In The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir, Tamil movie actor and producer Dhanush plays an Indian street performer who hoodwinks Westerners. As it turns out, he’s the second screen charlatan to do so in recent months. But unlike the character from The Fakir of Venice, Dhanush’s fatuously named Ajatshatru Lavash Patel has a heart of gold and a solid purpose. All this man from the “small, small area of Worli” in Mumbai really wants is to travel to Paris to meet his French father.
Along the way, Ajatshatru ends up getting a tour of Europe’s most photogenic cities, where he meets an assortment of characters, including the sales executive Marie (Erin Moriarty) and the actress Nelly (Berenice Bejo). He falls in love, discovers a community of immigrants and asylum seekers, shakes his modest hips to a Bollywood song, and bolsters his “fakir” credentials.
Director Ken Scott’s English-language movie is loosely based on Romain Puertolas’s bestseller The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe (Puertolas and Luc Bossi have written the screenplay, with inputs by Scott). The global brand is not named in the screen adaptation – it is merely referred to as a “Swedish furniture store” – and plays a far less important role in Ajatshatru’s journey. The most important factor guiding Ajatshatru’s peripatetics is “chance”. Since the film is tone-deaf to the implications of this concept for Indian audiences, we will have to accept the assertion that “karma is everything”.
The bar is set low in a movie that bases its humour on broad Indian and Continental stereotypes. There are no snake charmers in this modern-day picaresque, but there is a snake oil salesman in the form of Ajatshatru and at least one domesticated cow (named Mohini). India is depicted as a land of primary colours and wise souls. Ajatshatru’s quest in the source novel to travel to Europe to buy a bed of nails has been mercifully axed from the movie. But others elements survive, including the whimsical quality that marks Ajatshatru’s adventures and the simplistic treatment of the horrors of immigration and the refugee crisis.
The 109-minute movie is good at setting up moments with potential, only to squander them with limp humour and indifferent characterisation. Ajatshatru’s romance comes off as stilted (it includes a bizarre debate on what constitutes lesbianism). The track involving the actress who helps Ajatshatru on the Rome section of his journey is barely amusing.
The cast, which includes Somalian actor Barkhad Abdi as an undocumented migrant, are on their best behaviour, but this is a Dhanush show all the way. Dhanush is both effective and affecting as the magician and pickpocket who never loses hope despite being bounced across Europe. The film has some good-hearted moments – the portions featuring the immigrants, especially – but this adventure of a working-class Indian into Fortress Europe is ultimately merely ordinary.