30 Years of ChaalBaaz: The Sridevi Classic is Proof that Good Comedy Has Nothing to Do with Gender

Bollywood

30 Years of ChaalBaaz: The Sridevi Classic is Proof that Good Comedy Has Nothing to Do with Gender

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

My earliest memory of Pankaj Parashar’s ChaalBaaz is getting yelled at for loudly singing “Aaj Sunday hai, toh din mein daaru peene ka day hai,” à la Rajinikant’s Jaggu almost every weekend as a child. It was my favourite Sunday anthem long before I had any concept or understanding of alcohol or the weekends. Two decades later, it still remains my family’s favourite way to announce our giddiness over the arrival of a happy, work-free Sunday.That Sunday song is not the only thing about ChaalBaaz that has aged surprisingly well. When I sat down to watch it again the other day, I intended to skim through the movie just so that I can remind myself of the parts that I had forgotten about and finish it in a few minutes. Yet I ended up taking three hours to watch the two-hour long film. Once, I started watching, skipping any second of it ceased to be an option. As a kid, I remember watching Sridevi paint Amba’s face (a mohawked, menacing, and surprisingly funny Rohini Hattangadi) on repeat. As an adult, nothing has changed.

chalbaaz

Chaalbaaz is not a Rajinikant movie or a Sunny Deol movie. It is instead a Sridevi movie.

Lakshmi Productions

Watching it again, I found myself surprised by how lenient my parents were to allow me repeated viewings of the violent ChaalBaaz. Unlike Seeta aur Geeta – its predecessor with a similar plot – ChaalBaaz boasts of graphic depiction of abuse, viscerally brought to life by Sridevi. As a child, her torment disturbed me but as an adult, I found myself vaguely appreciative of an ’80s film willing to delve deep into the trauma of a domestic abuse victim, instead of brushing it under the carpet or burying it under the bravado of a male saviour.

Every frame in ChaalBaaz seems to be designed to pay homage to the sheer variety of Sridevi’s acting.

Every frame in ChaalBaaz seems to be designed to pay homage to the sheer variety of Sridevi’s acting. She is indeed the superstar, the good old “Michaeli Jacksoni” (as she refers to herself in one of its funniest drunk sequences) who single-handedly drives the movie through her impeccable comic timing. It’s complemented by her penchant for depicting a whole lot of emotions that range from gut-wrenching fear to playful romance with her signature deft touch. Sridevi had the rare gumption to eke humour out of naiveté as efficiently as she pulled off the loveable tapori act without making it come across as overbearing. The sequences that involve physical comedy – traditionally a male bastion in Hindi cinema – are the ones where she shines the most, showing finesse that would have made the likes of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin proud.

Although, ChaalBaaz’s deceit of twins who are separated at birth is hardly unique, it stands out for knowing how to elevate an old trope besides creating villains that are both scary and hilarious (Anupam Kher’s rabbit-toothed Tribhuvan and Shakti Kapoor’s Balma are two of the most iconic comic villains). Perhaps, the cult of ChaalBaaz can be best explained by the film’s adeptness in treading the thin line between slapstick comedy and narrative humour. When I first watched ChaalBaaz for instance, I had no idea about who Rajinikant was. But I did not need to. I fell in love with his clueless, confused, funny guy act anyway. That was the charm of the film: it completely managed to take you into its world.

Even though the film precedes the advent of mainstream feminism, unlike most movies from its time, it manages to avoid being problematic. Given its time and context, it wouldn’t be wrong to state that ChaalBaaz is remarkably progressive, putting together a universe where the heroine getting drunk is a norm minus any reproach or judgment. That two of the most macho heroes of the times are made to play second fiddle to a heroine is arguably its biggest strength. Chaalbaaz is not a Rajinikant movie or a Sunny Deol movie. It is instead a Sridevi movie. For me, it will remain extra special, especially on Sundays, because it is ultimately a reminder that good comedy never had anything to do with gender.

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