In a revealing sequence from Hansal Mehta’s new movie, Praful (Kangana Ranaut), after a successful night at baccarat in Las Vegas, raises a toast to herself, fully convinced of her brilliance.
Mehta’s Simran is brimming with tributes to its female lead, giving her scene after scene to prove her comic timing (not always spot on), her ability to evoke pathos (not always convincing) and her skill at switching registers in a matter of seconds (not always successful). Despite the presence of other actors, the 125-minute movie is a one-hander, with Ranaut present in nearly every frame from start to finish. Some parts of Simran play out like improvisational scenes from an acting workshop in which Ranaut is trying out various emotions to see which one fits.
The film is named after the nom de guerre Praful adopts as she begins to rob banks to pay off debts incurred from gambling. The bubbly goes flat very fast for Simran, as does the movie for Mehta and Ranaut.
The actor has also played a controversial behind-the-scenes role in the shaping of the movie. She has been given credit for the additional dialogue and story, leaving the original writer Apurva Asrani fuming. It’s hard to tell which bits were from the original and which were a result of Ranaut’s intervention, as a result of which Simran careens between an American indie-style portrait of a middle-class woman’s descent into crime and a screwball comedy involving a bank robber who has one of the most unusual stick-up routines in recent memory: a piece of paper in which a bomb threat has been written with lipstick.
Praful is loosely based on the “Bombshell Bandit”, the title given to Sandeep Kaur, who held up various banks in and around Los Angeles over a two-month period in 2014 to pay off gambling debts. Sandeep Kaur was eventually arrested. Her experiences, if they had been properly filmed, would have lent themselves to a gripping cautionary tale about an immigrant who loses her way after aspiring to a lifestyle she clearly could not afford. Simran, however, doesn’t have the complexity or the rigour needed to bring this character to the screen.
The movie exists as a testament to Ranaut’s awesomeness. Praful is an extension both of Ranaut’s character Rani from Queen (2014) as well as her public persona. Like Rani and the headline-courting Ranaut, the Atlanta resident is a sunny-natured woman with a large and golden heart, a commonsensical approach to life’s big problems, flexible morality and a fearless honesty to see through hypocrisy and make-believe. The star and the character merge into one, and the movie suffers as a result.
Praful’s hapless parents (played by Kishori Shahane and Hiten Kumar) and her possible fiance (Sohum Shah) struggle to make sense of her, as will viewers. Praful’s devotion to her needs and happiness makes it hard to empathise with her actions, even though the movie goes to great lengths to justify her journey from happily divorced housekeeping department staffer at a hotel to gambler and then bank robber.
Bank robbery, which has assumed the quality of a cultural artefact in American lore, is treated as one big joke, as Praful gleefully holds up various awkward-looking American extras with the Atlanta police none the wiser. Two other extras play caricature loan sharks; one of them behaves as though he is in a Michael Mann movie rather than a Bollywood attempt to tackle Americana.
In her sense of hurt at being denied the breaks she thinks she deserves and the perilous journey she undertakes to overcome her debts, Praful is always alone. As she lives a double life, removing the creases from hotel beds after having divested a bank of its deposits, her universe never expands to include other experiences or, at the very least, a bigger picture of other Americans struggling with their bank balances. In David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water (2016), for instance, a pair of brothers starts robbing banks to save their family ranch from foreclosure, and their actions are always placed against the larger economic distress that has affected rural America over the past few years.
Praful’s parents are mere witnesses to her dubious decisions, while Sohum Shah’s Sameer, who is attracted to Praful’s forthright manner, is an excuse to introduce some songs into a narrative that could have existed without them.
The monomania that characterises Simran – the furtherance of the assertion that Kangana Ranaut can carry off just about anything – dooms the movie to repetition and facetiousness. Ranaut gives the role her all, but her relentless optimism and self-belief in the face of trying circumstances are barely convincing. The charm is laid on thick, even when not required. Praful is famed for her cheesy humour, but she is often the only one laughing at her jokes. Since the movie does not require viewers to be a part of this private conversation between a movie star and her character, a staggering sense of disengagement is par for the course.