Director: Pannaga Bharana | Writer: Avinash Balekkala
Cast: Danish Sait, Sal Yusuf, Disha Madan, Mahantesh Hiremath, Rangayana Raghu
For someone who has never been to Bengaluru, perhaps it’s perversely fitting that a geocultural comedy is my most comprehensive introduction to the Garden City yet. The Kannada-language French Biriyani, directed by Pannaga Bharana, is a lot like Delhi Belly in how an entire region becomes a punchline for the comedy-of-errors template. The spoofing isn’t entirely without reason. The plot is centered on an outsider, a French national (Sal Yusuf, as Simon), who gets caught up in the whirlwind of a mistaken-identity cyclone. Simon is misheard as “Saamaan” (things) at the airport, prompting a don’s sidekick to pick him up instead of a Russian drug mule. The way this shell-shocked European man sees “South India”—chaotic, loud, violent, funny—is the way the director designs the film. (Fortunately, the weather is fine; imagine if he had landed in Chennai.)
As a result, the viewer is yanked from the bylanes of Shivajinagar to a transport strike outside an airport, from a road mishap in rush-hour traffic to a climactic shootout in a cinema hall, from a police station under pest control to a shady bar breaking into song. In some ways, I kind of liked that this guided tour was guided by exaggerated movie characters; the best way to sense a place and its people is through the chuckles of its storytellers. Not all the spaces are necessary though. For instance, a sub-thread involving a man and his wife’s visits to the fertility clinic is only aimed at highlighting the regressive attitude towards women in Indian society. The sudden social message is in sync with the environment, but the tone belongs to another film.
The nutty characters driving the plot, headlined by standup comedian Danish Sait as Muslim rickshaw driver Asgar, are almost organic to Simon’s accidental journey. Asgar is so hassled by everyday worries—his sister’s marriage, alcoholic friends, an overzealous cop, his latest passenger Simon’s predicament—that French Biriyani earns the right to branch into tangents of staged comedy. Sait, who reprises the fictional role of prank-caller Asgar from his RJ days, plays him like a local torn between crass Urdu colloquialisms and chaste Kannada gait. It’s a tricky balance, when comedians play unintentionally funny people on screen. On one hand, they can’t be obvious about their observational humour and mimicking, and on the other, they must find mayhem in the mundane. Sait does well on both counts, carrying a premise that overstays its welcome by 30 minutes; not once does his character break the fourth wall to remind us of the artist behind the mask.
It’s a tricky balance, when comedians play unintentionally funny people on screen. On one hand, they can’t be obvious about their observational humour and mimicking, and on the other, they must find mayhem in the mundane. Sait does well on both counts.
The treatment, too, veers between satire and parody. Édith Paif’s Non, je ne Regrette Rien (now popularly known as the Inception ‘kick’ song) scores the slow-motion shot of a giant goop of paan defiling Simon’s face. When Asgar pleads his innocence to a Hindu inspector by saying he “swears by God,” the cop wonders whose God. When Simon asks the policeman if he is a racist, the man interprets it as ‘avid racer’ and waxes eloquent about his “racist” history. A dying don’s house has posters of The Godfather and The Dictator on its walls; his heir (played with great timing by Mahantesh Hiremath) spends the rest of the film thinking he’s Marlon Brando but sounding like Sacha Baron Cohen. This character, named Muscle Mani, looks like a descendent of Johnny Lever’s from Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani. The funniest moment of the film features Mani dramatically breaking down at the sight of his father’s final gift—a closet full of imported alcohol. It was also disturbing how deeply I related to his emotions.
Towards the end, the poor French man is nowhere to be seen. For a second, I wondered if the film simply forgot about him and got busy with its own little knots. But then again, during Simon’s first hour in Bengaluru, a group of onlookers gathered around two warring drivers only to hijack their war and turn on each other instead. Missing the point is perhaps the most Indian trait of all. And French Biriyani wants us—as well as its inadvertent protagonist—to understand that.
French Biriyani is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.