Harshvardhan Kulkarni's Hunterrr isn't just about the cheap laughs, but a warts-and-all look into the dark side of the Indian male's psyche.
Na heer na hoor, na mehenge angoor
Na Dunlop ka gadda, na tan mange tandoor.
Thaali hai khaali, jo chahe paros do
Chaahe baasi roti ho, namak thoda thos do.
Some of the best expository moments and social commentary in Hunterrr, Harshvardhan Kulkarni’s debut film, come during the songs. ‘Thaali Hai Khaali’, written by Azazul Haque and sung by Nakash Aziz, is an anthem for the romantically desperate, an eschewal of standards at the promise of bona fide action—anyone other than Palmela Handerson. It plays during one of the many flashbacks in the non-linear plot, just after a memory of how Mandar (Gulshan Devaiya), our protagonist, couldn’t get tickets for Agneepath and went to watch a dirty movie instead, only to be caught and have his head shaved by the police. A few days later in school, Mandar notices another kid who has had his head shaved for the same reason, and the two strike up a friendship based on their shared interests: lining up outside the nearby girls’ school to ogle potential “friends”, molesting women in crowded public places and, once armed with that mother lode of boys’-school street cred—a girlfriend, acquired after a declaration of liking full of the most generic niceties—preaching before an ever-increasing crowd of admirers that the best way to score chicks is to go after the second-prettiest girl in a group.
This is followed shortly by ‘Chori Chori’, a beautiful duet written by music director Khamosh Shah and sung by Arijit Shah and Sona Mohapatra. It’s part of another flashback: Mandar is now in engineering college, living in a flat after having been thrown out of the hostel for being caught in his hostel room while attempting to inspect his current girlfriend’s breasts for moles; they are, it seems, a sign of open-mindedness. (Said girlfriend—Parul, played by Veera Saxena—was the second-prettiest girl in a group he once saw cross a road, and has been attained after considerable stalking.) One afternoon, as he waits on the roof, locked out by a fornicating cousin, a thunderstorm breaks out. All the better for ogling the heaving bosom of a neighbourhood auntie, Jyothsna (Sai Tamhankar), as she hurries to take in the laundry. Mandar stands transfix’d; he soon begins his elaborate courting ritual of lecherous staring every time she leaves her house. Huzza! It works, for she starts calling him when her husband is away, even agrees to come to his house.
Once there, though, she’s had enough. It was all a joke, she tells him, a harmless pastime to fill her empty days. But such trivial details are no match for our expert hunterrr; one kiss, he replies, let’s end this on a good note. As the song begins playing—“Tod de bandishon ka gubbara/Dhadkanon ki Ping-Pong khelein hum dobara/Chal raha hai jo usey chalne do”—we get a montage of the steamy affair that follows. The inevitable rejection of Naïve Girlfriend Parul, the age-old knock-on-the-bedroom-door trope played out without dialogue, is nicely done. As is the detail of Mandar boasting about his conquest to his friends in engineering college, who soon begin prank-calling Jyothsna’s house.
Mandar Ponkshe is a sex addict. Or at least that’s what the film’s Wikipedia page and every review of the film call him. I find the terminology a little problematic; it is too convenient to think of Mandar as a deviant, and to do that is to miss the point of the film. “People have reacted to Hunterrr‘s trailer as though it is a sex comedy like Grand Masti and Kya Kool Hain Hum. It’s not,” Kulkarni said in an interview with Scroll a week before the film’s release. “The idea…was to create characters that you could possibly judge, but you should at least empathise with.” It helps that Devaiya puts in a thoroughly convincing performance.
The trailer, a raucous medley of the best scenes in the film, is a neat bit of subterfuge to get the young male techie crowd to the multiplex. What they will find once they’ve settled in with their popcorn will be a milieu and characters that are uncomfortably familiar, a protagonist whose experiences and opinions, they know, are closer to the mean than the extreme of their peer groups, a film that reminds them of the truth that they might call foreign professors racist for pointing out, but must know to be unimpeachably true: something is rotten in the state of the Indian male. No one will admit to seeing a bit of themselves in Mandar, of course, but everyone will admit to having friends like him. (“There are too many of such men that I have grown up [with] in school, in colonies, in college,” Kulkarni said in the interview.)
For all the fond nostalgia our generation associates with it, the Nineties were a very strange time indeed. It was the high point of sexual repression, those days before the internet when it was still theoretically but no longer practically possible for patriarchy to keep old hypocrisies safe from the highly sexualised culture of the West. The only source of advice in such matters was the gender-segregated peer group, other guys with only as much insight and experience as you.
Mandar’s sexual awakening is a communal event, with his friends at school and college hanging on to every word of the tales of his conquests. Said conquests have the tinge of adolescent fantasies—the neighbourhood auntie, another one actually called Savita Bhabhi, a single woman at an airport reading Fifty Shades of Gray. Judging by his game, the aforementioned lecherous stare, it is a minor miracle that he gets enough action to be considered a sex addict. He’s a percentage player, his persistence compensating for the lack of any discernible charm—a Howard Wolowitz. His understanding of the women he is so desperate for is rudimentary; the lack of depth in the female characters is symbolic of how much he cares about their personalities. (In any case, as many reviews have put it, his success is an indictment of the intelligence of the women in the film.)
But it is when shit gets real, when there is more than libido at stake, that the film’s opinion of Mandar comes forth and he is shown up for the feckless wimp that he is, that society has made him. (Kulkarni underlines this point by providing a contrast, a cousin who gives up his philandering ways to settle for a girl who needs his protection from an abusive father.) The “present day” narrative, amid all the flashbacks, is an excoriation of the person he has become, Casanova getting his comeuppance and having to take a long look in an Old Monk-stained mirror.
What emerges from that long look is an unconvincing denouement, largely because the tension in the end seems forced, but also because in characteristic fashion, the questions Mandar answers of himself aren’t the ones that truly matter.