If the mere eschewal of the popular narrative formula were enough to set a Hindi film apart from the rest of Mumbai's masala output, Praan Jaye Par Shaan Na Jaye could well have been a minor classic. It isn't. There are numerous reasons why: its most obvious undoing is that it bites off more than it can chew.
Apart from being poorly scripted, shoddily mounted and indifferently acted, Praan Jaye… takes too much upon itself. Set in a Mumbai chawl inhabited by people who live constantly on the brink of penury but never lose their zeal for life, the film addresses virtually every issue one can imagine - from the plight of the middle class to the ills of religious obscurantism, from the illogicality of communal prejudices to the ugliness of marital rape.
Sadly, Praan Jaye… does not possess the finesse to hit home. Producer Mahesh Manjrekar's rather incoherent script relies heavily on borrowed plumes. It attempts a cross between television's Nukkad and the big screen's Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, but lacks the wit and vitality that distinguished the two landmark productions. Whatever vestiges of comedy Praan Jaye… manages to squeeze out of its bare resources is strictly of the slapstick variety.
It seeks to raise a few laughs by spoofing well-known scenes from hits of the past (Sholay, Deewar, Lagaan), poking fun at Bollywood's narrative conventions and taking potshots at all and sundry - political rabble-rousers, the electronic media, women's rights activists and bad Hindi films - but all in vain.
Praan Jaye… was shot on an expensive set that had been erected for a big-budget production. The film got shelved and first-time director Sanjay Jha got his chance to indulge himself. It is clear that Praan Jaye... has been shot in a tearing hurry. The director goes haywire much like an excited kid who's acquired his first box of crayons. He shows little judgment in the matter of choosing the film's focus. He lets it meander every which way.
The film has too many characters that float in and out of the frame without being clearly etched out. Sushmita Sen, who plays the narrator, makes as much of an impact as Raveena Tandon, who plays the film's most important character, does. That is no reflection on the abilities of either actress. It is an indication of the ambiguities inherent in the script.
About the only character that passes muster is a chawl dweller who doubles up us a chronicler of the lives and times of his neighbours. The mercurial Vijay Raaz plays the part with aplomb though he too cannot resist the temptation of going overboard occasionally.
The action is set in the Popatlal Chunnilal Goradia Chawl. Its owner (Sachin Khedekar) wants to evict the occupants so that he can build a block of modern residential towers on the plot. He tries every trick in the book, including sending a friend (Aman Verma) to the chawl in the guise of research scholar to win over the residents, but the latter, led by a bunch of feisty women, thwart his designs.
The men in the film are all unidimensional: they are brutes, wimps or just nitwits. But what do you expect in film in which subtlety isn't the strongest point. But Praan Jaye… isn't about the male characters; it is about the women. But they acquit themselves no better.
Raveena plays a married woman who pines for a child, Divya Dutta is a tough woman who sees sex with her husband as an unavoidable chore, Shwetha Menon is bruised and battered by an abusive husband, Diya Mirza is an ugly duckling who turns into a beautiful swan, Rinkie Khanna is an aimless drifter and Namrata Shirodkar essays the role of an aspiring film actress who sells her body in order to survive.
Not to worry, the sob stories have soft endings. Much like the film itself: it ends with a defiantly tagged-on song that has nothing to do with the plot - a black and white number performed by Mahesh Manjrekar and Sushmita Sen. What on earth for? Good question. But don't expect any answers from this film.