Simran may not have the most gripping plot and may stretch at times, but is entertaining throughout, thanks to its star.
Can you make a funny movie about the flip side of the American Dream? Definitely. Is Simran it? Not really.
At the beginning, Praful Patel (Kangana Ranaut) is a 30-year-old Indian woman who lives with her parents in their tidy suburban home somewhere in Atlanta. She works in the hotel industry in the housekeeping department, and the driving purpose of Patel’s life is to have a house of her own. She’s got the perfect place in mind, she knows she can afford it under the “minority quota” and she’s even pre-approved for a loan.
Then it all goes south for Praful.
After a nasty argument with her parents, Praful takes off to Las Vegas for a weekend with her affluent cousin. There, she not only discovers the addictive thrill of gambling (James Bond’s preferred baccarat, no less) but also manages to lose a significant chunk of her life savings.
But Praful is full of an individualism and self-confidence that can only be described as American. She’s not going to call it quits, she’s certainly not going to let her dream slip by (she is rejected for a loan due to a low credit score) and so she returns to Vegas on her own to win her money back. When all’s said and done, a weeping and drunk Praful emerges broke and $32,000 in debt to a personal moneylender. With her dream house out of reach and a scary moneylender after her, an increasingly desperate Praful breaks down at the gas station when she discovers she has no money for the fuel; just then the cashier leaves his post to get her some water. That’s all the opening Praful needs to grab some of the unattended cash on the counter and make a run for it. High from the thrill, she drives to a nearby bank and carries out her first heist. It flows almost too well, but Ranaut’s performance is convincing enough to believe that Praful is in a tight enough spot to try even robbery. It turns out to be the first of many.
This would be plot enough for a movie, but Simran tries to carry too many plots over the course of two hours. There is family drama in the form of disappointed and cash strapped parents who just want to marry off their divorced daughter; there’s romance that arrives in the form of a J Crew-clad Sameer (Sohum Shah) who is smitten with Praful, not in spite of but because of her independence; the bank heists themselves are comedic and the climactic police chase is straight out of an action movie. Director Hansal Mehta seems to have forgone narrative cohesion in favour of portraying as many aspects of the Indian-American experience as could be squeezed into one Bollywood feature.
Ranaut is an arresting presence as the disarmingly charming Praful but can only smooth over so much of the disruption caused by the abrupt changes between genres. For instance, her relationship with her father is a constant source of anger and isolation in her life. He thinks of her as a burden who offers no financial contribution to the family or his business, and she in turn is frustrated by his patriarchal bossiness. But this tension transforms into comic relief instantly when Praful confidently tells her visiting parents that she plans to sell the family shop and invest all the money in stocks (she’s made friends with a jailed stockbroker). Suddenly, her father, who was happily watching his child eating ghar ka khaana, lunges at her throat, seeking to strangle his irrepressibly stupid daughter. The soundtrack and Ranaut’s comic expression tell you it’s funny (because of course, you need this story to end on a light note) but it’s still difficult to digest given the violent and angry relationship the two share for the entirety of the movie.
At one point, Praful earnestly tells a police officer that her father would kill her if their neighbours saw her getting arrested, so she had to flee from her house. It’s a relatable concern scaled up to an unbelievable level of absurdity, and would work, if you were willing to forget the tension that brought Praful to this point in the first place.
Another detour is Praful’s insistence on being independent and keeping herself free of romantic entanglements – a well-intentioned idea that fails to support or enhance the bank-heist narrative. In the first half, Praful unsuccessfully hits on a man at a bar in Vegas (“Are you tired? Because you’re running through my mind.”) but manages to get his attention after winning thousands of dollars and giving herself a luxurious makeover. But once she realises the man doesn’t have a condom, she doesn’t give him any space to negotiate, ordering him to zip up her dress and leaves immediately. An important and educative moment that goes some way towards character building, but seems pointless later when the script reveals an entire digressive arc featuring a potential husband.
Praful’s treatment of Sameer, a man she agrees to meet because she’s hoping her father will give her money in return for seeing marriageable candidates, is characteristic of the independent narrative Ranaut has built for herself. Praful does not need a man to realise her dream (neither does Ranaut). In fact, domesticity is not a part of her dream at all. Nonetheless, Simran indulges those of us who enjoy dappled sunlight, fall foliage and life affirming company. Does Praful like him or not? It’s hard to tell because the happy couple’s narrative collapses suddenly and dramatically when Praful admits to being in debt and robbing banks to cover it. Ranaut never misses an opportunity to emphasise that Praful’s first priority is herself.
These detours are distracting but Ranaut’s near-constant presence on the screen adds a constancy that does much for Simran. Ranaut’s consistently good acting allows you to sympathise with a character that becomes distinctly less likeably as the movie progresses. As Praful goes from a regular woman to a desperate, isolated criminal, Ranaut’s acting ensures you stay with her. Her comic timing too is commendable. In one scene, a freshly showered Praful says a quick prayer at the family’s little mandir before heading out for her first proper robbery (planned with the help of YouTube instructional videos), but just as she’s out the door, her mother calls her back in. It’s hilariously excruciating for Praful who keeps asking if she can leave while her mom continues talking at her aimlessly about the benefits of yoga over jogging. Finally, her mom takes her cue from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and tells her daughter, “Jaa Simran jaa.” Guess what name Praful uses when she walks into a bank soon after?
Simran is full of these little funny moments that play on everyday interactions between family. It even takes an unexpected (pleasantly so) and somewhat satirical jab at the hyped-up Islamophobia that haunts most of civic life in the US.
Simran may not have the most gripping plot (despite its premise) and may stretch at times, but is entertaining throughout, thanks to Ranaut and Mehta’s efforts. Often, it feels like Praful and Ranaut are one and the same, which is evident in their insistence on doing things on their own terms. If you’re going with the intention to watch Ranaut be good at what she does, then you’re sure to get it.
Simran also gives voice to the experiences of those who go ignored by both Bollywood and Hollywood – families, such as the Patels, who make the necessary sacrifices for the American Dream and still come up somewhat empty handed and frustrated, though no less faithful to their choices and the dreams that brought them there in the first place.