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Shimla Mirchi, Review: Chilly? Don’t be silly!

Several highs dot the career graph of director Ramesh Sippy, right from his debut in 1971 as a 24 year-old, with the remake of A Man and a Woman (Claude Lelouch, France, 1966) under the title, Andaz. Crests include Seeta Aur Geeta, Sholay and Buniyaad (TV series), relative high points were reached with Saagar and Shakti, and troughs bogged him down when he attempted Shaan, Bhrashtachar, Akayla and Zamaana Diwana. Completed 19 years after Zamana Deewana and released six years after completion, making it Sippy’s first release in 25 years, Shimla Mirchi continues the downhill run, failing to spice up his filmography and, instead, rubbing salt into his wounds, a la self-goal.The title, meaning capsicum, can be translated as Shimla Chilly, the Indian name for capsicum. Resorting to a pun, the film, with a chilly in its title, is no hot stuff, and is likely to meet with a chilling audience reception.

Set in the picturesque hill-town of Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, north India, the film tells the tale of local residents Rukmini and Naina, a mother-daughter couple, who are coming to grips with Rukmini’s husband Tilak, who hails from a royal family, deserting her, for a woman less than half his age. Naina has been making preparations to launch her own café, called National Café, with the help of her friend Brownie and with Captain Uncle as Manager. Avinash is a Delhi boy who has had several failed encounters with women, and though he is 30ish, he has been unable to say the three magic words to any of the women he liked. On a visit to Shimla, with his parents, aunt and niece (his sister’s child), he happens to see Naina, and falls head over heels in love with her.

When he discovers that she is recruiting a help for the café, he goes for the interview and gets selected. But the heebie-jeebies continue to plague him, and he is unable to pop the question. Naina, for her part, thinks of him first as an employee and then as a friend, when he does several things to win her over. Hitting upon an idea, he decides to send her an anonymous love-letter, hoping that she will guess who it has come from, and react positively. His horrible luck, however, ensures that nothing of the sort happens. Naina first throws away the letter, then thinks of a ruse she will play on her lonely mother, to spice-up her life. She sends a similar letter to her own mother, who takes it very seriously and starts looking around for her secret admirer. Circumstances lead her to believe that it was Avinash who sent that letter, and she starts planning a divorce from Tilak and marriage with Avinash.

Remake of a European film, as was Andaz, Shimla Mirchi has four writers credited: Ramesh Sippy himself, Kausar Munir, Rishi Virmani and Vipul Binjola. Kausar is a gifted lyricist, who occasionally writes scripts as well. Virmani’s contributions include F.A.L.T.U (additional dialogue), Oh, My God!! (writer) and Singh Is Kinng (dialogue), and he forms a team with Binjola. Kausar has a way with words, so it is a travesty that the film has some of the weakest dialogue heard in recent times, while none of the songs are written by Munir. Mirchi Shimle Di (sung by Meet Bros., Khushboo Grewal and Sanjay Mishra), a sanitised item number, is quite catchy (Meet Bros. Anjjan), with meaningful lyrics too (Kumaar).

Shimla Mirchi is both poorly written and over-written. Tilak lives right opposite his earlier married abode, in a huge mansion. Pray, why? This even prompts the pining Rukmini to keep sending him food and climbing a tree, in order to catch one glimpse of him. Isn’t this illogical and demeaning? In one scene, Avinash makes his entry in a drunken state, and it is not suggested that he is a habitual drinker. So, you wonder how he does everything he was supposed to do quite right, while in the throes of alcohol. Having had four drinks, and not being a regular, he should have collapsed instead. Captain often shapes as if he is about to make a profound statement, but then either says something totally silly like “Wong Ching Pong” or something pedestrian. Being a double M.A. and a Ph.D., and working for the Minister of External Affairs as an interpreter, how is it that Avinash is unable to find a match? Okay, so he is kinda shy, and feels that it is not necessary to declare your love and propose to a woman by uttering the three magic words. Fine. Then find another way. And if you can’t, let your family do it for you.

