Bangalore’s most beloved scamster came to the big screen this weekend, in a first of its kind for Kannada, and almost certainly all Indian, internet comedy. Humble Politician Nograj is a movie about the eponymous character devised and made famous by city comedian Danish Sait, engaging in full kedi scenes - to use the Bangalorean phrase - as a way of life.
The characters will be new to those who haven’t caught Nograj making one of his viral(-ish) shakedowns on YouTube or the local radio station. But the archetypes are not alien to any Bangalorean who has tangled with their friendly local government agency. The film kicks off with a ne’er do well ward corporator eyeing his constituency’s assembly seat. In due course of time, we see him running against earnest do-gooder, technocrat-turned-politician Arun Patil (Roger Narayan). Nograj’s predilection to cheat, lie, and steal is deftly explained to an unfamiliar audience at the very outset: he scams before he is scammed.
This might seem like millennial cynicism, except for how Nograj is instantly beloved by all from the very moment he bursts onto screen, bold-facedly hustling his way into people’s hearts. Despite being a perpetrator of potholes and perfidies, you’re supposed to loathe-love this scoundrel - and you do. Sait shines when his character is pitted against adversaries who seek to out-scam him, or combat his many deceptions via well-meaning idealism. Nograj cackles his way from one deeply pleasurable victory to the next, replenishing our stock of immensely quotable dialogue, to be whipped out at the next opportune moment.
Audiences familiar with Sait’s work as Nograj on YouTube and radio will be particularly tickled by his antics; newcomers to the land of Nog will find it an easy introduction. Still, the film falls short in selling us a convincing story arc that does justice to this hometown rapscallion. Time and again, plot twists end up going nowhere, motivations contradict themselves, and punchlines go for low blows (Could we stop with “OMG, gay!” being the entire gag?).
The absurdities of Nograj’s character are hard to carry through over longer periods of time, which is likely why long-time fans will find this film to be a series of brilliantly executed sketches, rather than a satisfying full-length feature. A less scattershot screenplay would have let unfamiliar audiences really sink into would could have been a delightful caper. Instead, we are constantly reminded that this blackguard and his ambitions stretch thin.
The overriding advantage is Sait’s brilliant performance as Nograj. It’s not even the only thing to look forward to. Nograj is supported by a cast of fantastic characters - ranging from Azam Khan, a hookah-smoking local politician to the frail Party president, striking fear into all hearts from his wheelchair. Particularly delightful is Nograj’s faithful assistant, Manjunath (Vijay Chendoor), whose eyes turn into limpid pools of adoration every time they rest on his dear leader. Through his presence, these political machinations transform into silly hijinks that we want to participate in as co-conspirators, rather than fall prey to as victims. Nograj’s wide-eyed wife, Lavanya (Sumukhi Suresh) is equally endearing, but woefully underutilised.
Many supporting roles are essayed by the who’s who of the Bangalore stand-up scene, set in locations familiar to anyone who loves this city. Combined with lovingly sweeping shots of the city’s massive flyovers winding their way through sprawling residential layouts, this film is quintessentially nouveau Bangalorean - perfect for those who might not have learned their city’s language just yet, delightful for those familiar with its cadence. Kannada non-speakers need not fear - the film is hardcoded with subtitles that aren’t completely devoid of nuance.
Despite leaving us repeatedly hanging, in terms of plot, the film accurately represents the anarchy associated with running a political campaign. From duffel bags filled with cash changing hands at every turn, to foreign-returned, desperately upper-class technocrats trying to whiteboard decades-old developmental issues, Humble Politician Nograj is ultimately a fine send-up of local politics in India.
Those unfamiliar might interpret the bowing, the scraping, and conspiratorial gossip as sophomoric, Mean Girls-inspired silliness, but do not be fooled. The film is an uncannily accurate portrayal of how politics work. This reviewer was particularly struck by how everyone in wire-frame glasses and a Fab India kurta is impressed by Patil’s laughable stop-gap solutions to the city’s problems, while simultaneously being disdainful of Nograj’s open deceitfulness.
Perhaps, as this film impishly points out, the real problem is not saviours in pressed linen shirts or huckster politicians. Perhaps it is an audience that enjoys spectacle, feeding on it to rant on Twitter and post political screeds on Facebook, all while nurturing the very system that keeps fraudsters going. “Don’t act like rascal!” Nograj impatiently exhorts his assistant in one scene. A lesson for us all.
Sushmita Sundaram enjoys writing about funny people and odd things. Follow her on Twitter at @sushmitas.
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