Right from my childhood days in Bombay (before the printers and sign-board companies made a killing off of the name change), festivals meant some immutable markers – delectable food and new clothes. And, rising above the colour and gaiety, the unmistakable decibel flight of frantic drums, cymbals, and the sure, sharp sound of the banjo. From way far off, the sound waves travelled into our apartment, late into the evening and night, a sure sign that the festival was well and truly on. These musical sounds were, to most, as to me, a yerk in the layer of peace and quiet that otherwise enveloped our neighbourhood – unless, of course, they were playing a Rahul Dev Burman number. When they didn’t, I made sure our windows were shut, just so we could catch up important happenings on the Doordarshan channel, including the latest farming technologies in Aamchi Maati Aamchi Mansa and the greatest breakthroughs in labor laws on Kaamgar Vishwa.
If you got the Bombay and DD references, then Banjo, director Ravi Jadhav’s first foray into Hindi cinema, is right up your alley of entertainment. Co-writing with Nikhil Mehrotra and Kapil Sawant, the director takes you on a journey that, for the most part, is entertaining fun. But that’s not all that he’s doing here, but more of that later.
You meet the team of Tarat (Riteish Deshmukh), Paper (Aditya Kumar), Vajaya (Ram Menon), and Grease (Dharmesh Yelande) who moonlight as the banjo team in their slums, and get paid pittance for playing during festivals and weddings. During the day, each member goes about their day jobs (or assignments – at least that’s what Tarat carries out). And at night, they turn into charged up musicians, slamming their hearts out on their instruments, pausing only to perspire and aspire -each of their dreams as mundane as catching a flight for most of us, but for them, life’s highest layer of stratified luxury.
Into this world of wannabe slum-dog millionaires walk Mikey (Luke Kenny) and Christina (Nargis Fakhri), the latter flying in from New York to record musical entries for an upcoming music festival. The catalyst for Christina’s flying in from NY is a recording that Mikey’s sent her that he recorded during the Ganapati festival, and she wants to locate the musicians behind this sound to enter the festival. Director Jadhav uses this premise to take you into the lives of typical slum-dwellers in Mumbai, not sprucing or polishing the surroundings for your benefit, but instead using it to drive home a stark point – lives for these dwellers is a struggle, and that includes sucking a pipe, the other end dipped inside a water tanker, to induce capillary action that’ll fill their containers, that in turn will last them just enough to keep going until the next day. Be warned, though. Banjo is no Salaam Bombay, nor does it aspire to be Mira Nair’s gritty take on the city’s underbelly. Instead, the director takes the entertainment and musical route to throw light on these life’s strugglers and stragglers. And up until the interval, this truly works – there’s laughs, some nice action, and some very good songs that keep you hooked and booked.
In fact, the interval calling card is simply superb – Tarat playing the haunting Ganapati theme on his banjo, the rest of the musicians adding the punch of guiding light for the piece and for Christina. As she enters the musician’s den, the light goes out with a zip and crackle, and that is simply a beautiful shot. Post interval is when Banjo stumbles, and the light struggles to come to life. Part of the reason is the pastel of predictability that the director decides to stick to – including a sub-plot involving the local politician, Patil (Milind Shinde) and a builder, the banjo team’s rival gang and its leader’s machinations and his complot, a lascivious music producer (Mohan Kapoor), a murder, the friends’ break-up, and a death to bring them back together. And then, the inevitable tying up the loose ends that are part-rushed, part tropes.
Despite these failings, Banjo has high points, and director Ravi Jadhav uses some very spontaneous and self-deprecating scenes to slam the slum life into your face. Tarat’s tour of the slum for Christina’s benefit is a riot, especially the “cough-parade” reference – a thumbing up of the nose to all that stands for the hoity and toity in Mumbai, and yet a painful aspirational reference. He also ensures he never cleans up the production design for you – and even in the delightfully romantic Udan Choo number, he shoots a satirical sequence in front of a “Do not litter” wall sign that’s filled with waste plastic bags, and Riteish Deshmukh’s character dreamily sweeping the broom with Christina. That’s truly a lovely touch. Also note the absolute inspired scene that Jadhav directs that involves Patil and the builder on the phone, a tennis ball as a prop, and Patil quickly and effectively informing the builder why a slum ground is so very important and part of the people’s lives there. That’s an underprivileged-yet-hopeful-course-for-dummies done superbly.
