Munnabhai M.B.B.S. starts energetically with a humorous car and foot chase involving an innocent jogger, a goon with a gun and a taxi driver who wants no part of the crime about to be committed. In a way it’s a shame the rest of the movie doesn’t simply build on this set-up, since as it turns out the taxi driver is Munna, a tricky gangster who excels at blindsiding the victims of his extortion racket.
One person Munna has so far managed to trick is his father, who believes that Munna is an altruistic doctor in charge of a charity medical centre. Every time his father visits, Munna and his gang elaborately cover-up their criminal activities, gathering beds, smocks, and Zimmer frames as they convert their establishment into a temporary and totally fake hospital. Then, with the introduction Dr Asthana, Munna’s father’s old childhood friend, and Asthana’s daughter, Suman, also a doctor, everything goes wrong. An attempt to arrange a marriage between Munna and Suman leads to the revelation that Munna has always been a gangster, doesn’t know the first thing about medical practice, and thus leads to his father’s loss of face and feeling of shame towards his son.
Seeking to make amends, Munna forces his way into Mumbai’s best medical academy, using a full repertoire of cons, bluffs and blackmail to ensure that he remains the best student in the facility – on paper.
Until this point, Munnabhai M.B.B.S. concentrates on delivering a fairly rapid blend of comedy and pathos with great success. Director Hirani displays a talent for staging complex static master shots, highlighted during the entertaining makeover of the charity hospital, a re-arrangement of props, costumes and the set that occurs across several hilariously brief shots. Without mucking about, real life father and son Sunil and Sanjay Dutt are brought together on screen for the first time, then ripped apart as Munna betrayal is revealed. Then we’re thrust into the medical school, where brazen juvenile comedy meets knockabout crime and varied antics ensure. Too many curious medical students and not enough cadavers to go around? Fine, says Munna, I’ll ring one of the boys and get them to unearth another – so they knock unconscious and haul in a colourfully-dressed tourist who happens to be wandering near the gangster’s base of operations.
Along this path towards absolution with the father, the movie loses its steam as a breathless comedy about goofy morons, turning in a rather boorish fashion into a deeper-dish drama with several messages locked in its sights. It all seems to start with the ‘magic hug’, a schmaltzy story device used to yank out internal emotion and plonk it on the screen. Through the magic hug, themes explored include familial love, unselfish care for others, equality of opportunity for health care and social recognition, and the embrace of life, no matter how difficult or fleeting. Strong themes, but perhaps handled a little too bluntly and without a great deal of regard for the tone established earlier in the picture. For those unfortunate to know the Disney movie, a definite set of references to Patch Adams also seems to emerge at this time, with Munna taking on the role of the ‘love giver’ in an environment where empathy for patients is discouraged.
These are mostly small qualms. Munnabhai tackles familiar subject matter in a sometimes familiar way, but it’s not without original moments and the inclusion of a gangster in the hospital is itself enough of a variation on the approach to heartwarming medically-situated stuff to warrant giving this a try. One of those movies that’s only a little bit different, but a little might just be enough.