Saturday, January 28, 2012

Agneepath: This ain't your Father's movie..




"Bachchan ke fan ho kya? Angry young man. ‘Aaj khush to bahut hoge aaj tum, haan. Agneepath. Agneepath.’"

-- Geet (Kareena Kapoor) to Aditya (Shahid Kapoor) in Jab We Met

Why remake anything? Producers are wary of staking large amounts of money on untested ideas. If a film worked before, why wouldn’t it work again?

But of the many films out there, why specifically remake Agneepath, a film deeply tied to the screen persona of Amitabh Bachchan? The Vijay of Agneepath was a man crushed by society and cowed by his fate. Though it won Amitabh the National Award, the film couldn’t connect with audiences. Of all the successful films - crowd pleasing, punch line filled, trendily Chennai-based films - why would this film be considered ripe for remake?

The answer of the 2012 Agneepath lies with Karan Johar. His father, Yash Johar, produced the original Agneepath and, according to Karan, the commercial failure of the film weighed heavily on him.

"It has been on my mind ever since dad's film released 22 years ago. My father was very disillusioned with the commercial outcome of the original, even though the film garnered plenty of critical acclaim. Dad had pinned a lot of hopes on it as the previews had been full of praise, but when the film didn't do well at the box office it broke his heart. Dad always wanted to remake it." - Karan Johar in the Times of India.


Karan Johar didn’t tag his 2001 film Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham with the quote “It’s all about loving your parents” for nothing.

In other words, unlike the hubris of filmmakers who tried to take on the legend of The Big B by remaking films like Don and Sholay and (upcoming remakes) Zanjeer and Chupke Chupke, Agneepath was remade despite being an Amitabh film, not because of it. Agneepath isn’t trying to battle a living legend or relive glory days, it’s a love letter from a son to father. And I think because of that difference in intent, Agneepath works - as both a standalone film and, unexpectedly, as a remake.

Karan Johar’s Agneepath begins, like any self-respecting masala film, in the past. We meet young Vijay (Arish Bhiwandiwala), who is the son of the local schoolmaster (Chetan Pandit). The schoolmaster has high moral values and high standards for his son. Money isn’t important - community is. Being right isn’t enough - you have to be compassionate, too. These are the lessons the schoolmaster wants his son to learn. Unfortunately for Vijay, he is forced to learn something that’s much more dangerous.

The area is nominally run by a moldering and increasingly irrelevant king, who is threatened by the progressive social and economic ideas of the schoolmaster. His son Kancha (Sanjay Dutt) returns home with a scheme to turn the surrounding land into a cocaine plantation and earn untold wealth for himself. The only catch is that the schoolmaster has just received permission to open a salt factory that would benefit the entire community with jobs and a modest boost to their living standard. Clearly, this can’t be allowed to happen and the schoolmaster is disgraced and killed by Kancha - right in front of his son’s eyes.

Vijay and his mother head to Mumbai, where she hopes they can put the past behind them and start fresh. But the fire has already entered Vijay’s heart and he cannot forget. Vijay will destroy Kancha and restore the schoolmaster’s good name.

Fast forward fifteen years and Vijay (Hrithik Roshan) is working with crime king pin Rauf Lala (Rishi Kapoor) as an enforcer. When Kancha resurfaces, trying to break into the Mumbai drug market, Vijay senses an opportunity and goes all in. He will take down Kancha. He will. How he does it is something I won’t give away here. (I’m not Taran Adarsh!)

Perhaps the biggest surprise of Agneepath is how refreshing it felt, especially considering that it’s a remake of an iconic film. Director Karan Malhotra, for the most part, sidesteps the meta-narrative references and winking tone that bogged down Don: The Chase Begins Again and goes for earnest emotion and character development instead. The result is closer to something like Parinda than the Southern remakes that have been floating around, despite the fact that they are all tagged as masala.

There is something so pure and childlike about Vijay. The adult Vijay is as unconcerned with women and romantic love* as the young teen who saw his father brutally murdered. And the adult Vijay has the quickly changing moods of a young teen - anger, desire, kindness, petulance. He has stayed in stasis all these years, just waiting for his father's approval. The father-son bond is the heart of the film, which makes you understand why Karan Johar was so driven to put his vision of the film on screen.

Hrithik Roshan is phenomenal as Vijay. After seeing the film, I don’t see how anybody else could have played this role. Only Hrithik, in today’s Bollywood, could deliver a performance as honest as this one was. Whether moping over a bottle of booze, comforting Rauf Lala’s mentally challenged older son, shooting a henchman at point blank range, or taking silly pictures at the fair, Hrithik just goes for it - sinking his whole heart in. I’ve said this many times but it’s worth repeating. Before I met Hrithik, I used to think those quotes from him about how he thinks he can’t act were the same kind of bullshit false modesty you get from most stars. Hrithik is different. I truly believe he gets so deep into character that for him it’s not “acting,” it’s a transformation. And this transformation is really compelling.

Most of the other performances were also really good. Rishi Kapoor was magnificent as Rauf Lala, the crime king pin who is practical in business but soft-hearted to his own family. Sanjay Dutt is extremely disturbing as Kancha and definitely gave Hrithik a run for his money in the final battle. I’d love to see Sanju take on more offbeat roles like this in the future. 

