* "Haash," I was later told on twitter.
- The female lead is front and center in the story, the emotion, and even billing and promotion. There are probably few women other than Vidya Balan that the film industry would risk doing this with—maybe Rani Mukherjee (Aiyaa, the upcoming Mardaani), Kangana Ranaut (unless Revolver Rani cancelled out Queen?), Deepika Padukone after her mindboggling 2013—and her being the unquestionable focus of a film is thrilling, which we haven't seen her get to do since Kahaani over two years ago.
- A woman—the woman—cares passionately about her vocation and is willing to sacrifice other concerns to it...and then figures out on her own what work/family/love/etc balance is right for her. Bobby has ambition, makes plans, does the grunt work, earns the money, signs the lease, and catches a bad guy all on her own. She also knows when to ask for help and, eventually, listens to the reminder that her loved ones are not cases to be solved.
- Central figures of both genders make mistakes. Absolutely nobody in this movie is perfect, least of all the lead. People worry, lie, double-cross, sneak around, hide from fears, give in to regressive mindsets, try to cover crimes with charity, and forget to think when they're excited. This freedom and complexity give so much richness to the story and the world of the characters without being capital-E Exposition-y.
- Mothers and other not-heroine-aged women have opinions. Tanvi Azmi and Supriya Pathak as Bobby's aunt and mother have richer than the usual "bodies filling this stifling middle-class home" roles. Even Bobby's friend Afreen, who is not at all the center of attention, is a young woman with agency and opinions.
- Some actors don't look like movie stars. Bobby's male friends of roughly her same age are a funny lot, actual characters who are distinctive and individually significant. And in one of Bobby's ploys to identify a particular girl, hundreds of very normal-looking young women are herded in. These may all be aspiring movie stars, but they don't look like it. This film is unafraid to have regular people in it.
- Some actors do. I was about to type that all the glamour in the movie belongs to the men, and that might not quite be fair, but it's certainly true that the camera spends plenty of time on Arjan Bajwa's pleading eyes, Ali Fazal is often styled smartly enough to pop back to his tv job, and even Kiran Kumar looks very distinguished.
- Toss in some 1970s Manmohan Desai elements! For the sake of spoiler protection, I won't tell you what they are, but given my taste in movies they're welcome (though predictable).
- The song under the opening titles, "B.O.B.B." is creative and great fun, and its look and sound are suitable and cute. Unfortunately, none of that audio or visual style continues into the film. Does its jazziness remind anyone else of parts of "Aami Shoti Bolchi" from Kahaani?
- Geography is a character. I don't know the first thing about Moghlapura, but even if it's largely fictionalized and romanticized, Bobby's neighborhood has a big role in this film, with multiple characters commenting on its nature and only two small sequences (one of them a song) taking place anywhere else.
- Some of those aforementioned masala elements are inserted out of nowhere and are assumed to make sense simply because this is a Hindi film. Oh alright, I guess I don't actually hate that, but it often stinks of laziness. It's the lack of context that bugs me. I'm sure it's very difficult to construct a script that has consistency as well as surprise and drama, but deus ex Manmohan Desai doesn't really jive much anymore. Pacing out the characters' discoveries and the audience's access to information is one reason Kahaani is so great; in Bobby Jasoos it's all tacked on near the end, letting the characters say "Oh of course we knew X Y Z" without showing us their clues, thought processes, or hunches.
- Threads are tied up waaaaay too easily. Particularly, the arc with Bobby's dad (Rajendra Gupta, doing a killer Resting Disappointed Patriarch Face) is a mess, and again we see a character having an incredibly important realization but it's out of the clear blue sky and expressed too quickly, denying it both sense and emotion.
- Both Bobby's dad and Kiran Kumar's arcs end up feeling sexist and regressive in that way you might not quite notice until after you've wiped away the little tear that's crept out of your eyes. Get that Jab Jab Phool Khile in Waqt clothing outta here.
- Spackle. Either Vidya Balan actually has the world's most monochromatic face or someone was way too happy with the pancake. I think the problem here is that Bobby, unlike most heroines, spends time deliberately looking ugly or strange, and thus there needs to be greater contrast between "regular" and "in disguise." Whenever Bobby is just Bobby, she looks like she forgot to scrub off the base layer of whatever get-up she was just in. I didn't catch any dialogue about this, but I think it's understood that Bobby doesn't really care about her looks (dingy sneakers, few accessories), so a very made-up everyday face doesn't make sense for this character.
- Bland songs. Other than "B.O.B.B.," the songs here are ok at best. "Jashn" gives that strange feeling when the gap between face and voice seems obvious, which Bollywood falters with so seldom that it really stands out here. "Tu" is beautiful but is so much more lush and schmoopy than anything else in the film that it jars, and the film has given us no sense that Tasawur is likely to have a fantasy sequence like that. I do love that the sappy song comes from the male romantic lead, not the female, but on the other hand why'd he have to imagine her with such a makeover that she no longer looks like the same Bobby? And "Sweety" is...I don't know, cute enough but disposable.
- Is it just too similar to one of the star's previous films without being as thoroughly competent and complex and gripping? It's not fair to call this film Kahaani Lite just because it features Vidya Balan in a distinctive urban landscape hiding her identity, carrying a backpack, and looking for things, but there are passages where it really does begin to quack like a [Bengali for "duck"*]. The dangers in it are much less formal and threatening—no police or intelligence agencies here—but there is also the same satisfaction, here much happier, of a woman defining and completing a quest.
I left the theater feeling disappointed with Bobby Jasoos, but I can neither put my finger on what's actually wrong with it nor supplant that disappointment with any of its significant strengths. Somehow nothing in these lists is enough to make or break the film. The fact that a big-name star has done a n unglamorous film about an imperfect woman who works for achievements on her own terms really is important to the cinematic culture, and in that regard it joins a list of films like Queen, Aiyyaa, and Chak De India that I greatly respect—but only in that regard, because those are movies I love and enjoy, too, and Bobby Jasoos isn't quite that. It truly is not a bad film in any way, and if you like Vidya** it is worth your time (even if you wait for DVD, because there's nothing big-screen-dependent in it). A Vidya fix is no small thing, and since, Shashi ki kasam, I will never watch the dire-sounding Shaadi Ke Side Effects, this will have to do for now. Maybe I can chalk this up to a case of expectation management, assume I wanted far more from the film than was likely, and try to be mindful of the many, many aspects of it that I'm grateful for.
* "Haash," I was later told on twitter.
** Are there people who don't like Vidya? Scram!