Ramsingh Charlie channels the spirit of the patron saint of sad-eyed dreamers the world over. Ramsingh is both Charlie Chaplin impersonator and Chaplinesque hero with his head in the clouds even as his feet pound the streets.

Ramsingh (Kumud Mishra) is a rickshaw puller in Kolkata. In his past life, he was an entertainer at Jango circus. When the circus shuts down, its employees, most of whom have spent their entire lives under the big top, are scattered across Kolkata. The dwarves are now watchmen at a bar, where they are subjected to cruel jokes. The violin player moves into a subway. Ram Singh tries to find work but ends up pulling a rickshaw with the same hands that once dexterously twirled a stick. His pregnant wife Kajri (Divya Dutta) and son Chintu (Rohit Rokhade) support his dream of owning his own circus, but the gap between hope and reality only widens.

Directed by Nitin Kakkar and written by him and Sharib Hashmi, the long-delayed movie has been finally released on the SonyLIV streaming service. The production’s vintage shows in minor ways (Rs 500 notes are still in circulation) and major ways too. Made before the entry of the smartphone and the popularity of short-form video, Ramsingh Charlie’s theme of reviving a dying entertainment option appears dated.

But the struggles of the migrant striver have no expiry date. Replace the circus with any other form of employment and the movie resonates in the age of the Covid-19 pandemic, where lakhs of people have lost their jobs, suffered deep salary cuts and been displaced. Ramsingh’s pitiful efforts to find money to support his family connect him to another famous Kolkata movie rickshaw puller – Shambhu, played by Balraj Sahni in Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953).

Ramsingh Charlie (2020). Courtesy SonyLIV.

The screenplay, despite being occasionally uneven and with a rushed ending, strikes a balance between a fairy tale and a hard dose of reality. Over 95 crisp minutes, Kakkar puts his own spin on the Chaplin movie and pays tribute to the continuing resonance of the comic genius’s persona. Among the most memorable happy-sad moments is the sequence in which Ram Singh and the grandly named Shahjehan (Farrukh Deyer) have a conversation at a children’s event for which they are dressed as chickens.

Ramsingh’s travails, all the more heart-rending because of the absence of melodrama, are wonderfully portrayed by Kumud Mishra. His Chaplin imitation may be found wanting, but his ability to bring out the dual nature of the Tramp and move between sadness and optimism is impeccable. Mishra’s quiet voice and expressive face have already illuminated many roles. In Ramsingh Charlie, he finally has the opportunity to explore the full range of his talent.

Every one of the actors playing the circus performers, which includes the veteran Lilliput, gets a scene or two to shine. Salima Raza, as the circus owner who reluctantly shuts down her business because of advanced age and insurmountable losses, sparkles in her limited screen time. The real circus is out there, she reminds Ramsingh – words rendered true by her insensitive son Nabeel (Akarsh Khurana).

Divya Dutta in Ramsingh Charlie (2020). Courtesy SonyLIV.

Divya Dutta is a knockout as Ramsingh’s understanding wife Kajri, but the movie shuts her out of her husband’s journey. Despite being a circus artist too, Kajri is relegated to the sidelines of the plot. The movie imagines Ramsingh as the family’s sole bread-winner – another sign, perhaps of its vintage.

In this sense too, Ramsingh Charlie is very Chaplinesque. Its hero gets the lion’s share of the bittersweet experience while the woman patiently hangs around in the background. How would a woman interpret Charlie Chaplin’s unending journey? We can only guess from Divya Dutta’s expressive face and eyes when Kajri sees what has become of her husband.

Ramsingh Charlie (2020).

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