The smaller roles were all packed with interesting faces and actors. Little Arish Bhiwandiwala was superb as the young Vijay. I could have watched him carry the entire film! The young girl playing Shiksha (Kanika Tiwari) was really charming and I hope we see more of her. She gave some pretty epic reaction shots - though I’m not sure how much of the glee she showed when hugging Hrithik was “acting,” per se. I also really liked the man who played Kancha’s henchman Surya, who really just oozed sliminess. Chetan Pandit was a paragon of virtue as the schoolmaster. And Devan Bhojani nimbly played developmental disabilities without resorting to caricature or comedy. 

I also really appreciated the effort that must have gone into assembling such an interesting bunch of junior artistes to fill the backgrounds. Rauf Lala’s gang, in particular, was packed with great faces - the Pathan, the long-hair guy... And the aunties who lived in Vijay’s apartment complex were also delightful.

If you’ve noticed, I’ve avoided mentioning one part of the film so far, which is because Priyanka Chopra is the one sour note of the film. She hams her way through every scene in a manner that would be appropriate in a David Dhawan film but is severely out of place in a more naturalistic film like this. While every other actor has grounded their performance in some sort of emotional reality, Priyanka mugs and pouts like one of the spoiled brats on My Super Sweet 16 asking Daddy to hire the Black Eyed Peas to play at her party. A review of Rascals asked if there was anything less attractive than two men chasing around young twenty somethings and I can now answer, yes, there is - a 30 year old woman trying to work the same “cute” act that swayed men when she was 19. It was supremely pathetic.

The other problem with Priyanka Chopra as Vijay’s childhood friend Kaali was her styling, which was completely inappropriate to the film. Again, it would have been fine for her to wear that inches thick pancake foundation and flimsy saris if she was in a David Dhawan film but she looked so out of place compared to every other person in the film. If you’ll indulge my MTV metaphor, it’s like Kaali was supposed to be Jenny from the block but Priyanka was all decked up like Jennifer Lopez in the “Jenny From The Block” video instead. When she stood next to Kanika, the contrast was especially striking because Kanika was styled so naturalistically with minimal make up and a drab school uniform - one of the two was a real girl and one looked like she had just had her make-up done by RuPaul.

But, thankfully, Priyanka’s role was really quite small and, even more thankfully, her rain song was edited out of the final print so I didn’t have to wonder whether or not her foundation was running and staining Hrithik’s white shirt a pale shade of tan.

Speaking of songs, the ones that were kept in the film were all very well placed and I enjoyed them much more in context than I had when listening to the soundtrack, with Rishi Kapoor’s qawwali as the highlight. A word on “Chikni Chameli,” which I hated when I saw it on youtube - it works in the film. The song is still not sexy by any means but the aggressive nature of the dance moves fit beautifully in context of the film. The song is placed in the villain’s den and Kancha is trying to get a feel for who Vijay really is and Vijay is trying to contain his anger and not give away his identity. “Chikni Chameli” amps up the uncomfortable and unpleasant mood. And I mean that in the best way possible. The song works in context but it’s not something I would chose to revisit on youtube.**

I should also mention the sound design, which was delightfully traditional and very present.

Overall, I really enjoyed Agneepath and I think it’s a fine addition to the new strain of neo-masala films like Dabangg that have been making their mark on Bollywood recently. I do admit that I was doubtful to whether Karan Johar could produce a film that I wanted to see but I gladly concede this match to him. And I look forward to whatever debut director Karan Malhotra does next - I’m sure it will be great!

* Which is a thread that I found really interesting. The inclusion of hijras in a crucial scene and Vijay’s complete lack of sexual interest in women (as shown in a handful of scenes) made me wonder if the character was actually gay - at least that’s how I read it.

** Also, Katrina’s botox and lip plumper are distracting. I will punch whoever told her that it was a good idea.

4 comments:

Ava Suri said...

Lovely review.

dunkdaft said...

Seems everyone is agreed over a mess called PC. Forget just make up, even her English was suave, that it was un matchable for a chawl living girl in 90s.

Jess said...

I might go see it, I just don't know if I can handle a long movie with lots of anger...K3G was a KJo movie with lots of sadness and I wanted to stab my eyes out at that.

I saw the audience reaction to Chikni Chameli on youtube, which is worth a look. People were going nuts for her. And it seems the best part of the song is what they left out of the promo, when she actually engages Kancha and Vijay.

Archee ologist said...

I think you are being unfair to Priyanka Chopra.

Her costumes were glamourous for her context. But consider: a) she has done de-glam roles in the past and was not necessarily looking for something glamourous here, b) the heroine is supposed to bring in the glamour in such masala films c) the producer/ director definitely had a role in designing the charachter. In fact, she is meant to be a young Bombay girl, and a much more mature charachter than Vijay's sister. So it might be unfair to compare their glamour.

She was not pretending to be 19. Kaali is about the same age as Vijay. So they are meant to be about 27. Hritik must have been 37 at the time of filming, Priyanka Chopra 29. So, her charachter is much closer to her real age.

Beyond that, her role was really too small for any significant contributions.

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