Anurag Basu, the brains and the heart behind Jagga Jasoos, probably has a list somewhere of the references, tributes and homages that have inspired his latest movie. We can see him rummaging through dog-eared comic books, Bengali detective novels, boy scout yarns, history textbooks, video tapes of silent films and DVDs of classic capers and contemporary comedies and chuckling over this scene and that before deciding to throw it into the mix. The result is a zany, warm-hearted and popsicle-bright movie that never loses its infectious spirit of adventure even in its most expendable moments.
In its colour palette, relentless action, nefarious villains and bumbling policemen, exotic locations, and knee-high views of the big issues plaguing the world, Jagga Jasoos comes closest to the Tintin comics. The story is framed as the amazing adventures of Jagga Jasoos, the teenage detective, as narrated by the journalist Shruti to a gaggle of eager-eyed children. The screenplay is crammed with events, always raring to leap from one place to the next, and afraid to slow down – or even make complete sense. The 161-minute running time can barely contain the overly busy plot, which explains the rushed editing, the sudden appearance and just as rapid disappearance of key characters, and the bloated climax. This is the kind of movie that is just about getting started at the interval, and has enough to say for another film at the very least.
Jagga (Ranbir Kapoor), an orphan with a terrible stammer that disappears only when he sings, is adopted as a child by Bagchi (Saswata Chatterjee). He idolises the man who is his own personal Wikipedia and teaches him everything he needs to know about life, history and basic crime detection. Bagchi disappears from Jagga’s life for several years, but always sends a videotape to his son for his birthday. This is a determinedly analogue world, which invokes memories of a childhood that have not been ruined by intrusive modern technology and gadgets.
Years later, Jagga has finally moved into adolescence. When he meets investigative journalist Shruti (Katrina Kaif), an instant connection is forged before you can say “cradle snatching”. Jagga leaves behind his boarding school in Ukhrul in Manipur for a series of magical journeys that take him far away from home and closer to the mystery of Bagchi’s disappearance.
Shruti is Snowy to Jagga’s Tintin, a loyal and obedient shadow who sometimes aids and sometimes disrupts his investigations. Her clumsiness might have been sexist if Basu hadn’t contrived a way of weaving into the story – she is described as “bad lucky”.
The movie belongs to Ranbir Kapoor, in of the best roles and performances of his career. Jagga is an extension of the mute character Kapoor played in Basu’s Barfi! (2012). Suspension of disbelief is required to accept the 34-year-old actor as a teenager, but there is no doubt about his command over his character. Working with only a handful of lines, most of which are barely comprehensible because of his stammer, and relying entirely on his screen magnetism, expressive face and graceful body language, Kapoor is a delight.
The movie is as high on pratfalls as it is low on mystery. Jagga Jasoos has enough a-ha moments to satisfy anybody who has been tuned into popular culture and the news over the past few decades. Like the clues to Bagchi’s disappearance that are scattered through the narrative, Basu leaves a bread crumb of trails of the part-fiction and part-fantasy world that he is trying to evoke in his films. The director gives away the reasons for Bagchi’s actions in the opening sequence itself. It’s a clever Forrest Gump-like reference, and would have been even smarter if Basu hadn’t spelt it out.
There isn’t enough explanation or exposition where there needs to be, and the rushed quality of the post-interval bits doesn’t do justice to Ravi S Varman’s eye-pleasing camerawork and the rich production design by Rajat and Raja Poddar. Pritam’s soundtrack is forced to compete with the musical-style narrative sequences, in which Jagga sings out his feelings. For a movie that is supposed to be a light adventure, Basu demands that audiences pay attention to every line and inflection.
There are several moments when Jagga Jasoos appears to be going off the rails, but Basu steers it back just in time by returning to the trinity that rule the movie. Saswata Chatterjee is wonderful as the director’s alter ego. Among Basu’s many dream projects is a biopic of Kishore Kumar, and in some moments, Chatterjee appears to be channeling the spirit of the legendary singer and comic actor.
Kaif too is perfectly cast as a glamourous sidekick who doesn’t have to do too much heavy lifting. Above all, Jagga Jassos is a love triangle, in which Shruti has to fill in for Bagchi’s absence in Jagga’s heart. The mostly asexual relationship, except for a few innocent kisses, fits right into a movie that often feels like a comic book come to life. This is a movie aimed at children and teenagers and the grown-ups who want to escape their adulthood and crawl back under the sheets with their books.
Like Basu’s previous films, the biggest crime in Jagga Jasoos is excess. Basu’s sense of fun, which infects his cast and crew too, is palpable, but so also is his refusal to accept that the best adventure is the one in which the page is turned to blankness. This movie suggests a sequel instead.