I will tell you my final assessment first: I really enjoyed Paisa Vasool. It was a lot of fun, and quite enjoyable. Was it the best movie in the world? No, but I’ve seen similar movies (crime-comedy) with two male leads or a male and female lead, and even if they get middling reviews, those movies still tend to be popular. I think it’s just as silly as Dhoom 2 (though lacking the killer soundtrack and exotic locales), and Dhoom 2‘s inherent goofiness certainly didn’t hurt it critically or commercially.
This is a woman’s film that doesn’t center on romance, children, or family. Maria (Manisha Koirala) and Baby (Sushmita Sen) are trying to follow their dreams in the big city. Maria, 30, has a “broken” marriage (the movie suggests the two are still married, but she has left him) and wants to open a large bakery. Baby, nearing 30, is an item girl who wants to be a star.
The men in their lives, save for a young boy, are various degrees of terrible: Johnny (Sushant Singh) who records people’s phone calls, the emotionally abusive husband, the ineffectual police, the greedy developer, the murderous crooks. Men make fun of them for physical characteristics they can’t control (an actor won’t work with Baby because of her height, several men tell Maria how ugly her glasses). Two guys proposition the women in the street and chase them when they say no. The developer destroys Maria’s small bakery (and wants to evict her and everyone from her house). No wonder the women rely on themselves.
Maria and Baby meet at a night club. While throughout the film, Baby plays the traditional role of “wild girl helping tight-laced friend loosen up,” Maria is already at the club on her own accord, trying to have fun. No matter what happens, Maria is an active participant. But don’t worry, there is a scene of Baby buying shots and forcing Maria to have one.
Baby has been trying to find housing in a specific part of Mumbai, and Maria happens to live there. Maria quickly invites Baby to move in. The building is a chawl, a large structure with many small apartments. A developer has been harassing Maria and the other tenants to leave.
While they drunkenly talk, the phone rings. Maria often has cross-connections, and the women overhear a man telling his girlfriend he has come into a large amount of money by participating in a robbery (the opening scene of the movie). Baby suggests they blackmail the man, and then they’ll have enough money to save the chawl and follow their dreams.
The plan does not go according to plan, and the women must deal with murder and double-crosses. But they prevail in the end, of course they do.
Paisa Vasool‘s focus is on the big violence, the murders committed by the gangsters, a particularly egregious one being the murder of a disabled man who is then hung by his legs from the ceiling. There is blood, guns, knives. But the film also shows the low-level violence women face simply by existing. The gangsters are clear and easy to understand: they want their money (or to know who is trying to take their money), and they will kill to get it. Other men try to hide their condescension behind a veneer of civility.
For example, Baby’s co-star is angry that she is taller than he is. He threatens to quit if she is not fired. The compromise: they create a ditch around the hero for her to dance in, to create the illusion that he is taller. She stumbles in the ditch; this problem is all her fault.
Or those little cutting comments women receive all the time: before Baby begins, a woman, acting as assistant director, leads her through the choreography. The camera operator says it’s good she (the choreographer) is there, because the director is off doing more important things. One, this is clearly an item number, which is very important for a film, soooooo…….and two, why not just make this woman an actual assistant director?
We know why.
The women have to be extra crafty when disguising themselves to infiltrate the bad guys. They cannot just put on a costume and fake mustache; they have to think about what they will wear, how they will speak, what kind of words to use. Women must always move through a man’s world, and here that subtext is writ large.
When Maria first hears about the robbery, she tries to contact the police, but the officer dismisses her. Later, she explains her husband is on the police force and knows they will back him, so the law is no help. (I don’t know effective this comparison is, but in the United States, domestic violence within police families is two to four times higher than the general public. People who like power at their job like power at home.) When a woman is raped or attacked, how often is she asked, “Why didn’t you say something sooner? Why didn’t you call the police?” Why would she?
Besides her husband, Maria also learns she cannot fully trust Johnny, another tenant in the chawl. He runs a pay phone in the chawl’s lobby and secretly records all of the phone calls; he is in league with the movie’s villains. Still, he and his disability are portrayed sympathetically, especially for 2004. (I had been interested in watching 2016’s Housefull 3 until I got to this line of the summary: “The girls, wanting to keep their boyfriends, make them have fake disabilities. Sandy pretends to be crippled, Teddy blind and Bunty mute.”) Johnny had been an aspiring soccer player until he lost the use of his legs in an accident. However, he is portrayed as handsome, silly, a joker, and still willing to play basketball with the local kids. We learn that he misses his old life and longs to be “normal” but has been trying to hide that. Finally, a fight scene occurs before his murder, and he does well for much of it, competently fighting until finally the villain gets the upper hand. Johnny is a complete character.
But ultimately, the women can only rely on each other.
Obviously a crime-comedy with so much murder/violence isn’t for everyone, but it’s refreshing to see a film centered on two female characters who support each other, help each other, and are not jealous of or competing with one another. They encourage each other to follow their dreams, and they come out on top due to their own intelligence and creativity.