A middle-class Delhi neighbourhood, its milieu and tongue, form the setting for Hitesh Bhatia’s situational comedy Sharmaji Namkeen, bordering on highly entertaining farce.
The film is highly anticipated, considering this is Rishi Kapoor's last film - he couldn't complete it before his death in the distressing summer of 2020. Paresh Rawal stepped in to Sharmaji’s role to complete the film—which makes it an unusual film with two actors essaying the same eponymous lead role.
Yet, because of the sparkling screenplay—by Bhatia and Supratik Sen—the narrative never jars. It’s a triumphant irony that a film which pivots around the lead actors because it releases almost two years after the lead actor’s demise, engages the viewer more for the way the characters are written than the actors—a perfect swan song for one of Bollywood’s most versatile actors with a gift of impeccable comic timing.
We meet Sharma (Kapoor/Rawal) on the day of his retirement from a kitchen appliances company in Delhi. A widower, he lives with his two sons: a go-getter in the corporate world with eyes on domesticity, material success and a flat in Gurgaon (Suhail Nayyar), and a college-going dancer-in-the-making (Taaruk Raina).
The superannuated life does not suit Sharma, much to the annoyance of both his sons. Daily soaps on afternoon TV and feeding chaats and tikkis made in his tiny kitchen to unsuspecting watchmen bore him, and he is desperate to find a shred of purpose in his new life. With the help of a neighbourhood friend Chaddha (a brilliantly-performed small role by Satish Kaushik), Sharma, a passionate cook, gets into business as a cook for the kitty parties of a group of garrulous, bling-obsessed women (Sheeba Chaddha and Juhi Chawla, among others). He enjoys the cooking as well as the attention of the ladies, most notably with the spirited character played by Chawla, who, like Kapoor, is also an actor with flawless comic timing. Will Sharma reclaim a second life for himself and his family?
As a character, Sharma is the recognisable Delhi uncle—the Punjabi Everyman ubiquitous in middle-class Delhi neighbourhoods. He is shy, clumsy, unaccustomed to understand the emotional baggage of his children, addicted to social media validation, prone to equate WhatsApp forwards with irrefutable truths, and overall a curious bundle of nerves and optimism.
It’s obvious Kapoor relishes the role, and he delivers it with his signature: his keen understanding of human character, supreme ease with irrepressible Punjabiyat and his acting mettle, which seemed only to mature like aged wine as he approached his 70s. Watching him light up the screen is marvellous as well as heartbreaking—the latter because watching Sharmaji Namkeen, one is acutely aware this is the last time we will be watching Kapoor in a new role.
Rawal, who filled in for Kapoor after his death, is equally immersive and comedically dexterous as Sharmaji, and the fact that the same role has been essayed by two actors isn’t a hinderance or exasperation in the watching experience.
Chawla is her usual vivacious self as an actor, and the rest of the cast, including Nayyar, are competent and convincing in their roles.
Bhatia achieves a perfectly pitched, pat-on-the-beat comedy despite the seemingly insurmountable task of working with two actors for a single protagonist. The writing’s wit and realism ensures that Sharmaji Namkeen retains its unique flavour of Delhi-Punjabiness and reminds us, heartfully and skillfully, why Rishi Kapoor is one of our greatest and most-loved actors.
Sharmaji Namkeen is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.