The curious case of Sharmaji Namkeen
The disclaimer offered by Sharmaji Namkeen before the film begins sets the tone; somehow the “extraordinary circumstances” of “unprecedented events” remind one of Covid-19. The expectations are set on a somewhat ominous note by explaining how two actors have rarely played one role and that we should be grateful to watch Paresh Rawal play the part that was left incomplete by the late Rishi Kapoor.
Yet, when the film begins and attempts to set the pace, it just doesn’t happen. It’s not the distortion of watching two different actors on screen that bothers the viewer, it’s just that the role isn’t suited to Paresh Rawal. He singlehandedly brings the energy of the whole film down, while we go in and out from shots of him and Kapoor edited together to tell a tale of a retired gentleman finding his joie de vivre in home-cooking and catering food to small groups of people post-retirement from his day job.
While there’s no denying that Rawal’s a talented artist, the role is somehow not suited for him; a problem that continues to haunt the viewer from the start till the finish. The last time I recall a similar case of poor casting, it again involved Rawal reprising the role of Sunil Dutt in Sanju (2018). The excess of “puttar” and poor Punjabi along with overacting as a gentle yet strong paternal force was unsuitable for his acting style. For me, it killed the pathos of conveying everything the film tried to do.
The trouble with Sharmaji Namkeen is also that Rishi Kapoor is brilliant. In his last act as Brij Gopal Sharma, he plays a doting, devoted dad — an instant reminder and a spiritual extension of his previous role as a salaried dad Santosh Duggal in Do Dooni Chaar (2010). He makes you cringe, squirm and emotional, all between the acts of him cooking and dealing with his WhatsApp forward list. The film feels familiar; a déjà vu of sorts when you see him play something he has excelled at doing before. You root for his character and make a silent prayer for him to succeed when he gets his first catering gig, a kitty party masqueraded as a prayer meeting for ladies in Delhi and then you hope his relatives go easy on him when he becomes a cringe viral video star. However, everything is cut short, you withdraw the feelings when you see Rawal play those parts.
Outside of the immediate casting problem, the film feels oddly familiar. Parts of it are exaggerated as a nostalgic reminder of the Delhi film genre from the 00s. This includes tropes with characters built to play real estate sharks usurping property, an affable Sikh sidekick, sons who are uninterested in forging an active relationship with their father, and a female protagonist who is there to give suggestions to help improve the father-son relationship. The instant reminder of these tropes is Dibakar Banerjee’s critically acclaimed films- Khosla Ka Ghosla (2006) and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008). Sneha Khanwalkar’s music seems oddly familiar in this situation too, given that she’s done the soundtrack for Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye. The film feels familiar for a lot of reasons, and though this isn’t a concern in a way to think, one is compelled to ask if Delhi can only and always be represented in Bombay cinema as an exaggeration of the middle-class struggles and dreams?
Everything said and done, Sharmaji Namkeen captures the pulse of the post-pandemic metro cities with the introduction and acknowledgment of home chefs and cooks in Hindi cinema. There is a sizeable amount of population in the country that has turned towards making home food into their day job post-pandemic and job cuts and validation of that role is seen in the resolution of the film- the clients come and save the day for the Sharmas.
However, the larger question is unresolved, did it have to take a jail landing for that acknowledgment? Did Sharmaji get paid for each gig or did he keep avoiding that? Whatever happens to Urmi and Sandeep’s future? The answers are not necessary to tie the film but keeping a lot of loose ends in the screenplay makes one wonder if the troubles in the film were a lot more than resolving the untimely demise of the lead.
Despite all the loose ends and the troubles of feeling nothing for Paresh Rawal, Sharmaji Namkeen is a sweet attempt at putting together a version of Delhi as a retirement city filled with geriatrics trying to make sense of the changing world and adjusting to it. It may not remind you of your parents but it’ll remind you of Khosla Sa’ab and Duggal Sa’ab and that’s worth your time.
The film is available for streaming on Prime Videos in India.
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