In what could be seen as a breakthrough performance for the underrated Riteish Deshmukh with reservations, Banjo provides him a chance to play a street musician in the bustling egalitarian bylanes of Mumbai where water scarcity is seriously countermanded by an abundance of dreams.
In fact, one of the dreamers dreams of owning his personal water tank. Seriously.
Deshmukh plays Taraat, who we are told, has been raised by a now-old and senile musician (Janardhan Parab). Early in the film, when in typical Raja Hindustani style, Taraat is supremely smitten by the gori memsahib from the US (Nargis Fakhri), he goes through a lengthy drunken monologue where he pretends to hold a conversation with his inert foster-father who can’t hear a thing. Deshmukh exercises admirable control over the dialogues and the shifting emotions in the sequence, never overstating the self-pity for applause.
It requires herculean proportions of daring to attempt such a lengthy sequence during these times when audiences fidget faster than flies. As you sit patiently through Marathi director Ravi Jadhav’s first Hindi film, you will come across many such moments that defy conventions of commercial cinema even while the narration remains stubbornly true to Bollywood cinema’s age-old tradition.
In fact, Banjo is endearingly old-fashioned in its world view. Its chawl-bred characters still look at fair skin as a sight for joy and happiness. And a woman showing legs and cleavage are ogled with unwavering eyes. Nargis Fakhri as the NRI who gathers together Deshmukh’s banjo band for a fusion binge, is laughably plastic. She moves through the motions of her character’s journey from the skyscrapers of New York to the slums of Mumbai with not a single moment of genuine emotion.
In a curious way her artifice tent-poles the plot, pins down its mad rush of street music and sweaty energy to a decorative centrepiece. Director Jadhav and his skilful cinematographer Manoj Lobo have shot the film in the unglamorous locations of Mumbai, abandoned ships, dockyards and warehouses where the street music is played with a vigour that is not only infectious but also unique to Hindi cinema which tends to avoid celebrating fringe sections of society.
Here, the robust rhythms of banjo music merges with the thumping sound of burps belches yelps and yodels that rent the air in flamboyant notes of articulate street wisdom. The gaudy colour palates in the Ganpati song are segregated from the more austerely defined colours of the club concert in the later part of the film.
The characters range from the endearing (Dharmesh Yelende, Ram Menon and Aditya Kumar are exceedingly likable as Deshmukh’s buddies) to the identifiably normal (Luke Kenny as Fakhri’s desi-firangi Mumbaiyya friend) and exasperating (Mohan Kapoor as leery music producer needs to be whacked for playing a character so shallow).
Where the film founders terribly, almost bringing down the plot’s spiralling aspirations, is in cramming too many strands and sub-plots in the screenplay that are induced to create a dilating drama. Also, the visual palate of street side bonhomie tends to get over-cute at times.
Rather than digress into a subplot about a politician taking on builders, Jadhav’s narrative should have stuck to the story of the street musicians who are embarrassed by the lowbrow status allotted to their art, until the American woman with the long legs and the leggier pout discovers them for her own devices.
Interesting music pieces (Vishal-Shekhar), a furiously implosive background score (Sourav Roy) and a principal cast that believes in the plot’s quintessential rags-to-riches logic tends to keep the storytelling afloat. However, Banjo is unlikely to set the box-office on fire. Its energy remains half-doused by over-statement.