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Raja Natwarlal
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by Jay Seaver

"For a Bollywood con artist movie, it's not outrageous enough."
3 stars

If you're inclined to see Indian movies as "a Bollywood take on X", then "Raja Natwarlal" is starting in a pretty good place, because "a Bollywood take on 'The Sting'" sounds like a lot of fun. Of course, "The Sting" doesn't exactly have a monopoly on this basic storyline, and this is still a serviceable enough take.

Raja (Emraan Hashmi) and Raghav (Deepak Tijori) are small time con artists, though Raghav is a family man and fairly responsible with the money he "earns". Raja, though, runs through it quickly at the dance hall where his girlfriend Zia (Humaima Malik) performs, and that's why when he hears about a big score, he convinces Raghav to join him. It turns out that you don't steal that kind of money from just anyone, and when Raghav is killed, Raja flees Mumbai to seek out "Victor Singh Khan" (Paresh Rawal) - real name Yogi - in Dharamshala to help him plan a con that will get him revenge on the man responsible: Varda Yadav (Kay Kay Menon), a cricket-obsessed expatriate in South Africa who built his fortune on swindling the poor.

Con-game movies are tricky beasts - they require heroes who are diabolically clever liars but not, from a certain point of view, bad people, and villains monstrous enough that the audience wants to see them get taken for a ride, but not so capable that they can't be conned (although not so blind that it's hard to see why they deserve to be targets). And, of course, it's traditional to try and con the audience as well, so anybody watching these movies now pays close attention to just what is not being show, and for whom the characters might be putting on a show. Raja Natwarlal does all right by this; when the inevitable flashbacks-with-blanks-filled-in happen at the end, it seems fairly reasonable and fairly satisfying, story-wise.

It would be nice if everybody were having more fun, though. Sure, Raja is seeking revenge, but Emraan Hashmi doesn't vary the character much between the real Raja and his in-character alter ego, although there's an enjoyable jealousy to his scenes with Humaima Malik's Zia - and it's worth mentioning that if a con-artist story can't find a little more space for a woman that capable of causing distraction, it is probably missing some opportunities somewhere, especially since she seems perfectly capable of being more than the pretty face that the movie asks her to be. Paresh Rawal, on the other hand, seems to brighten when Yogi is playing a role versus the grumpy mentor; he does the latter well enough, although giving him extra motivation actually serves to keep the performance a bit more reserved. Kay Kay Menon, at least, manages to give Varda some menace without making the villain a bellower.

I don't know if the rest of the crew Yogi and Raja puts together even gets names - there's an actor, a spy, and a forger - but that's probably okay, since the filmmakers don't go for a full Ocean's 11-style ensemble picture. The story works well enough, with the intermission break serving more as a cliffhanger than a redirection, picking up steam toward the end with just enough parties working at cross-purposes to keep things interesting, although there is a noteworthy hole in the basic premise (I'm trying to imagine transplanting the con of a bogus expansion team to the U.S. with baseball or basketball instead of CL20 cricket and not seeing it as something that could be faked in the internet age). Director Kunal Deshmukh handles the shell games well enough, and it's a generally good-looking movie, with a trip to Cape Town and a couple worthy musical bits.

Still, it's a little disappointing that a masala con artist movie isn't a little more outrageous. Part of the fun of this genre is that it's a chance to make something unbelievable work, and this one doesn't often put a lot of confidence into its confidence men.

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originally posted: 09/02/14 02:49:54
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9/03/14 amy tolley it was okay movie 3 stars
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