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Film Review: ‘Total Siyapaa’

A lethargic Off Bollywood farce about the culture clash that ensues when a Hindu girl brings home a Pakistani fiance.

With:

Ali Zafar, Yami Gautam, Anupam Kher, Kiron Kher, Sara Khan, Anuj Pandit. (Hindi dialogue)

A Hindu girl, living in London with her loopy dysfunctional family, brings her new fiance home to meet the parents in “Total Siyapaa” (“Total Chaos”), a lethargic Off Bollywood farce.  The key to the ostensible fun is that the girl, Asha (Yami Gautam), has neglected to inform the future in-laws that her swain, Aman (Ali Zafar), is Pakistani; ethnically barbed hijinks ought to ensue, but jinks of any sort are in short supply, due to drowsy pacing and a string of distracting staging mistakes that suffocate just about every gag. At under two hours, the pic is drastically shorter than most Hindi movies, although it feels longer. (For non-Hindi speakers, it doesn’t help that the white-on-pale English subtitles are often illegible.)

The film has opened poorly in India and seems unlikely to fare better over here, unless it gets a boost from the popularity of handsome leading man Zafar, a successful Pakistani recording artist whose listed genres include electronica and “Sufi rock.” As an actor, though, Zafar is such an unemphatic presence that we never get a clear sense of what sort of man Aman is supposed to be, or what kind of husband he’ll make. At the very least, he seems too skittish and apologetic to be a believable partner for the forthright bride he’s chosen, who has already mastered a withering “Are you insane?” expression.

One would expect Asha to get fed up with the wimpy Aman and show him the door within a year. And because these two never make sense as a couple, the hurt doesn’t go deep when Asha’s brother (Anuj Pandit) and loopy mother (Kiron Kher) begin shouting (always shouting) their anti-Pakistani views.

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“Total Siyapaa” is based on a 2004 Spanish comedy, “Only Human,” about a Jewish girl in Madrid who brings home a Palestinian boy. A comparison of the trailers of the two films suggests that the remake crafted by screenwriter Neeraj Pandey and director Eshvar Niwas is a reverent one. Both plots hinge, for example, upon near-lethal accidents in which the head of the household is KO’d by a tub of frozen soup that tumbles from a second-story window. (The absence of a Chuck Jones-style “bonk!” sound effect in this version is an unforgivable lapse.)

One critic a decade ago compared “Only Human” to an episode of “Fawlty Towers,” a similarity that does not seem to have survived the translation. A farce that hinges on on the escalating repercussions of an initial mistake needs to be a well-oiled machine, like the best episodes of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” But the slapstick in “Total Siyapaa” is so imprecise that often it isn’t even physically plausible; witness the dining room table that is visibly too wide for the game of footsies supposedly going on beneath it. The impact of scene after scene is muffled by  seemingly tiny mistakes of that sort — exactly the sort of details that, we’re so often told, have the devil in them.

Thought not quite worth the price of admission, the best thing in the movie is the dazed expression on the face of one of India’s most reliable character actors, Anupam Kher, wandering around Central London in his long johns as the clobbered father. With wisps of hair sticking out around his bald dome, Kher looks almost blissfully unaware of his surroundings, as if he’d been transported to a higher realm. Or at least into a better movie.

Film Review: 'Total Siyapaa'

Reviewed at Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino, Calif., March 7, 2014. Running time: 108 MIN.

Production:

(India) A Reliance Entertainment release presented in association with Neeraj Pandey of an AKA Pictures Co. & Friday Filmworks production. Produced by Karan Shah, Shital Bhatia.

Crew:

Directed by Eshvar Niwas. Screenplay, Neeraj Pandey, based on the film "Only Human" written and directed by Teresa Pelegri, Dominic Harari. Camera (color, widescreen), David Meadows; editor, Shree Narayan Singh; music director, Zafar Ali; lyrics, Neha Saraf, Shrya Narayan, Soumik Sen; background score, Sanjoy Chowdhury; production designer, Simon Godfrey; costume designers, Falguni Thakore, Lorna Gillieron; sound designer, Prashant Nayar; choreographer, Umesh Jadhev.

With:

Ali Zafar, Yami Gautam, Anupam Kher, Kiron Kher, Sara Khan, Anuj Pandit. (Hindi dialogue)

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