Rani's the charmer in "Bunty aur Babli," a shameless slice of masala fluff that's another feather in the cap of actress Rani Mukerji. Meet-cute yarn about two rural wannabes who team up as grifters en route to the big city, benefits from the natural chemistry between Mukerji and Abhishek Bachchan. The Yash Raj production opened well May 27, at home and abroad.

Rani’s the charmer in “Bunty aur Babli,” a shameless slice of masala fluff that’s another feather in the cap of actress Rani Mukerji, currently enjoying a run of strong, varied roles (“Veer-Zaara,” “Black”). Meet-cute yarn about two rural wannabes, Bunty and Babli, who team up as grifters en route to the big city, benefits from the natural chemistry between Mukerji and co-lead Abhishek Bachchan, plus simpatico direction by Shaad Ali Sahgal, who brings a relaxed, southern Indian-style vibe to formulary Bollywood material. The Yash Raj production opened well May 27, at home and abroad (especially over the U.S.’Memorial Day weekend).

For Indian auds, the film’s main publicity hook has been its first on-screen pairing of Bachchan pere et fils, superstar vet Amitabh and his 29-year-old son, Abhishek. Coming two hours into the movie, in a hotel bar, it’s a likable enough event, played in relaxed manner by both, but hardly the pic’s highlight. By then, the film has developed its own personality, largely thanks to the two young leads.

Opening number — a salute by helmer Sahgal to masala movies of yore — crosscuts between the two principals as they express their boredom with smalltown life and yearn for wider frontiers. The son of a lifelong railroad employee (Raj Babbar), naive Rakesh Trivedi (Abhishek Bachchan) lives in Fursatganj, Uttar Pradesh, and doesn’t want to end up like his father; nearby, in Pankinagar, self-obsessed Vimmi Saluja (Mukerji) wants to be a famous model and escape a marriage being urged on her by mom and dad (Puneet Issar, Kiran Joneja Sippy).

The youngsters meet on a train to the city of Lucknow, where Rakesh has a business scheme rejected and Vimmi misses out on enrolling in the Miss India contest.

There’s a naturally organic feel to the script in the first hour as the two are repeatedly thrown together before deciding to team up and take light-hearted revenge on the society that’s rejected their dreams. As they turn from hitching to grifting, via Agra to Mumbai, it’s always made clear this is just a temporary alliance, not a career move.

However, by the time they reach Mumbai, they’ve become popular folk heroes — nicknamed “Bunty & Babli” — and have attracted the attention of a seedy, determined cop, Inspector Dashrath Singh (Amitabh Bachchan, having a ball in bomber jacket and shades). And there’s now more to B&B’s friendship than just ripping off the rich.

Post-intermission, pic settles largely back in Agra as B&B first con a rich Yank into buying the Taj Mahal (a neatly comic episode) and then make Singh look a fool by stealing some gold bullion from under his nose at an airport. By now, Vimmi is heavily pregnant, and Singh more pissed than ever.

Transition from the easygoing, linear Part I to the more dramatic, plot-heavy Part II — a standard Bollywood structure — is pretty much seamless, thanks to the strong three leads. Scenes of Bachchan Sr.’s gruff, strutting cop punctuate the movie at ever-shorter intervals in the second half, leading naturally to the climax in which the three meet face to face.

Though the resolution is pure piffle, it makes absolute sense in a Bollywood universe. And the emotional connection between the two men has been prepared much earlier on by one of the film’s highlights — a joyous musical number (“Kajra re/Night Eyes”) in a hotel niterie, with an unbilled Aishwarya Rai as a kind of Eternal Feminine.

With his father’s rather gawky build, Bachchan Jr. is well cast as the almost childlike Rakesh, and shows much better chemistry with Mukerji than recent co-stars Shah Rukh Khan (in “Chalte chalte”) and Saif Ali Khan (“Hum tum”). Three years ago, in “Saathiya,” helmer Sahgal managed to rediscover Mukerji’s earlier vivacity, and he’s done it again here in a role that the raspy-voiced diva-ette simply eats up.

Production credits are up to the usual Yash Raj standards, with Abhik Mukhopadhyay’s lensing making the plains of Uttar Pradesh look fresh on screen. A jokey coda lays the ground for a possible sequel, and a sequence alongside the final crawl of Bachchan Sr. doing a rap version of the title song sums up the pic’s sporty appeal.

Bunty Aur Babli

India

Production

A Yash Raj Films release of a Yash Chopra presentation of a Yash Raj Films production. (International sales: Yash Raj, London.) Produced by Aditya Chopra. Executive producer, Sanjay Shivalkar. Directed by Shaad Ali Sahgal. Associate director, Karan Kashyap. Screenplay, Jaideep Sahni; story, Aditya Chopra.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Abhik Mukhopadhyay; editor, Ritesh Soni; background and song music, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy; lyrics, Gulzar; production designer, Sharmishta Roy; costume designer, Aki Narala; sound designer (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Anuj Mathur; choreographers, Vaibhavi Merchant, Bosco-Caesar, Shiamak-Davar. Reviewed at UCI Empire 2, London, June 2, 2005. Running time: 170 MIN. (I: 82 MIN.; II: 88 MIN.).

With

Abhishek Bachchan, Rani Mukerji, Amitabh Bachchan, Kiran Joneja Sippy, Puneet Issar, Raj Babbar, Prem Chopra, Rameshwari, Pratima Kazmi, Aishwarya Rai. (Hindi, English dialogue)
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