dignity to pursue a path of, ha ha, honesty integrity and idealism in his business transactions, we witness what can be termed the intimate portrait of an detoxicated working-class hero. Ranbir brings to his part a whole lot of earnestness and heart. His natural and utterly contagious exuberance so much on display in his last two films Wake Up Sid and Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani is effortlessly curbed here. What we see on screen is a Sardarji not quite like any our movies have shown so far.

Harpreet who later becomes Rocket Singh in his entrepreneurship (why? because his colleagues throw paper rockets at him!!!) doesn’t become a larger-than-life turbaned figure of aggressive sales-pitch. Gentle to the point of being non-conspicuous Ranbir plays the loser who turns the zero on his life’s calling-card to his own advantage with the kind of unspoken wisdom that actors acquire after decades of experience, if at all.

Rocket Singh depends on Ranbir’s vast reserves of credible charm and his native skills to play a man without moving out of character to even visit the loo.

The supporting cast of Mukesh Bhatt as the office peon, P Santoshi as the lazy porn-addicted colleague, Gauhar Khan as the commodified office receptionist and Naveen Kushik as the crucial link in Harpreet’s work place, boost Ranbir’s central presence with their ingrained sense of belonging to the world Shimit and Sahni have created.

Rocket Singh works on many levels beyond Ranbir’s astonishing performance. It is a momentous piece of cinema for its writing and its supreme indifference to the dynamics of conventional storytelling.

“Like what we say? Please be our guest,” is this astounding film’s underlying context. Jaideep Sahni’s words are often so laconic they make their point without our being conscious of their importance to the given context of working-class inertia.

While urging the sexy office receptionist to join him in his audacious entrepreneurship Harpreet warns Gauhar Khan, “Otherwise I’ll remain the joker Sardarji and you the item girl.”

Get it?

The film’s main conflict is finally between Harpreet Singh and his unscrupulous boss played by the aptly over-the-top Manish Choudhary. The film’s two finest sequences are written as muted acidic confrontations between Ranbir and Choudhary. The final encounter in a supermarket where the boss surrenders unconditionally to Harpreet’s integrity is the trickiest part of the narration. It could easily have lumbered into the land of the maudlin.

Rocket Singh, like its uncompromising protagonist, stands tall despite its flaws. For one, on the surface it has a uni-focused sameness to its narration, as though the story was being told in one breath without the raconteur getting breathless, and never mind if the audience is restless. The lack of drama in a situation simmering with emotional dips and curves gets the audience fidgety and uncomfortable. But soon we realize the absence of expendable energy is the narrative’s primary virtue.

You can’t miss the writer and director’s concern for a growing middle class that worships wealth and success at the cost of more valuable assets. You can’t miss the gentle persuasion applied to the theme. Most of all you can’t miss Ranbir Kapoor as the understated Sardarji riding his cherry-red scooter gifted by his Dadajee (Prem Chopra in a sterling change of image) cringing at the redlight when a swanky mo’bike rides up alongside.

Usski vehicle meri vehicle se badi zaroor hai. But by God, Ranbir’s zero-value loser’s rise from shame to name is a journey we’d any day undertake even on a cherry-red scooter.

Rating: ****

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