“Female-centric films” are Bollywood buzzwords these days, and July 3rd saw the release of the latest of the ever-growing bunch, as the Vidya Balan-starring/Dia Mirza-produced Bobby Jasoos hit theaters.
Here, Vidya is Bilquis “Bobby” Ahmed—a jovial if not somewhat bumbling small-town girl with an ardent hunger to be the best crime-busting, crook-catching, puzzle-solving private eye around. Sure, she has no degree and zero field experience (unless catching a couple mid-make-out session in a secluded alleyway counts), but what she lacks in credentials she makes up for in spades with ambition.
Indeed, Bobby’s espionage dreams are much larger than the parameters that her traditional family or conservative Moghalpura society will allow for; her father, ashamed at his daughter’s impending spiral into spinsterhood, refuses to speak to her. And while she’s got a steady stream of locals requesting her services for petty assignments in exchange for equally petty cash, Bobby isn't satisfied with digging up community gossip. So when the mysterious Anees Khan (Kiran Kumar) offers her lofty compensation to find a string of young women, Bobby will stop at nothing—not even silent treatment from dad—to emerge as Hyderabad’s #1 hardboiled detective. But the more lucrative her cases get, the more ambiguous their morality becomes, until Bobby fears that taking them on may have been a huge mistake.
The film starts off promisingly enough, with plenty of laugh-out-loud opportunities. Without a legitimate background in detective work, Bobby uses unconventional yet effective tactics to carry out her investigations: a collection of low-budget disguises, from a bearded and turbaned beggar to a buck-toothed palm reader, and a motley crew of bungling assistants providing some giggle-worthy exchanges, including her melodramatic gay sidekick Shetty and pal-cum-potential-love-interest Tussavur (Ali Fazal). A gaggle of supporting actresses, headed by Tanvi Azmi as Bobby’s aunt, provide an additional boost of both heart and humor. The first half also establishes some genuinely compelling set-ups for suspense, as Khan’s character and motives get increasingly murky.
That initial potential endures until the intermission, after which director Samar Shaikh appears to gradually lose grasp of the many lines he has cast as subplots. At some moments a love story, at some a thriller, at others a family drama, and at still others a comedy, the various genres being juggled simultaneously never find a way to coexist, rendering the film to become a whole lot of nothing much.
There is an excess of irritating and illogical plot points that make Bobby Jasoos’s otherwise amusing script seem careless: for instance, despite being an aspiring detective, Bobby fails to inquire why, in the first place, she is being asked to find the girls Aneez Khan is looking for. We have no idea in which direction Bobby’s life is headed upon the film’s last frame. The climax is feeble; the denouement feels forced.
Vidya Balan can’t save the story’s seams from unraveling, but she is its saving grace as the equally headstrong and vulnerable Bobby. The film is a chance for her to boast her impeccable comic timing and prove that it takes not just talent, but an actress for whom vanity is a distant afterthought, to pull off the crazy costumes and expressions that she does with confidence.
Best of all, Balan is truly the film’s hero, taking on the actions and the personality traits that most Bollywood actors would: she’s swathed in salwar kameez, but strides the streets in orange sneakers. She hurtles through chase sequences, seeks out heated confrontations, dishes out verbal dhamkis, and teaches the meek Tassuvar to act more like a “tiger;” in fact, Fazal’s character is largely useless without Bobby around. While their chemistry isn’t quite convincing—the romantic subplot seems generally displaced and superfluous given there’s plenty else going on—the dynamic between Fazal and Balan when they banter is hilarious, making Bobby Jasoos one of those rare films necessitating the actress to boost the substance of her male counterparts.
Alas, not even Balan’s badassery can rescue the film from slipping through the narrative cracks. Well-intentioned but with way too many loose knots left at the end, Bobby Jasoos is a mystery all right--just not in the sense that the filmmakers probably intended.