My favorite John Hughes movie is Planes, Trains and Automobiles. It’s smart, wonderfully funny, and hits the right notes when it makes more serious points about human relationships and emotional connection.
I thought of that movie a lot while watching the Indian movie Bheja Fry. It has very much that same feel, and the execution—both the humor and the more poignant moments—is at least nearly as good. I thoroughly enjoyed this fun, smart movie.
One of the things I found interesting about the movie is that in India, or at least in the subculture in India in which these characters live, Hindi and English have merged into, in effect, one language. I was tickled how smoothly the characters go back and forth between the two. One character will speak English and the other answer him in Hindi, or the same character will utter a sentence in English and one in Hindi and back and forth, or the switch will even occur at the level of words rather than sentences and the same character will utter a sentence that is roughly half English words and half Hindi words. (The whole movie is subtitled, even the English parts, as I suppose it would be confusing to the audience if only the Hindi parts were translated, since it’s all so mashed together.)
The title itself is a prime example. “Bheja” is a Hindi word meaning “brain,” to go with the English word “fry.” The slang expression “bheja fry,” or “brain fry,” if I understand it correctly, means an annoyance. So frying one’s brains is kind of like getting on one’s nerves. In the context of this film the phrase presumably refers to the annoying (John Candy-type) guy.
One of the two main characters (think Steve Martin) is a successful music producer, with a Simon Cowell-like opinion of most of the “talent” he encounters. As a campy hobby, he and his friends get together every Friday evening for a party where one of them is required to bring along some unwitting, shockingly bad performer to entertain them.
The other of the two main characters (think John Candy) is a happy-go-lucky, energetic, talkative civil servant who has supreme confidence in his singing abilities, and given half a chance will eagerly show off his lovingly wrapped scrapbook (of ribbons and notices in school papers about singing contests and such) and/or sing to anyone he meets. He is recommended to the music producer as just the kind of buffoon who would be perfect for one of his parties.
So the producer invites him to his home to informally audition him and get to know him. It takes him a matter of seconds to realize that, yes, the guy is just as delightfully awful as promised.
But there’s a limit to how much he wants to play with his new toy, because in the meantime more serious matters have arisen. He has thrown out his back and is in serious physical discomfort, and his wife has walked out on him (largely for being the kind of insensitive brute who would do things like participate in those Friday night ridicule parties).
The singer, though, is eager to help (to find where the wife has gone and try to get her back and such). The producer is ambivalent, going back and forth between accepting his help and trying to get rid of him. There follow a series of misadventures where the singer clumsily messes up every one of their schemes (much like Candy’s audacious efforts to get Martin home to his family for Thanksgiving). Far from getting the producer’s wife to return, he ends up, among other things, bringing a tax inspector and the producer’s clingy, sometime mistress to the house.
The early parts of the film are decent. There are some laughs, it’s all reasonably well done, and it provides an understandable set-up for what’s to come.
Then the meat of the film when it’s primarily the two main characters interacting in the producer’s home is great. There’s an excellent chemistry between them (again think Martin and Candy). I laughed out loud multiple times at the antics of the singer. It’s solid comedy.
As it gets deeper into the film and more characters come to the house, I thought it faded a bit. It’s still decent, but not as good as when the two main characters are just playing off each other. The tax inspector with the Eugene Levy-esque facial expressions, for instance, is only OK.
But it won me back (not that it had ever lost me) with a very good ending. What’s so nice about the film is that it doesn’t just craft its characters and situations for laughs, but keeps you always aware of their humanity and of the more serious emotional issues at play, and these deeper elements become more prominent as the movie winds down.
Not all comedies, not even all comedies that succeed in being funny, pull that off. Gretchen managed it. Planes, Trains and Automobiles managed it. Most don’t.
When the singer wins people over with the sheer ebullience of his personality, when the producer shows that he really does love his wife, when the singer reveals the pain inside him due to his own wife leaving him, when the singer realizes he’s been the butt of a joke and reacts, when the producer expresses remorse, when the singer speaks from the heart to the producer’s wife to try to get her to return, it all feels emotionally real. It works. It works like the comedy works.
The scene where the singer defends himself against the producer’s laughing at him and getting angry with him and treating him as an inferior, is as strong a scene as when Candy finally similarly stands up for himself. And even if Bheja Fry doesn’t have quite as intense a heartstrings-tugging moment as Martin’s arrival home to be greeted by his family, it comes close on one or more occasions.