Ramesh Sippy tackles a subject about an older woman wanting to marry a much younger man, unaware that he loves her daughter, by falling back on his favourite heroine, Hema Malini, after a 40 year hiatus, and two young faces, Rajkummar Rao and Rakul Preet Singh, to deliver the goods. Hema, 66 years old when the film was completed and cast as a 55 year-old mother, tries hard to save the film, but only succeeds partially. She played a widow falling in love with a widower in Andaz, when she was 23, and bagged the prized double role of Seeta and Geeta in the eponymous runaway hit, Seeta Aur Geeta, a year later. Sippy and Malini came together again in Sholay, which smashed all box-office records during the mid-70s to the early 80s.

In Seeta Aur Geeta, she was made to dangle on a ceiling fan while she rode a horse carriage in Sholay. In Shimla Mirchi, she is made to climb a tree, which is a very poorly staged sequence. Her amazing dancing prowess is tapped, as is her real-life, with a reference to a product she endorses on TV and the appearance of a particular man on screen, who is the cameo surprise. Another cameo comes in the Hitchcockian mould, with Sippy himself playing a stranger who Hema mistakes for her secret admirer, a scene that just comes and goes.

To make sure he has a bankable actor playing Avinash, Sippy went-in for Rajkummar Rao, who had a fantastic 2013, with films like Kai Po Che! and Shahid. To play Naina, he opted for Rakul Preet Singh, who had just debuted in Yaariyan. Meticulous as ever, Ramesh Sippy then conducted a workshop with Rao and Singh, to ensure that the two had the right chemistry on screen. Since it was an old world subject, Sippy treated it and shot it accordingly. Sadly, none of these moves pay off.

Hema Malini uses her screen presence, more than a performance, to make an impact. It is a role not many actresses would be comfortable doing. Rajkummar Rao remains Rajkummar Rao—competent, flowing, on-the-job. Does he convince as a café helper smitten by his boss? Yes, he does. Does he convince as a double M.A. and Ph.D. and the interpreter to the Minister of External Affairs? No. Diction is not one of Rao’s fortés. Does he convince as the willy-nilly lover of a woman twice his age? No. His expressions border on the lost, meandered kind. Rakul Preet Singh has a lovely face and sexy legs, and both are shown off in ample measure, the latter courtesy mini frocks and micro skirts. I cannot remember her wearing anything else in a single scene. Effervescent and fresh as dew, she seems to be enjoying herself. Shakti Kapoor has a sober, dignified persona, but the role sucks. Mrs. Ramesh Sippy, Kiran Juneja, plays Avi’s Bua (aunt) and gets to say “balls” twice. Besides that gem, there is little to write home about. Kanwaljit Singh as Tilak is hesitant, tentative and wasted. In supporting roles, we have Kamlesh Gill as Daadi (Tilak’s mother, who is on Rukmini’s side), Tarun Wadhwa as Jude, Priya Raina as Sonu, Jagruti Sethia as Mishti, Nita Mohindra as Avinash’s mother and Zoya Khan as Brownie. As a vocal and full of beans grandma, Gill is just about right. Zoya shows some promise in what must be just her second Hindi feature role.

In order to strike a chord, premises like the one in Shimla Mirchi have to be not only possible but probable and plausible too. No such thing here. Comedy, to be effective, needs the elements of surprise and timing. No such thing here. When you go retro, the film must exude old-world charm. No such thing here. Ramesh Sippy told a journalist he is proud of Shimla Mirchi. That must have been in a moment of weakness. He just has to watch the montage that precedes the opening credits to realise that the maker of Andaz, Seeta Aur Geeta, Sholay, Saagar and Shakti cannot hope to earn any plaudits for his comeback vehicle after a silver jubilee in hibernation. I don’t see him wielding the megaphone in the near future, though he is a sprightly 72 going on 73, whether as a comeback or go back. 

Rating: **