Puts the 'Meh' in Mehta

Beeba Boys
(Canada, 103 min.)
Written and directed by Deepa Mehta
Starring: Randeep Hooda, Ali Momen, Sarah Allen, Waris Ahluwalia, Balinder Johal, Paul Gross
L to R: Waris Ahluwalia, Ali Momen, Randeep Hooda, Ali Kazmi, Steve Dhillon, Jag Bal, and Gabe Grey in Beeba Boys. Photo by Doane Gregory. Courtesy of Mongrel Media.

Deepa Mehta pulls a Ruba Nadda with Beeba Boys. The great Canadian arthouse director, like Nadda did with 2012’s Inescapable and again with 2014’s October Gale, tries her hand at genre and finds herself out of her element. Beeba Boys is Mehta’s first real misfire, as it struggles to balance comedy and the gangster genre within a well-meaning and urgent dramatization of gang violence among Indo-Canadians in Vancouver. The themes are and concerns are perfectly in line with her body of work, but the delivery is way off. Simply put, Beeba Boys puts the ‘meh’ in Mehta.

It’s admirable that Mehta tackles something new as Beeba Boys dramatizes the world of crime among Indo-Canadian gangs in Vancouver. The film finds relative success with elements of the gangster genre as Mehta uses codes of honour within gangland Vancouver to show the influence of family, culture, and circumstance on a person’s choice to walk the path of good or evil. Beeba Boys toys with notions of good and evil as the Beeba Boys name themselves after the righteous (“beeba” in Punjabi means “good”) with leader Jeet Johar (Randeep Hooda) gamely playing the role of the suave, merciless kingpin. Especially good is Jeet’s relationship with his mother, played by a strong Balinder Johal (Heaven on Earth) and the contrast with new Beeba Boy Neb (Ali Momen) and a rival family gang to show the role that parents play in shaping their children towards the paths of right or wrong. There’s a strong thread à la The Departed that shows how one can be either a cop or a criminal depending on circumstance, and Mehta lets Jeet’s misguided machismo create a man whose mother raised him better than that. Similarly, Sarah Allen’s incarnation of a jilted Michelle Pfeiffer-like moll shows the emptiness of this patriarchal gunplay, and Jeet’s relationship with his son, who confuses good and evil while comparing his father to Optimus Prime, reveals the futility in gaining power and cultural legitimacy through violence.

When it comes to deconstructing the tenuousness of multiculturalism in Canada, and the fissures of family, culture, and identity, Mehta is second only to early-career Atom Egoyan in her ability to shake representations of Canada for the better. She’s in her element with films like Water, Midnight’s Children, and Bollywood/Hollywood as values, history, and family legacy collide with a breathtaking fusion of national cinemas. With Beeba Boys, though, her concerns are more on questions of style and showmanship, on genre and action. Like Nadda’s own aforementioned misfires, the elements of Mehta’s oeuvre lose themselves in an exercise in genre. As a gangster film, Beeba Boys gets the tailorings all right—the stylish clothes of the Armani-clad Beeba Boys, who wear Reservoir Dog-like suits like distinctly Indian splashes of colour, are spectacular—and the machinery all wrong. The action is often incoherent and the pacing too madcap to invest the audience emotionally in the plight of these lost boys and the holes their violence leaves in their families.

Mehta might have hit a homer had she played the film perfectly straight and made Beeba Boys darker and grittier. Beeba Boys is wildly uneven, though, as Mehta injects elements of comedy within the splashy gunplay. Mehta’s previous films aren’t void of humour (see Sam and Me and Bollywood/Hollywood), and she’s often quite funny in interviews, but the humour of Beeba Boys is too fleeting and inconsistent for this maelstrom of violence to have its full effect. There’s no point in taking this situation lightly.

The casting choices of Wes Anderson film regular Waris Ahluwalia and Hyena Road’s Paul Gross, sporting a ridiculous man ponytail, afford a few moments of successful comic relief with the former for the better and the latter for the worse, but as a comedy, Beeba Boys just doesn’t work. It’s ambiguously funny with Tarantino-like banter among the gangsters of the Beeba Boy gang feeling forced and awkward, rather than sharp and witty. (The film’s recent sneak peek in Ottawa featured sporadic wheezes of uncomfortable laughter, as if viewers weren’t sure if the comedy was intentional.) The timing and pacing, similarly, don’t have the rhythm of a comedy, and Mehta loses something vital—the intensity and the visceral pain—that keeps Beeba Boys from striking a full blow.

Rating: ★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Beeba Boys is now playing in theatres.