A look at Raj Kumar Santoshi's filmography will remind you that he is truly one of the more versatile filmmakers in Bollywood today. Who else can boast of both an Andaz Apna Apna and a Ghayal? His other successes include Damini, The Legend of Bhagat Singh, Pukar, and Ajab Prem ki Ghazab Kahani. In terms of sheer range, few - including blockbuster directors of this generation - can make an equal claim.
Which is why watching Phata Poster Nikla Hero is an unusual experience, because you seldom feel you're watching something new. The premise is promising - a mock Bollywood treatment to a fairly standard mother and son story. Shahid Kapoor's introduction scene - a popular Bollywood idea to begin with - is done in the grand style of the 80s, mimicking the action sequences from recent films mimicking the 80s. Highly exaggerated, highly stylized, highly entertaining. Shahid bursts through a Ranbir Kapoor poster, and saves the damsel in distress after a smashing fist fight with the goons, in a ground surrounded by posters of films that we consider mainstream Bollywood. This kind of wit is Santoshi at his best.
But the introduction scene is also one of the rare moments when the film is free from the hangover of Santoshi's past. The structure and treatment of this film is very similar to Andaz Apna Apna and Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani. It relies on individual scenes to do their job, and the larger narrative is, in effect, secondary to the purpose of holding the film together. Which is fine, really. It worked so well with the aforementioned films, and is a format he is comfortable with. With Phata Poster..., some of the scenes becomes repetitive. The madcap climax with all the goons, all the leads, all the support characters coming in together for a last big bash is a straight lift again, and this time it seems lame and contrived. It is almost as if now, he knows no other way to end the film.
Constant references to Andaz Apna Apna, albeit funny initially, burden it further to live up to the classic. Even further: the hummable Tu Mere Agal Bagal is very similar in setup to Prem Ki Naiyaa from Ajab and the Mere Bina Tu is identical in it's look to Tu Jaane Na from the same film.
The other part of the film that definitely works against it is the mother-son angle. Santoshi switches to a mawkish sentimentality, and it really dilutes the loony world that the film otherwise inhabits. Perhaps it's an attempt to add the requisite melodrama for mainstream audiences, but it does great disservice to the film itself.
Talking of scenes that do the job, there are some that hit the right note. Shahid's screen test is one, purely because of Shahid's, well, performance. His ridiculous idea to confuse his mother and the cop - played by Darshan Jhariwala - into believing the other is mentally unstable is another is hilarious. The support cast pitch in as well; both Saurabh Shukla and Zakir Hussain ably manage their scenes. These are times when the film is true to its nature, and the laughter comes easily and freely.
The quintessential hero of the film does go a long way in making the film work. In free, unrestrained performance for a role that needs just that, Shahid Kap00r is spot on. He dances like a dream, moves from one emotion to another in a snap, leaps through the air to fight goons, is a dutiful son, and serenades the heroine when the songs come in. Having a release after a long time, this is not a bad way to remind people that he's still very much around and kicking.
I think Raj Kumar Santoshi does not need to remind people of what he's done every time he makes a film like this. We may not see another Andaz Apna Apna from him, but we could see something totally different, and given his past achievements, that may be worth looking forward to.