Happy Bhag Jayegi was the sleeper hit of 2016, a comedy revolving around an Amritsari bride who runs away from her wedding to marry the man she loves, but lands up in the home of a stranger – a Pakistani politician – by mistake. Diana Penty was luminous as the eponymous leading lady of that film, which, despite its insubstantial plot and flagging second half, managed to be funny all the same. She reprises her role in a cameo in Happy Phirr Bhag Jayegi even as it diverts its gaze to another Punjabi girl called Harpreet aka Happy, this one played by Sonakshi Sinha.
Writer-director Mudassar Aziz appears to have taken the feedback on his previous venture to heart. Happy Part 2 not only remains largely amusing if you can excuse a few waning patches here and there, the writing of its characters and the plot also have more substance than Part 1. Of course it is a parade of non-stop nonsense, but how does it hurt to get a fit of the giggles in a film that yet does not insult your intelligence and heads off in directions that Bollywood rarely bothers with, especially in comedy?
For a start, it is nice to once again meet a heroine not helplessly hanging around waiting for a man, any man, to bachao (save) her when she is trapped in trying circumstances. This Happy is a combustible woman and like that Happy takes matters into her own hands when the going gets tough.
There’s more where she came from. How often do we get to see a Hindi film featuring a turbanned Sikh as a major character without the screenplay being packed with Bhangra and cries of “balle balle”, without the guy in question being loud and boisterous, and sans sermons about Sikh valour or traditions of service to others? Representation should not be about pedestalising minority communities, but about acknowledging their existence in big and small ways without feeling compelled to create a shindig around an individual’s religious or ethnic identity.
So yeah, we have Khushwant Singh Gill (played by the very likeable Jassie Gill) who is recruited to Happy’s team in a foreign country, without so much as a balle balle or a lecture about Sikhism. Then there is the Lahori cop Usman Afridi (Piyush Mishra) and the Amritsari thug-politician Daman Singh Bagga (Jimmy Sheirgill), carryovers from HappyBhag Jayegi, still sparring over Urdu and Pakistan in a still engaging and still inoffensive fashion. Yeah, a Pakistani character who is not belittled or demonised in this era of crude, in-your-face nationalism that India is passing through and Bollywood is pandering to. Imagine that.
The trickiest part of Happy Phirr Bhag Jayegi is that it is set in China, which would have been an excuse to make lazy racist jokes in most Bollywood films, but not here. Aziz walks a fine line – a clever line – by allowing his characters to be racist as they would be in real life, while using their prejudice to throw a spotlight on the “all Chinese look alike” attitude of the average insular Indian who resorts to the dismissive umbrella labels “Cheeni” and “chinky” for people of the entire geographical region extending from our own north-eastern states all the way to Japan. Happy Phirr Bhag Jayegi’s humour incorporates consequences that the primary characters suffer for their insularity and ignorance. This is done mainly through the medium of the gangster Chang played by Jason Tham.
None of this is spelt out in black and white, nor is the normalisation of a gay romance in a brief passage that eschews Dostana-style jokes completely. In a film where you least expect it, we are thus reminded without anyone overtly saying so, that homosexuals, cross dressers, Pakistanis, the Chinese, Punjabis and women – groups that are usually stereotyped in Hindi cinema – are all just regular people.
Happy Phirr Bhag Jayegi could still have done with more work on its writing and direction – the songs (barring the remix of the appropriately chosen classic, 'Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu') are ordinary and feel superfluous, there are places in the narrative where the energy dips (which is inexcusable in a comedy), the manner in which a fellow called Fa in Shanghai is introduced seems to suggest that he will be a significant player among Happy’s allies but then he inexplicably disappears for most of the film, and the sidelining of Diana Penty’s Happy feels like such an opportunity lost considering the spark this underrated, under-utilised actor showed in the first Happy.
Truth be told, I was really looking forward to more scenes with Sinha and Penty together, because though Sinha is the bigger star, Penty has the charisma to match. Where she does get screen space in Happy Phirr Bhag Jayegi, Penty gives us evidence of her innate verve, which adds to the disappointment on this front.
Sinha’s filmography so far has been dominated by crass big-banner ventures often trivialising sexual harassment and starring major male stars, in which she played the hero’s lover who could have been played by any other marginal female star. She has underlined her ability to be more than just a vapid sidelight and in fact to carry a story on her shoulders in films such as Lootera, Noor and Ittefaq. Happy Phirr Bhag Jayegi gives her the chance to tap her comic timing and she does so with gusto, leading the charge in an ensemble cast of gifted actors. Piyush Mishra is as hilarious as he was last time. Sheirgill gets more opportunities here to mine his flair for comedy and is good too. And Gill is, without question, hero material.
Happy Phirr Bhag Jayegi is not without flaws, but they are overshadowed by the absence of references to farts, poop and animal backsides, homophobia, misogyny and other ugly biases that have repeatedly reared their heads in the kind of comedies Sinha herself has been a part of over the years. Pleasant and engaging is an option in this genre – thank you, Mr Aziz, for knowing that.