"Bolo na saab, kya irada hai? Chalna hai kya (What do you say, saab? Wanna come)?"
When Kareena Kapoor pouts these words through her bright red lips, it almost makes you smile. She sounds more like a teenager playacting than a brash, hardened streetwalker.
You have to give Kareena points for trying though. She adorns herself with cheap jewellery (the kind you can buy off vendors in a Mumbai local train) and a glittering bindi. Her hair is held back with a tasteless, gold-coloured, plastic studded clip. Her short nails are hidden under badly painted, garish nail polish. She wears a blue flowered, katori-cut blouse that is appropriately short and hints at cleavage.
A bright red sari (which reportedly cost Rs 200) is wrapped alluringly low around her slender waist; the pallu does a regular free-fall. Her footwear is a flashy gold. She smokes cigarettes with ease and does not flinch while using battle-hardened jargon of the streets.
She even attempts a streetwalker's walk and apes her mannerisms, but it ends up looking more than a little caricaturish.
This is the essence of Pritish Nandy Communication's Chameli: a film that makes an effort but remains firmly off target.
The reason, partly, is the film's protagonist, Kareena. She could be a high class call girl, maybe someone who is part of an expensive escort service, even one of those college students who see selective prostitution as a way to make a quick, easy buck.
But a street corner hooker? Nah! Kareena, with her peaches and cream complexion, soft hands, perfect feet and poise, looks much too 'classy', for want of a better word, to play the kind of prostitute you see hanging around railway stations and bus stops after dusk.
Yet, there are advantages, at least in India, of having a star like Kareena lead your cast; in a film that does not boast of any other 'starry' names: she will draw the audience in. Whether that audience registers its approval at the box-office, whether it will return to watch the film again, will then depend on the tale that unfolds on the screen.
In this case, the tale is about a seemingly mischievous, childlike, golden-hearted hooker Chameli (Kareena Kapoor) and her encounter one night with investment banker Aman Kapoor (Rahul Bose). Aman's car breaks down, his cell phone dies on him and he finds himself sheltering from the bitter downpour at the very spot where Chameli plies her trade.
She tries to seduce him, but when he won't budge, she plies him with conversation and coffee (in plastic cups delivered by little Johnny whose education she sponsors). She even entertains him with a song-and-dance number in the rain, but our man is not moved!
Somewhere, though, he is touched by the glimpses of the girl behind the powdered mask. And when trouble comes haring after her, he steps in. Not in the typically filmi manner, with fists flying and villains dropping like ninepins all over the place, but by helping her hide from her tormenters, then by influencing the cops to help her and finally by pitching in with money.
Rahul Bose as Aman Kapoor is both understated and impressive. Along with Yashpal Sharma, who plays Assistant Commissioner of Police K P Singh, he is the mainstay of the film as far as performances are concerned.
Chameli's drawback lies in its storyline. In just one night, Chameli pays hafta (bribe) to a cop, sleeps with him, refuses to sleep with a customer who has AIDS, so she is chased by her pimp because he has already taken an advance and the customer is a powerful guy whom he does not want to antagonise. Aman steps in and tries to pay off the pimp, who tries to attack him for more money. But Aman ends up knocking him out, and both Aman and Chameli are arrested. So Aman pulls some strings to get them released. Whew! And that's not even the end of the story.
Despite this, the film works, particularly if you remember you are not in the theatre to watch a gut-wrenching reprise of Madhur Bandarkar's Chandni Bar. Chameli makes no bones about the fact that it is a commercial venture. Hence the songs -- with guest appearances by Anupama Verma and Mahek Chahal -- that are easy on both the eyes and the ears. And the funny-in-parts dialogue, which has been credited to Swanand Kirkire.
In sum, Mishra, who was brought in to complete the film after the untimely demise of director Anant Balani, has brought to the screen a film that, even if it does not rivet, does not leave you wondering why you wasted the last couple of hours.
Towards the end of the film, Chameli tells Aman, 'Kuch bhi kaho saab, raat aapne ek dhandewali ke saath bitaya hai (You can say what you want, saab, but you spent the night with a prostitute).'
I would say not. But he did spend it with an actress who tried very hard to become one.
Cast: Kareena Kapoor, Rahul Bose, Rinke Khanna, Yashpal Sharma, Makrand Deshpande, Kabir Sadanand
Guest appearances: Anupama Verma, Mahek Chahal
Director: Sudhir Mishra
Producer: Rangita Pritish-Nandy
Music: Sandesh Sandilya
Original concept: Anant Balani
Screenplay: Shiv Subramanium, Sudhir Mishra
Dialogues: Swanand Kirkire
Stylists: Manish Malhotra (for Kareena Kapoor), Ashley Rebello