When you only see one or two Bollywood films a year it’s a rash move to claim that a film is in some way ‘new’ or ‘progressive’ or similar adjectives. In the case of Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year, however, all the signs point to another step away from mainstream Bollywood towards something approaching a crossover film that might please NRIs and a western audience more generally. So far the headlines read flop in India with the mass audience and many critics, but high praise in New York from the critics and some good reviews by bloggers and IMDB users. This doesn’t surprise me since I think that ideologically this is a film from early populist capitalism in the US – in many ways it is Capraesque, but possibly less sentimental, certainly in its restrained romance element. For the mass audience the problems are no dance choreography, just a couple of music-based short montages, no great comedy set-pieces, no big romance, no car chases or shoot-outs, no big special effects and no stylish camerawork. Sounds dull? Well I wasn’t bored for any of the 154 minutes, so something is going on in the script and the performances.
Here is the outline. Harpreet Singh Bedi graduates with a bare ‘Pass’ in his B.Comm and a grade of 38%. Undaunted he lands a job as a computer salesman through his confidence and charm. Amazingly, he is unaware that corruption is rife in Indian business dealings and he is so shocked by the assumption that he will offer bribes to get contracts that he exposes his client and loses the order. Suddenly he is a pariah in the sales company. From this point on he fights back, maintaining his ethical standards at the same time that he hoodwinks the company. The direction is conventional in the main and the aesthetic is similar to UK/US sitcoms – the UK series The Office comes to mind. Everything is in the script and the performances, all of which I enjoyed. This is the ‘little person’ against corporate greed and sleazy business. Harpreet is an orphan brought up by his grandfather. He is tagged as a ‘Sardar’, which I take to be a traditional male Sikh. He eventually makes friends with a small group of his colleagues, all of whom have been marginalised in some way (or who come to see that he is right about the company). They include a guy I took to be from the South, a Muslim woman and a man who is called (according to the subtitles) a ‘peon’ (does this Spanish term have an Indian equivalent, perhaps ‘peasant’?). This group of ‘minorities’ in the business community challenges conventions. The film clearly focuses on business ethics and makes all the right noises about caring capitalism. I don’t agree with its politics as such (although I’m all in favour of ethical business) but they are certainly preferable to corporate greed. The important point I think is that this is a film which takes a major social issue in India seriously.
The film has been marketed as a comedy but although there are certainly comic moments, and I laughed out loud several times, overall this is a comedy drama with a strong moral/social commentary base. It isn’t leaden and didactic but it is intelligent and engaging. Ranbir Kappor as Harpreet is clearly a young star to watch. The writer-director team of Jaideep Sahni and Shimit Amin have already had hits, both commercial and critical, such as Khosla Ga Khosla (2006, written by Sahni) and Chak De! India (2007, written and directed by the duo) and I hope that they keep going.
One of the major entertainment websites in India reviews the film negatively and suggests both that Harpreet is a ‘simpleton’ and that the audience will not work out what is happening until the second hour! Harpreet may be naive and too trusting but he’s as bright as a button and it never pays to underestimate audiences. On the other hand if you tell them that the film is disappointing because it is a ‘documentary’, you aren’t helping as a reviewer. What this really shows, I guess, is the range of obstacles faced by filmmakers who want to change conventions.
One last thought: I’m working on Satyajit Ray’s 1975 film The Middleman and there is a scene in it which is almost identical. The young salesman goes to a chemical company to get an order and discovers the ways of the world (at least in Indian Cinema). Ray’s young man is just as naive but possibly less able to deal with his own sense of ethical practice. I’m not sure that Jaideep Sahni means to make the connection but he’s certainly exploring the same discourse. Ray infuses his film with elements of both realism and humanism (his young man is quite believable in his actions). Harpreet is not represented within a realist environment and his character is possibly larger than life, but as my viewing companion noted, the final scenes draw upon exactly the kinds of best management practice now being taught in progressive business schools.