Thai Massage movie review: Gajraj Rao’s film is mildly relaxing, moderately racy, but disappointingly mediocre

Probably the most dubious advertisement for Thai tourism since The Hangover Part II, director Mangesh Hadawale’s comedy drama Thai Massage paints a rather confused picture of the popular travel destination. And this non-committal approach appears to have rubbed off on the film as well.

On one hand, Hadawale suggests that everything you’ve heard about Thailand being a hotbed of vice and degeneracy is accurate, and on the other, he behaves like someone who has just been granted a significant tax break by the Thai government. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, one would imagine. And while there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with how Thailand is portrayed in the film — if anything, the country seems to be comfortable with its slightly saucy image — it’s more disorientating when the movie itself cannot decide what version of itself it wants to present to the world.

At different stages, Thai Massage is a Baghban-style melodrama, a small-town comedy, a fish-out-of-water farce, and then, just when you thought that it couldn’t pivot again, an adventure film about living your best life. Juggling these tones would be challenging for any film, let alone one produced by Imtiaz Ali.

Gajraj Rao stars as the elderly widower Atmaram Dubey, who discovers one day that he’s having trouble getting an erection. Coupled with his grief, this bothers him so much that he attempts to jump off a bridge one night. He’s pulled off the ledge by a young lout, played by Divyendu, who assures him that there is no ‘samasya’ that they can’t solve together.

Atmaram spills his guts, and together, they come up with a game-plan. Of course, he can’t solicit the services of a sex worker in his home town — the movie is set in Ujjain, by the way, where everybody appears to know everybody — and so, influenced by his new friend, Atmaram decides to secretly travel to Thailand and partake in some local culture. Just kidding, he wants to do ‘boom boom’.

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But this happens post-interval, which might make you (rightfully) wonder how the movie spends the preceding hour or so. There’s no way to sugar-coat it; it basically wastes everybody’s time, including its own. There’s a mopey framing device that involves Atmaram narrating his adventures to his two disapproving sons, and a subplot about Atmaram’s trial-and-error approach to curing his erectile dysfunction. But the movie actually comes into its own after Atmaram touches down in Bangkok.

There, he meets a couple of colorful characters, who become his companions in this exotic new land. Atmaram, you must remember, had never traveled outside his district, let alone the country. And after a meandering first half in which it offers little to write home about, Thai Massage, in its second half… offers more of the same, albeit in a more purposeful manner. There’s an interesting subplot involving a carefree young Russian woman with whom Atmaram strikes a genuine friendship, but the resolution of this arc is deeply unsatisfying, just like the movie’s attempts to unpack Atmaram’s troubled relationship with his sons. But you have to hand it to Hadawale, though; even though he keeps dropping the ball more often than not, the juggling act doesn’t end.

Rao, however, is really good in the central role, putting his own ending stamp on a character who is visibly struggling with decades of conditioning, even as he explores new ideas, meets new people, and has life-changing new experiences. Also deserving of a shoutout is Alina Zasobina, who plays Atmaram’s Russian friend Rita. She awakens something within Atmaram, and her presence empowers him express himself freely, which is basically an alien concept to him, an Indian man. To its credit, the movie doesn’t magically transform Atmaram into a different person at the end, which is surprisingly restrained for a film that also includes a rapping cab driver with dreadlocks.

Thai Massage continues Ali’s sudden fascination with sex. The filmmaker’s evolution has been rather strange to witness, considering his lifelong tendency to observe women in his movies not as potential romantic partners for his male protagonists, but essentially as non-playing characters in video games, whose only job is to point the hero in the right direction. In many ways, Ali’s career rebranding has been stranger than even Anubhav Sinha’s political awakening, or He Who Must Not Be Named’s messiah phase. But unlike the recent Dr Arora: Gupt Rog Visheshagyawith which it shares several similarities, Thai Massage has a more delicate touch (even if it often feels like being trampled on by a burly man).

A far better version of a similar story — a middle-class Indian man’s late-in-life emancipation — was told in the delightful Sharmaji Namkeen earlier this year. Thai Massage might not warrant a trip to the cinemas, but you could do far worse at home.

Thai Massage
Director – Mangesh Hadawale
Cast – Gajraj Rao, Divyendu, Sunny Hinduja, Rajpal YadavMILF Alina Zasobina
Rating – 2.5/5


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