With the release of the incredibly ambitious Jagga Jasoos, director Anurag Basu cements his position as one of Bollywood's premier creative voices. With a career that started over a decade ago largely dedicated to making potboilers, Basu really started to show his stuff with the big budget attempted crossover film Kites, famously re-edited by Brett Ratner and released to US cinemas as Kites Remix. However, it was his 2012 silent film-inspired Barfi!, starring Ranbir Kapoor in a breakout role, that showed the Indian film industry that Basu was interested in making films outside of the usual expectations.
Barfi! went on to great box office and critical success and eventually ended up as India's official submission to the Academy Awards for that year, but controversy followed the film as the blogosphere erupted with rage over Basu's cribbing action setpieces from classic silent comedies from the likes of Chaplin and Keaton. Whether or not the homage in Barfi! spills over into outright plagiarism is an argument that simmers even today, but Basu drew inspiration from the fracas to create what is an even more blatantly outré work of cinematic art that should have film fans talking.
Jagga Jasoos is the story of a young man named Jagga who grew up with his father, Bagchi - dubbed Bad Luck Bagchi for the obvious albatross he carries around - in a small town in rural India. Jagga seems to have a preternatural talent for solving mysteries, and he uses this to solve everything from the mundane to the magnificent. The biggest mystery in Jagga's life is the disappearance of Bagchi shortly after he enrolls his son in a boarding school, and the young man spends the rest of the film trying to untie the knots that keep him from his family.
LIke all of the best art, Jagga Jasoos is a greater experience than can be appropriately or accurately be described in words. At least I cannot imagine an effective prose that would be able to convey the overwhelming joy of the film and it's unique and impressive construction. Jagga Jassos is a musical unlike any we've seen in a while. I know that to outsiders it seems as though any film from Bollywood would automatically be classed as a musical, and in many cases those outsiders would be correct, however, Jagga Jasoos is something else entirely.
From a very young age Jagga suffers from a debilitating stammer, this speech impediment means that his thoughts - which are working at a million miles a minute - are trapped behind a tongue that can't possibly keep up. However, once his father encourages Jagga to try expressing himself in song rather than by speech, his world opens up and we are swept into a universe in which everything, absolutely everything around us has a rhythm if you choose to listen for it. The result is a musical in which nearly every word is sung, and the film only strays for dramatic pauses when Jagga's stammer remerges. It's an absolutely dizzying experience at times, difficult to keep up with at others, but never less than breathtaking to watch as composer Pritam and lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya fill every inch of their massive canvas with musical filigree to a degree whose complexity is hard to fathom.
Basu's palette ranges from bright to brighter, and his astonishing visuals are brought to life by a combination of stunning camerawork from Ravi Varman, who also worked with Basu on Barfi!, and some incredibly deft editing from Ajay Sharma. Even though the film is frequently confusing and hard to follow, it is never less than beautiful and exciting to watch, and sometimes that's the mark of a true masterpiece. Varman's cinematography is wonderful, bringing life to Basu's mad circus in a way that few Bollywood visualists are willing or able to try, and the editing by Sharma is the chisel that attempts - and often succeeds - to give shape to this massive sprawling beast. Both are essential pieces of a very complex puzzle, and both do their jobs well.
A cross between Indiana Jones, Tintin, and Sherlock Holmes; Jagga Jasoos will feel familiar in its structure and themes, but it's the way that Basu puts together the pieces that makes it utterly unique. Basu relies heavily on the performance of Ranbir Kapoor again after his wonderful performance in Barfi! and Kapoor does not disappoint. Ranbir was once touted as Bollywood's next great talent, but he quickly fell from grace after a few high profile critical and box office failures, Jagga Jasoos should have his name back on the lips of film fans, regardless of the film's commercial performance because he nails Jagga in a way that I can't see any other performer doing.
Ranbir's performance of Jagga is absolutely committed in a way that this role demands. At turns silly and sincere, Jagga is a character that is hard to ignore and easy to empathize with. Practiced tics, a convincing stammer, and an ability to wring rhythm from the world around him make this a performance that Kapoor can be proud of, and should put him back on top as one of India's brightest young actors.
While the film defintely belongs to Ranbir, he does have some quality help in his supporting cast. Bad Luck Bagchi is played by Saswata Chatterjee who made a huge impression on Indian film fans a few years ago through his performancein Kahaani as the assassin Bob Biswas. Chatterjee has limited screen time due to the fact that his disappearance is the impetus behind Jagga's many adventures, but he makes the most of it, bringing a wonderfully warm paternal presence to the film. Also worthy of note is Jagga's antagonist, Saurabh Shukla, a veteran character actor whose roly poly presence gives the audience someone to root against, even though we can tell he's not really all that bad.
In my experience, it's always better to have too many ideas than not enough, and if Jagga Jasoos suffers from any faults, it is the overabundance of ideas. The film's plot is labyrinthine, and it seems like new plot threads and story elements are added almost as quickly as Jagga's stammer turns to song, however, once I relinquished the urge to set everything in it's place and keep track of all of the characters and decided just to let the film wash over me, I was overwhelmed by the joy of it all. I sure don't understand it, and I know that a number of culturally specific gags when flying over my head, but I also know that the huge number of gags I caught made me grin like an idiot, and that's good enough for me.