By Poulomi Das Dec. 12, 2019
Long before Hindi cinema made an aesthetic out of the middle-class, Shimit Amin's criminally underrated Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year, offered a distinctive snapshot of the challenges of middle-class employment, carving with a comical clarity that the good employee is not always the right employee.
Ten years ago, there were two carefree and directionless college graduates in Hindi cinema. One of them was Sidharth Mehra, a Bombay slacker who prefered building daydreams instead of realising them, epitomising the ultimate cliche of a wealthy brat. Sid failed his final college exams, made a routine out of clashing with his father, and mined this dependence on generational conflict – derived in part from the stubbornness of Indian parenting – to ultimately discover his passion. But if Sidharth Mehra got to wake up as Sid, Harpreet Singh Bedi never had the luxury to fall asleep in the first place.
Like Sid, Harpreet’s academic bent wasn’t remarkable. Barely passing with 39 per cent in his BCom exams made it obvious that he didn’t have the aptitude for an MBA degree, either. Harpreet was also lost in the same ways as Sid: He wasn’t particularly ambitious and resisted following convention blindly. And both of them rebelled against what society expected out of them. Sid found himself as a photographer and Harpeet turned into an entrepreneur. Yet, despite their similarities, the language of Harpreet and Sid’s rebellion couldn’t be any more different.
Unlike Sid, Harpreet belonged to a middle-class family, which meant that his coming-of-age story was shackled by the practicality of responsibilities. It was, to put it simply, not cinematic enough. For him, fending for himself, even if it was through a nine-to-five job, was a necessity. So even as Sid went about making a spectacle out of rebellion in Wake Up Sid, Harpreet was obligated to be resourceful and look inward – his rebellion occurred undercover, devoid of any grand theatrics in Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year. That both Sid and Harpreet were essayed by Ranbir Kapoor, the actor who keeps doubling up as the perennial poster boy for going against the tide, made it all the more poetic.
In Rocket Singh…, after Harpreet (Kapoor) takes up a job at a computer firm as a sales agent, he ends up getting a crash course in hypocrisy. Yash Raj Films
In Rocket Singh…, after Harpreet (Kapoor) takes up a job at a computer firm as a sales agent, he ends up getting a crash course in hypocrisy.
Yash Raj Films
In a way, Shimit Amin’s Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year began exactly where Ayan Mukherji’s Wake Up Sid ended. It’s perhaps why Sid came-of-age but Harpeet grew up, in the truest sense of the word. The stark contrast in the approach to the same underdog story is at the heart of the kind of acclaim both these films eventually garnered. Wake Up Sid was an instant commercial success, unanimously lauded for being a movie that infused passion in profession and gave a face to youthful listlessness. In comparison, the Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year, a film that probed whether ambition came with a personal responsibility, swiftly flew under the radar despite it being the riskier outing of the two.
For one, the film – a rewarding upshot of the reunion of Amin and Jaideep Sahni (the duo had previously collaborated on Chak De! India) – was one of the rare Bollywood outings that remained unconcerned about becoming box-office friendly. It’s an especially miraculous feat given that back then, movies weren’t rewarded for withstanding the temptations of mainstream cinema like they are today. In a way, a large part of the credit might lie with Yash Raj Films, Bollywood’s most influential production house, reputed for both, lavishly budgeted A-list-led cinema and for needlessly dialing up the theatrics of its offerings. Although, Yash Raj is widely commended for backing Dum Laga Ke Haisha in 2015 which went against these norms, not demanding Amin to compromise on his vision for Rocket Singh… should easily rank higher in its list of achievements.
In the film, after Harpreet (Kapoor) takes up a job at a computer firm as a sales agent, he ends up getting a crash course in hypocrisy. His bosses set impossible targets for the team and his colleagues silently adhere to this unreasonableness, reinforcing the corrupt culture of corporate slavery instead of fighting it. The trigger for Harpreet’s awakening comes when he is punished with a demotion for filing a complaint against a client who demanded a bribe. Although, Amin and Sahni make a big deal out of this moment, Harpreet’s rebellion happens almost unannounced – neither is it set to a definitive background score nor is it accompanied by long monologues. That’s because the film’s intentions stretched beyond the beats of the usual David vs Goliath template. Sahni’s screenplay was bothered less about the loser as it was fixated on questioning his limits. What the film remained invested in was carving out the distinction between what makes a good employee and who is really, the right employee.
To that end, long before Hindi cinema made a template out of the middle-class, Rocket Singh… offered a distinctive snapshot of the challenges of middle-class employment. It did so without falling prey to any of the cliches paraded by most Hindi films of today: Amin strayed away from glamourising the constraints of an Indian workplace – an office-party sequence, for instance, is delightfully spare with employees drinking out of plastic cups and songs being played on a computer. He didn’t reduce the film’s characters to caricatures either: a female receptionist isn’t exploited for easy comic relief and an employee watching porn on company time isn’t afforded a distasteful spin. In a way, it’s admirable how Amin made the inherent restraint work in his favour, given that much of the film unfolded in unadorned office spaces and relied on making moments out of two people conversing on screen.
Long before Hindi cinema made a template out of the middle-class, Rocket Singh… offered a distinctive snapshot of the challenges of middle-class employment.}
Even then, the film’s bigger experiment was in having a Sikh hero whose religion was incidental to the plot. The scenes that have Harpreet tuck in his turban in front of the mirror, comb his beard, or even adjust his kada before dipping his hand into a bucket of clothes, don’t exist because they need to serve a purpose. They are there because these are actions that are as natural to his existence as breathing. It’s this level of compassion which makes Rocket Singh that rare Hindi film that goes all the way in seeing a Sikh hero as an Everyman.
It is entirely the film’s uncompromising quality– barring Kapoor, the cast comprises character actors and newcomers – which made Amin’s refusal to cast idealism as a professional liability so compelling. That might not have been the case, had the film been mandated to perk up its proceedings with an item song or slapstick humour. Instead, Rocket Singh… takes its time, managing to strike the delicate balance of eking comedy out of youthful naivety as well as making a case for it. At the same time, it is also a terrific indictment of workplace oppression that outlines it, with a comical clarity, as a self-defeating exercise.
Yet, it would have been near impossible for the film to sell any of its grand ideas, had it not been for a dependably solid lead turn. Although, the actor already had two successful releases that year (Ajab Prem Ki Gazab Kahani, Wake Up Sid), it is his towering performance in Rocket Singh… that made the case for his versatility. Kapoor, otherwise prone to indulgence, stripped himself off the baggage and delivered a self-aware, generous performance. It’s in part, due to him that Amin succeeded in turning Harpreet as a shorthand for the gentle helplessness that drives middle-class ingenuity. It is both the film’s biggest selling point and its triumph.
In that sense, if Wake Up Sid will be remembered as giving a voice to a generation back in 2009, then today, 10 years later, it’s hard to forget that Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year is the unflinching conscience of that same generation. Sid might have had the privilege of being a slacker but it is Harpreet who knows that finding your passion is afterall, insignificant if you don’t know your way around its worth.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.