In Saeed Mirza’s 1980 cult classic Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai, there’s a pivotal moment close to the end — one that signifies a shift in the eponymous protagonist’s (Naseeruddin Shah) thinking. We see Albert (a mechanic by profession) and his mates (led by the laconic Om Puri) at the garage, taking some time off to have lunch together. Suddenly, Albert is summoned because a customer with famously deep pockets has called for him, and he cannot wait an instant. This is a man we’ve seen Albert suck up to previously in the film, but something has changed. He is no longer beholden to upper-class glamour like he used to be — he firmly tells his colleague that his services will be available only after lunch, thank you very much. This isn’t a particularly loud scene, but it hits home because of its subtlety.
In director Soumitra Ranade’s remake (starring Manav Kaul, Nandita Das and Saurabh Shukla), a food metaphor is used in at a similar, transitional junction for Albert (Kaul). Sitting at a highway dhaba, he has just decided to hire his waiter’s sister, a sex worker who operates out of a small room behind the kitchen. As he crosses the kitchen area to get there, we are shown a gratuitiously large knife tearing into chickens in slow motion, even as ominous-sounding music plays in the background, completing the laboured prey-on-the-flesh-of-the-weak metaphor.
The difference between these two scenes sums up the difference between these two films in a shell — although well-intentioned, crisply edited and equipped with some superb actors, Ranade’s Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai falls well short of the mark, mostly due to an erratic script that never quite takes off. “Show, don’t tell” is by no means a cast-iron rule in writing fiction, but Ranade’s script either does both in quick succession (which is overkill) or does neither (which leaves one confused).
Singing the plutocracy blues
Mirza’s original followed the fortunes of a young mechanic, Albert Pinto, who believes that if he keeps his head down and fixes his rich customers’ cars quietly, he too can achieve their levels of prosperity. He takes great pride in being on first-name basis with his rich customers, who he calls “friends” (they don’t). But when his workhorse father leads a long-overdue strike at the textile mill he has slogged away at for over 30 years, Albert is forced to rethink his views on class politics. He realises how predatory the relationship between India’s upper classes —and pretty much everybody else — really is. Some transparently sleazy behavior by his girlfriend Stella’s (Shabana Azmi) boss Arvind also helps solidify this newfound perception of his.
Since the 80s, of course, India’s economy has opened itself up in a big way — and Ranade’s remake seeks to make (the very valid) case that this has only managed to make crony capitalism more powerful than ever before, specifically the politican/industrialists/goons nexus, which was a significant part of Mirza’s film as well, especially in the second half. The 2019 Albert Pinto (Kaul) is a white collar professional who, we are told, has bizarrely quit his job, gone incommunicado and become a contract killer, on the heels of his father’s tragic suicide — a longtime government officer, he was falsely accused of corruption after the actual culprits (a pair of corrupt politicians) needed a likely scapegoat.
On paper, this makes a lot of sense — there have never been as many educated unemployed young people in India as there are right now. Thanks to a number of financial scams involving high-profile businessmen (Nirav Modi being the most prominent example), the idea that crony capitalism runs a parallel government in India sounds more and more accurate every day. It’s just that the execution of this idea leaves a lot to be desired.
The hits and the misses
The area where the remake scores high is, obviously, acting — as it to be expected from any film headlined by Manav Kaul, Nandita Das and Saurabh Shukla, masters of their craft all. Given that the 1980 film was a show of strength for alternative Hindi cinema — Naseerusddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Om Puri et al — this was always going to be a tough act to follow. Kaul and co. are up to the challenge. Das, who plays multiple characters (Albert, in his fevered state, sees his girlfriend Stella in a host of women he comes across), is compelling as ever while Kaul, given the heavy lifting job here, channelises his theatrical skills to great effect in a role that features several scenes more attuned to a stage-like setting anyway. His Albert takes the rage of Shah’s original character and escalates it to suit the heightened circumstances of 2019 very effectively indeed.
There are some nice moments, like the time Albert sums up his bleak worldview in front of Stella. There are, he tells us, three kinds of people in this country. There are the rich, drunk drivers running the country (the upper class), there are the dogs sleeping on the road who get run over every night (the poorest of the poor), and then there are middle-class people ie crows who are scavengers, always on the lookout for carrion they can feast on. You feel Kaul’s impotent rage exlpode onscreen when you see him screaming, “I don’t want to be a crow!”
Sadly, a jarring musical score and a neither-here-not-there script lets him and the other actors down. Many devices Ranade uses in crucial scenes — Albert’s “visions” through which the flashbacks are conveyed, the series of conversations between Albert’s family and the inspector investigating his disapearance — come across as tired, even done to death. Instead of these stylistic flourises that do not come off, Ranade would have been better off concentrating on the dialogue, some of which (especially those between Kaul and Shukla, who plays a veteran hitman) is very funny and could have been developed a little more. In the 1980 film, the most interesting cameo is by Dominic, Albert’s nihilistic younger brother, who has a tendency to speak in singsong, guitar in hand. This trope is repeated here wholesale, which is a nice little tip of the hat but no more.
The smaller picture
One of Saeed Mirza’s great strengths as a filmmaker (and later, also as a writer) was his uncanny ability to capture the minutiae of his character’s lives. While his films did end up making broad-angle points about Indian society, he never sacrificed the smaller picture, so to speak. In Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai too, this is evident — Albert’s little speech about the fetishisation of the skirt-and-goggles-clad Christian working woman, his sister Joan’s expert shaming of a lecherous customer at the sari shop she works at, and the “public service announcement” at a cinema hall that turns out to be pure propaganda for the textile mill owners. The way Mirza both uses and critiques the Angry Young Man trope also shows this — one of Albert’s most annoying habits is to pass on his anger to Stella. So whether it’s ogling men on the street or the unwanted attentions of her boss Arvind, ultimately it is Stella who’s at the receiving end of Albert’s yelling.
These are little touches that capture the texture of lived reality circa 1980 exceptionally well. It is in this aspect that Ranade’s remake fails most notably — apart from Albert’s unspecified white collar job, and stray snippets of English from him and Nayar (Shukla’s veteran hitman character), there is virtually nothing that identifiably anchors the story in the here and now. Albert might as well have been an upper-caste Hindu character here, for all we care. Unlike Mirza’s original, the specifics of Albert’s identity, his world, are lost in his diffuse, nebulous rage against “the system”. Like the scene where Albert has a mini-breakdown in a crowded store, where he repeatedly asks the proprietor, “Do you want to buy me?”, insisting that everybody had a price in today’s world, and that price was not very high, in most cases. The scene is unconvincing not because it’s not well-performed, but because there’s little leading up to it that contextualises the theatrics adequately.