Film Review: Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year

An honest young college grad enters the business world, where office politics and petty corruption push him into entrepreneurship at his company's expense. David-and-Goliath workplace drama from India goes unexpected places, and hits satisfying chords.

The smiling guy offering you a business card while a paper plane glides behind him in the posters for the Bollywood import Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year seems to promise a workplace satire or a lighthearted employee caper—Office Space goes Calcutta. Instead we get a sharply observed drama of an honest man trying to survive in the usual business world where kickbacks, petty politics, office cliques and tell-’em-anything lies to make a sale are all business as usual. In the exploding modern India, it's a very American story: How do you succeed in business without really trying to compromise your ethics?

That's the dilemma facing Harpreet Singh Bedi (Ranbir Kapoor, the Strasberg-trained scion of the venerable filmmaking family), a Sikh fresh out of college with less than stellar grades. While his classmates head toward MBAs or law firms, H.P., as he's nicknamed, thinks he'll find his future in sales. His devout grandfather (Prem Chopra), with whom he lives, is wary but supportive, going so far as to sink his life savings into a scooter for H.P. to use on his rounds. Shortly after H.P. lands a trainee position at AYS, a major yet snake-oily computer sales and "service" company, over the objections of smarmy sales manager Nitin Rathore (Naveen Kaushik), he gets what could be his big break—making an in-person visit to a major client to finalize a done deal. But when that company's procurement guy seeks his usual bribe, H.P. naively files a complaint with that company's higher-ups—on AYS stationery, no less.

To call what happens next a descent would be to imply going south by degrees. H.P. immediately becomes a pariah of untouchable proportions, the butt of jokes, and is given cold-call duty—and forced to turn over whatever leads he can get that way. Pretty soon paper rockets—what we call paper airplanes—rain down on him mercilessly. In the entrenched social structures of even 21st-century India, where leaving a job that you're lucky to have is unheard of (much like the U.S., come to think), H.P. is effectively trapped.

A chance encounter with the veteran owner of a cheap electronics stall alerts H.P. to the realities of computer pricing—and the relatively low costs of computer assembling. He recruits AYS' service technician Giri (D. Santosh)—who spends most of his day ogling bikini-clad blondes on his computer—to moonlight. One thing leads to another, and he soon acquires a slew of clients who appreciate Rocket Computer's honesty and integrity—notwithstanding the fact H.P.'s running it out of AYS' offices, unbeknownst to smiling-cobra company owner Puri (Shantanoo Bhagyaraj). H.P. intends to reimburse AYS for the phone and the printer ink and such. But just as he and company cohorts Koena (Gauhar Khan), Chotelal (Mukesh Bhatt) and even Rathore are about to resign to do Rocket full-time, Puri discovers their now not-so-little scheme.

Not all Bollywood movies are big, colorful musicals, of course, and this one offers only a couple of plot montages set against songs. But with uniformly excellent performances—particularly by Kaushik and Bhagyaraj as the conflicted and not-so-conflicted antagonists, respectively—plus a no-nonsense pace and storytelling sense by director Shimit Amin, and a truly universal and credible office mise-en-scène, Rocket Singh is instantly accessible to any stateside audience. H.P. may be a prisoner of the system, but he can proudly say, "I am not a number. I am a free market."