There are two things that all Bollywood productions need more often: Female leads that don’t require A-list male costars to save, love, or complete them, and thoughtful, loophole-free screenplays that don’t feel like they were slapped together moments before the director called the shot.
Three people can be counted on to deliver rectify these shortcomings: Writer duo Hansal Mehta and Apoorva Ansaria (whose handling of sensitive subject matter in their previous “Aligarh” and “CityLights” was both astute and engaging) and Kangana Ranaut (self-proclaimed feminist, star of 2013’s girl power-championing “Queen,” and easily one of the most fearless, mature actresses in the industry today). But their much-awaited collaboration, “Simran,” only fulfills part of the promise.
The film wastes no time getting started on the female-centric angle, opening with the introduction of Praful Patel (Ranaut), a bumbling 30-year-old divorcee who has grudgingly moved back in with her cash-strapped parents and works as part of the housekeeping staff in an Atlanta hotel. While mom and dad want nothing more than for their rudderless daughter to remarry earnest MBA student Sameer (Soham Shah), Praful has more independent ambitions of buying her own apartment—until she squanders her savings in a bout of impulsive gambling during her cousin’s bachelorette trip in Las Vegas. Desperate to recover her money, Praful naively borrows a hefty sum from a pair of corrupt moneylenders, but another unlucky gambling streak and a declined mortgage leave her unable to pay the loan sharks back. With no money and her life on the line, she resorts to robbing banks, sending her already-rocky state of affairs further down a dangerous spiral.
One of the biggest issues with “Simran” is a screenplay that can’t settle on a single idea or cogent tone. Though it’s unnecessary — even unadvisable — for any film to fall into the confines of a single genre, this one fumbles in several departments. As a comedy, the humor is half-baked and sometimes tone-deaf; there’s one scene in which Praful watches instructional YouTube videos on robbing banks, and a follow-up video is titled “How to Kill People Without Getting Caught—Ever.” On the other hand, several elements are unintentionally funny: Take Mr. Bugs, one of the stereotypical loan sharks, whose constant referral to Praful as “baby girl” is more cringe-worthy than menacing. From the crime angle, there are too many logic lapses in the film for it to be taken seriously. For instance, Praful’s embarrassingly obvious disguises in purple wigs and hoodies, and even worse, the FBI’s inability to identify her as the robber despite security camera footage from several banks.
And as a story of female empowerment, it’s especially puzzling; certainly, Praful is relatable as a flawed, confused, at times aggravating, and unglamorous woman instead of the perfectly-coiffed, one-dimensional heroine we see all too frequently in Bollywood films. She’s also refreshing as a woman who, despite the romantic angle with Sameer—and perhaps because of previous unpleasant encounters with seedy men—demonstrates zero yearning for a male counterpart (in fact, one might wonder if Sameer’s lukewarm presence is meant precisely to drive home the point that he isn’t needed). Still, Praful’s own purpose seems too muddled to successfully translate as emboldened; with criminal undertakings that are hardly aspirational, and several silly decisions that don’t inspire much sympathy, her character seems like a missed opportunity for empowerment.
The redeeming factor is Ranaut, who seems to be the only cast or crew member aware of the screenplay’s shortcomings, and manages to keep a tight grip on her flimsy character regardless. Whether she’s bawling over her losses in a Vegas casino or apologizing in panic when the teller at the bank she’s robbing begins to hyperventilate mid-heist, her keen comic timing repeatedly makes up for the script’s lack of it, and her natural charm and unabashed vulnerability command the audience’s attention, even when the plot doesn’t.
Although she carries — and, in many ways, saves — the film, she’s clearly too good for it. While “Simran” might put Ranaut front and center, the film proves once again that in Bollywood, screenplays that truly serve an actress’s talent are still woefully hard to find.
“Simran” is currently playing in select U.S theaters.