Of the cast, the banjo team – Aditya Kumar, Ram Menon, and Dharmesh Yelande – are all solid support systems to Tarat. Milind Shinde and Anand Ingale are terrific, though I do wish we’d seen more of the latter. Luke Kenny is quietly effective as Christina’s confidante and friend.
In a very critical role as Christina, Nargis Fakhri is made to go through some very emotionally charged scenes, and she fails to make those scenes fly. When her character informs Tarat that she’s returning to NY, the face-to-face sequence falls flat – for, in what could have been a complex scene where she’s in a quandary with her need to succeed versus her understanding of Tarat’s burden, the actor does neither. She simply flat-pans and hoofs it, leaving an awning and yawning gap, a sillage of American accent and nothing else.
Not so Riteish Deshmukh. As Tarat, the actor is absolutely lovable and eminently likeable. Bringing in an element of emotional heft, this performance is a solid and remarkable addition to his oeuvre. Not once does he strain or struggle to bring power and depth to his role – he does it with élan and ease, simply melting your heart or making it soar with joy. There’s a scene just before the interval where he gets a call from Christina. You don’t see or hear her, but you see him on the phone. And you know what she’s told him, as his eyes and shoulders droop into a slant of hopelessness and helplessness, and you despair with Tarat. Plus, when he plays the banjo, it’s obvious Riteish Deshmukh has put in solid effort to understand the instrument’s nuances – his playing of the instrument is a treat to watch, his fingers sliding over the instrument’s keys with the poise of practiced beauty.
Banjo also boasts of a music score by Vishal-Shekhar that’s easily one of this year’s best. The Ganapati Bappa number is a marvellous credits opener, absolutely rambunctious, crackling with foot-tapping energy, the banjo theme sliding in and out with melodic roots. Vishal’s vocals are absolutely smooth and add the right punch to the proceedings. The aforementioned Udan Choo is deliciously dreamy, landing light and smooth on its foot along with the soft vocals of Hriday Gattani. It’s the kind of number you yearn for, but don’t get to hear these days. Then there’s the absolute peppy Pee Paa Ke that throws in band music, pace, and an unpredictable antara, complete with bursts of breath that remind of you of and make you think of what Rahul Dev Burman would’ve done with this project. And finally the climactic Om Ganapataye Namaha Deva song, that’s sung with a lot of heart by Vishal Dadlani and Nakash Aziz, the composition a sheer beauty on the painfully sweet scale. The background score by Sourav Roy is nice, employing nifty banjo pieces in an action sequence set in a railway station. Again, the scene where Riteish Deshmukh and Dharmesh have an altercation, Roy uses lilting heartbreakingly good flutes that are truly haunting. And of course, the marvellous banjo playing by Kishore Mohite and Rashid Bashir Khan are a treat to the senses.
The production design by Shekhar More is top class, deploying realistic pieces and striking colour palettes in parallel. The sound design is well done, especially in the scene where Deshmukh has a drunken soliloquy, and then falls asleep, a half-quart of drink still in his hand; and then, as his hand tilts, the beautifully recorded sound of the drink coming out in gulps of angst and hope.
Banjo may traverse the predictable arcs of the ABCD and Rock On! franchises, but if you look closely enough, it’s also a hopeful and yet despairing spotlight on the lives of street musicians, not just in the by lanes of Mumbai, but across the country. Inside these musicians are dreams and ambitions, whose wings are clipped by circumstances and luck. These men and women may be engineers of the instruments they play, but what’s the chance that these instruments will engineer their players’ fates to success and a decent life? Will they ever compose something that’s original that’ll catch the attention of composers and music producers? That’s the question that’ll haunt me the next time I hear the sound of the banjo band knocking on my windows, before I shut them out.
Director Ravi Jadhav Running Time 2h 17 min
Writers Ravi Jadhav, Nikhil Mehrotra, Kapil Sawant
Stars Riteish Deshmukh, Nargis Fakhri, Aditya Kumar, Ram Menon, Dharmesh Yelande
Genres Action, Drama, Musical
Watch the trailer of Banjo here: