Chakri Toleti’s Welcome to New York is a tribute to Robert Altman’s Pret-a-Porter, no less, one that replaces the Paris Fashion Week for the International Indian Film Academy awards. The setting for Toleti’s film is the event that is organized every year for the benefit of non-Indian fans of Bollywood. It involves transporting major and minor celebrities to foreign locations and walking them down network carpets thronged by homesick members of the Indian diaspora, comic skits and dance performances, and awards of no consequence.
If the expectation is a biting send-up of the pompousness and shallowness that mark the Hindi film industry’s annual public back pat, it is laid to rest as soon as the credits roll. The movie has been blessed and produced by IIFA’s organizers, and staged sequences are mixed with current footage from previous ceremonies. The movie is less roast than shallow-fry, comprising a handful of genuinely funny gags and insider jokes and two Karan Johars, one of whom wants to kill the director of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. Johar, who made a forgettable acting debut in Bombay Velvet (2015), turns out to be the best thing about a comedy that takes a butter knife to an event ripe for evisceration.
In New York, IIFA employee Sophie (Lara Dutta), smarting at stolen credit over her organizational skills, comes up with a plan for revenge. Sophie organizes a talent hunt that will invite two Indians to share the stage with IIFA’s luminaries. She selects the two worst possible candidates who she hopes will wreck the event: hammy actor Teji (Diljit Dosanjh) from Punjab and tacky costume designer Jinal (Sonakshi Sinha) from Gujarat.
The movie alternates between the two supposedly untalented characters preparing for their big moment and footage of Bollywood’s brightest descending on New York. The star cameos include Salman Khan, Sushant Singh Rajput, Rana Daggubati and Riteish Deshmukh, and there is a reference, borrowed from Ocean’s Twelve (2004), of a resemblance between Jinal and one Sonakshi Sinha.
Karan Johar plays himself – a preening and fashion-conscious A-list director – as well as a gangster lookalike named Arjun who has lost his standing in the crime world after Johar’s success. Arjun is often mistaken for Karan and is hounded by selfie-seekers, and he wants revenge (those of us who have suffered through Johar’s overwrought romances will empathise). Johar gets to flagellate himself for his older artistic choices – “I will kill you with a Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham DVD,” Arjun thunders – and poke fun at his real life obsession with luxury brands and haute couture. In one scene, I have his balance when thugs ruin his limited-edition Gucci shoes.
The comedy between Teji and Jinal is less effective, and feels forced and stretched despite Dosanjh’s charm and energy. There is ultimately no difference between the supposedly bad-taste IIFA awards and the movie’s overall lack of judgment about the level at which the humor is pitched. A bulk of the film takes place in hotel rooms, parking lots, and sets, and the overall look and feel are as impoverished as Jinal’s ghastly threads.
When Aditya Roy Kapur and Katrina Kaif are passed off as arbiters of acting talent? Welcome to New York is that kind of a movie.