In 2000, a comic caper of three down-on-their luck men out to make a quick buck became a sleeper hit and went on to acquire cult status as one of Hindi cinema’s finest comedies.
Priyadarshan’s Hera Pheri, starring Akshay Kumar, Suniel Shetty and Paresh Rawal in lead roles, spawned a significantly inferior sequel Phir Hera Pheri (2006), directed by Neeraj Vora. A third installment has finally been confirmed, with the original key cast and Indra Kumar as director.
A remake of Siddique-Lal’s Malayalam hit Ramji Rao Speaking (1989), Hera Pheri for the most part stayed true to the original, which combined clever dialogue with broad comedy, slapstick gags and bawdy references. But the remake pulled off the rare feat of being as good, if not better than the original, thanks in large part to the craft of Rawal and his lovable character Baburao Apte. Rawal took the fine work done by Innocent in the Malayalam original and added a whole lot of physical comedy and delightful hysteria to it, birthing one of Bollywood’s most-loved comic figures.
In Hera Pheri, Raju (Kumar), who believes in making money through cunning rather than hard work, and Shyam (Shetty), who has spent years trying to unsuccessfully claim a job at a bank where his father died in service – take shelter under the roof of the grouchy but kind-hearted Baburao. Rawal’s character operates a garage out of his house that sees little business, leaving him with plenty of space in his premises and his life for some company. In the original movie, Innocent’s Mannar Mathai owns a failing theatre company.
Fate is as tangled as a telephone wire in this film. In a serendipitous turn of events, Baburao’s garage landline number gets interchanged with that of Devi Prasad, a fisheries company owner, in the telephone directory. When Raju, Shyam and Baburao get a call from a kidnapper (Gulshan Grover’s Kabira) demanding ransom in exchange for Prasad’s granddaughter, the stage is set for a hare-brained money-making scheme and the adventure of a lifetime. Raju suggests that the three of them play intermediaries between kidnapper and millionaire, demanding double the ransom amount from Prasad, pocketing half of it and giving the rest to the abductor to rescue the child. But unsurprisingly, things don’t go as per plan.
Like Mannar Mathai, Baburao is a irate old man, the bane of whose existence are the frequent phone calls that come to his garage with queries that are pescatarian in nature. Any mention of fish gets a rise out of him, and his hapless callers are frequently greeted with a barrage of insults and sarcasm. Rawal adds liberal doses of melodrama to Innocent’s saner original and trades his Malayalam drawl for a Maharashtrian twang. His exaggerated mannerisms and accent create often hilarious outcomes, as does his poor wit and his love for alcohol.
Another addition to Baburao’s character are his chunky spectacles with their too-thick frames. This minor tweak adds significant comedic value. Baburao’s shortsightedness and his bug-eyed look are a running gag in the film, and give Rawal much room for physical humour. The glasses also become a prop in their own right, going missing at all the wrong times or poking their way through helmets, masks and other disguises that the three of them use in their ransom collection bid.
Though Neeraj Vora, who wrote Hera Pheri, retains much of Siddique-Lal’s dialogue from the original, Rawal’s comic timing and his character’s tendency to take things literally result in some hilarious additions. Sample these scenes, which were not in the original. When Shyam comes to Baburao’s garage and house seeking a room on rent, the old man amicably asks him: “Tell me, what brings you here. What is your problem?” Shetty’s character responds, “My name is Shyam,” to which Baburao says: “Is that all? So change your name, what’s the need to leave your village and come here for that?”
With Rawal’s skill, the trite dialogue is elevated to comedic gold and Shyam’s name continues to vex him for much of that introductory scene.
Similarly, when Raju, Baburao and Shyam are woken up from their drunken sleep by the ransom call from Kabira, they wonder what they should do. Raju says, “Why don’t we play a game?” To which Baburao responds, “What game? You want to play a game at this time in the night?”
In Rawal’s hands, Baburao evolves into a lovable if cantankerous quasi-patriarch to Raju and Shyam – but one who needs taking care of himself. He tries hard to assert his age and his superiority over them by virtue of being their landlord, but is never taken too seriously. In the film’s second half, as the melodrama and implausible plot turns shift the focus away from the comedy, Rawal’s character helps retain the film’s light-hearted and humourous core and makes sure the movie does not go awry.
In Phir Hera Pheri, when a now-wealthy Baburao trades his thick black glasses for gaudy golden frames, those chunky spectacles – and the first film’s superior brand of humour – are sorely missed.