A pleasing thing about the so-called multiplex film — and its blurring of the line between “mainstream” and “parallel” cinema — is the number of opportunities it has provided to talented character actors. The better-written movies of the recent past have had fine supporting roles for performers who came to cinema via theatre (among the names that spring to mind are Vinay Pathak, Zakir Hussain and Yashpal Sharma), and there have been fresh innings for veteran actors who soldiered through under-watched movies in the 1980s and 1990s. Watching Raghubir Yadav as the beleaguered farmer in Peepli Live, I was reminded of his leading role in Massey Sahib and his small but effective parts in Dharavi and Suraj ka Satvan Ghoda — all worthy films that would have reached larger audiences had they been made in the era of multiplexes, DVDs and proliferating movie channels. It was also nice to see the Bengali actor Dhritaman Chatterji (whose intense, youthful presence was central to Satyajit Ray’s 1971 film Pratidwandi) in two good roles in the past couple of months — in Kahaani and Agent Vinod.
One major guilty pleasure in my recent movie-watching was Annu Kapoor as the single-minded infertility specialist Dr Chaddha in Vicky Donor. Through his long acting career, Kapoor probably never expected to meet a script that would require him to roll his tongue around the word “sperm” dozens of times. However, he does it with aplomb, saying the word with a hard “p” and a stress on the “r” (and emphasising Dr Chaddha’s middle-class Punjabi background in the process) and often accompanying it with an arm movement that mimics a sperm’s wiggly upstream journey. Executed differently, in a different sort of film, the gesture could have been a demonstration of bad taste; instead, it makes you warm to this sincere man who has mentally reduced all human beings to sperm types (“bada heartless sperrrm hai”).
The good doctor is simultaneously Gandhian in his anxiety about the preservation of a man’s vital fluids and Hitler-esque in his ideas about Aryan supremacy (though the latter trait exists mainly to create situational comedy, and Dr Chaddha is a humanist in every way that matters). Large sperm facsimiles with wide-eyed expressions decorate his office; a sperm-shaped dangler bumps about in the front of his car; he says lines like “Shakal dekhke aadmi ka sperrrm pehchaan sakta hoon”. That all this is done without ever turning him into a sleazeball or a voyeur is a tribute both to Kapoor’s performance and to the way the character is written (by a “female sperrrm” — Juhi Chaturvedi).
Throughout, it is obvious that Chaddha is much more interested in sperms than in actual sex. His heart sinks when he learns that his most productive donor (the film’s protagonist Vicky, nicely played by Ayushmann Khurana) might be in a sexual relationship or — even worse — getting married. There is nothing remotely frat-boyish about their conversations, no sign of a dirty old man engaging in “guy talk” with a randy Lajpat Nagar boy. A scene where two middle-class Indian men have an upfront, “G-rated” conversation about sperms might appear very improbable, but it works: this is a film with its heart in the right place, even if it is ostensibly more concerned with organs that lie further south.
Peel away the skin and we’re the same underneath, goes a platitude about human equality, but Vicky Donor doesn’t miss an opportunity to remind us of what we all looked like months before skin and developed organs even came into the equation. And Kapoor’s Dr Chaddha is central to its appeal. Monty Python’s “Every Sperm is Sacred” could well be the soundtrack of his life, though he wouldn’t think of the song as a satire.
Jai Arjun SIngh is a Delhi-based writer