Ramesh Sippy’s first theatrical release in a quarter of a century should be an event – but it’s a bit of a sideshow.
Completed five years ago and out in theatres only now, Shimla Mirchi feels resolutely old-fashioned (which isn’t a bad thing at all) but also fusty (which is). Some of the plotting is as creaky as the stairs in a colonial-era house, and the shooting style – very little movement, indoor scenes, and uncomfortable close-ups as though the camera were held centimetres away from the face – indicate an approach better suited to the small screen.
And yet, there are minor charms packed into Shimla Mirchi, written by Sippy, Kausar Munir, Rishi Virmani and Vipul Binjola. Events are driven by communication or the lack thereof. Avinash (Rajkummar Rao) is able and willing but lacks the courage to express himself in love. Naina (Rakul Preet Singh) talks nineteen to the dozen and has no problems getting her point across. Unable to convey his ardour despite all but tattooing “I love you” on his forehead, Avinash takes the epistolary route – he writes Naina an anonymous love letter.
Naina is too distracted to notice. She has a temper as short as her little-girl skirts, and is more worried about the impending divorce her parents, Tilak (Kanwaljeet Singh) and Rukmini (Hema Malini). Rukmini is refusing to let Tilak go, and worried that she will slide into a funk, Naina sends Avinash’s billet doux onward to Rukmini.
The mother takes the bait that the daughter didn’t. Rukmini blossoms, and when she learns the identity of the letter writer, decides to ignore the vast age gap and needle Tilak in the bargain. Since Rukmini is played by an actor who barely looks her age (Hema Malini was 66 when the movie was made) and has immense fun preening and blushing, the conceit passes.
The plot fits snugly in romcom territory, providing an update to the hill-station romances that were the staple of Hindi cinema in the 1960s and ’70s. Malini has previously appeared in Sippy’s films, including his best-known, Sholay (1975), and their reunion produces some of Shimla Mirchi’s sweetest scenes. The movie needed much more of Rukmini’s blissful ignorance, but we instead get too many servings of the main item on offer: Avinash’s attempts to get close to Naina.
Naina is overwritten and Rakul Preet Singh overperforms to make the character count. Rajkummar Rao channels his inner Shah Rukh Khan as the bumbling but passionate Avinash. The love story required larger-than-life movie stars to have worked, and despite the best efforts of Rao and Singh, their romance is frisson-free.
The movie’s heart beats louder in other places. Care has been devoted to the writing and casting of the smaller characters. Shakti Kapoor, one of Hindi cinema’s most cherished lechers, has a lovely part as the manager at the cafe that Naina owns and where Avinash works. Avi’s family, comprising entirely women (including Kiran Joneja Sippy), are enthusiastic commentators on his travails.
Although there isn’t too much in Shimla Mirchi to prove the credentials of its storied director, whose last film Zamaana Deewana was released in 1995, Sippy keeps the narrative moving smoothly (interrupted only by redundant songs). The movie’s spiciest element is Hema Malini, whose ditzy dowager looks terrific despite being poorly styled. Malini is raring to go, but Shimla Mirchi doesn’t allow her to get too far.