At some point during Welcome Back, my spirit left my body and soared over the heads of the stricken audience in the theatre. I looked down at them as they checked their phones, clutched their hair, wondered how Anees Bazmee could have been allowed to make films for 20 years now. I could see myself crumpled in a corner, glaring at someone behind me who had the gall to find what was happening on screen funny. Then John Abraham said, “Aaj kisses, kal missus”, and I was transported back to the desert of the real.
I’ve never attended journalism school, but I gather one of the things they tell you is not to open a film review with an out-of-body experience. I apologize, but then again, who says this is a film? I’ve seen CCTV footage of elevators that is more cinematic. Slugs inching their way across asphalt have more narrative drive than this. Daylight robberies would be funnier.
Bazmee is, of course, no stranger to daylight robberies, having masterminded Ready and Singh Is Kinng. He’s also responsible for 2007’s Welcome, in which Anil Kapoor and Nana Patekar play gangsters called Majnu and Uday, who pretend to go straight so that they can get their sister married to a “respectable boy”, the nephew of one Dr Ghungroo (Paresh Rawal). In Welcome Back, the joke’s on them (though all jokes are really on the viewer)—another sister, Ranjhana (Shruti Haasan), has to be married off, but the man she’s in love with, Ajju Bhai (John Abraham), is as big a criminal as they used to be (he’s also Ghungroo’s stepson).
Over its cruelly prolonged 150-minute running time, Welcome Back treats human intellect with the sort of disdain that’s remarkable even for Bollywood. It’s not just that these are old gags; they’ve been repurposed so lazily that you can see the actors tiring of a scene even as they perform it.
The screen is dense with characters—in addition to the ones mentioned above, there’s Wanted Bhai (Naseeruddin Shah) and his son Honey (Shiney Ahuja), and the mother-daughter grifter team of Dimple Kapadia and Sakshi Maggo—but the plotting is convoluted and increasingly ridiculous. Abraham, his I’m-so-gorgeous grin an awkward match with his bhai accent, Kapoor and Haasan are locked in a deadly three-way struggle for the crown of the film’s biggest ham, but then Shah enters the picture as the blind Wanted Bhai and walks away with top honours (or dis-honours).
If Welcome Back’s crimes against the ear are unforgivable, almost as grave are its sins against the eye. If there’s a tackier-looking film than this made in the country in the last five years, I’m yet to see it. The film’s supposed to be set in Dubai, but it really seems to take place on the sets of a bad jewellery ad from the 1980s. I’m not one to dwell on crimes of fashion but Ahuja’s pink jacket and Maggo’s gold-lamé dress should have come with a little advisory, like those no-smoking warnings. The tackiness extends to the special effects: the climactic sequence, which takes place in the desert, has exploding remote-controlled mini-helicopters, two camel stampedes and a dust storm. It also has a blind man regaining his sight, which is ironic, considering Welcome Back is likely to make you want to claw your eyes out.