- Kasim taunting Aladin in Sujoy Ghosh’s Aladin
The last few years have seen a flood of Hindi films from new filmmakers who take their cues from Hollywood genres rather than traditional Bollywood film styles, from romantic-comedies (Break Ke Baad) to melodrama literally taken from Hollywood scripts (We Are Family) to masala-free action films (Blue). And perhaps it’s understandable that a generation of filmmakers who had their formative years in the 1990s and early 2000s turned to Hollywood for inspiration. If the option was between stale fare like Subhash Ghai’s Trimurti or a VHS tape of The Usual Suspects, I guarantee most of us would choose Kevin Spacey, too. Unfortunately, these new filmmakers have had more misses than hits in trying to combine the Hollywood styles they love with the palate of the typical Hindi-film viewer. Not only do the long run-times feel tedious when combined with the tight-focus Hollywood genre film but the mandatory song sequences feel awkward and irrelevant placed in a “realistic” context. Yet both of those issues pale in comparison to the biggest hurdle filmmakers face when combining Hollywood with Bollywood - the role of The Hero.
The swaggering, strutting, and always righteous Hero of Bollywood is a character who has as many shades as colors in the rainbow. He’s the downtrodden little boy who grows into a champion of the people; he’s the uptight (and wealthy) businessman who learns what love is when he falls for a spunky working class girl; he’s the patriotic son who defends the village; he’s a spoiled brat; he’s a selfless paragon of virtue; he’s the center of gravity of any film. There is one thing that a Hero never is - meek. In the world of Hindi films, every Ram must be balanced out by a swaggering Shyam. And Bollywood films that transform a zero into a Hero run the risk of alienating audiences if the zero stays a zero for too long - one of the major complaints against another flop film called Chandni Chowk to China. Bollywood heroes may be poor, down on their luck, saddled with debt, brutally orphaned, cruelly separated from their loves, or hated by their communities but Bollywood heroes never back down in the face of bullies.(1)
And this brings me to Aladin.
Aladin is framed for us like a fairy tale. The film opens on the walled city of Khwaish, located somewhere on the mountainous border between India and China,(2) where the young Aladin lives alone with his grandfather. Aladin, much to his chagrin, was named after the famous Aladin, the kahaaniwallah (or storybook character) who owned the lamp. A meek and soft-hearted child, Aladin is a natural magnet for bullying. He is taunted mercilessly by his classmates, led by the extremely douchey Kasim. Certainly the storybook name is an easy target but one gets the sense that Aladin is the type of boy who would be teased no matter what his name was. But no matter how cruel his classmates, Aladin has a happy home. His grandfather is a kind soul and showers the little lad with affection, teaching him slight-of-hand magic tricks and telling him about his late parents.
Fast forward an indeterminate number of years and Aladin (the extremely likable Ritesh Deshmukh) is now in college and still being tormented by Kasim (Sahil Shah), only now Aladin is fast and clever enough to outrun the bullies before they make him rub their lamps.(3) Aladin is all alone in the world - no parents, no grandfather - and his only friend, or at least the only person who talks to him, is Marjina (Ratna Pathak Shah), the lady who runs the local greasy spoon restaurant.
Into this frozen life walks Jasmine (Miss Sri Lanka Jacqueline Fernandez in her debut performance). Aladin is smitten from his first glimpse but fate will put up many hurdles before they are united. Kasim is also smitten by the exotic lass and, unlike Aladin, Kasim has no trouble speaking up for himself. After the Jasmine’s first day of class, Kasim, sensing an opportunity to both a) humiliate Aladin and b) spend time with Jasmine, declares that he is hosting a birthday party for “Aloo” aka Aladin and immediately drags Jasmine off to purchase the perfect present for Aladin - a lamp.
Going against his better instincts, Aladin shows up at the party to see Jasmine and is humiliated as planned when he receives the lamp, which Kasim goads him into rubbing. Luckily or unluckily for Aladin, there is a difference between this lamp and all the previous lamps Aladin has rubbed - this lamp contains a genie, a genie named Genius (the one and only Amitabh Bachchan).
With that rub, Aladin is sucked into a deadly game of cat and mouse with Genius and Genius’s arch-rival Ring Master (Sanjay Dutt in his best post-Lage Raho Munnabhai, pre-Agneepath performance) - only he doesn’t know it yet. Like any normal human being, Aladin can’t quite believe that Genius is really able to grant one wish, let alone the traditional three. Aladin’s imagination is as frozen and empty as the rest of his life and when he does finally wish for something, the only thing he can think to ask for is Jasmine. That crush is the only spark of life within Aladin. Yet, when Genius summons up a madly-in-love Jasmine for Aladin, Aladin quickly realizes that unearned love is no good and uses his second wish to cancel the first.
Aladin’s third wish is for Jasmine - with no magic, just advice from Genius, whom Aladin has become very fond of.
Meanwhile, the Ring Master and his pack of circus-themed henchmen are pulling closer and closer to Khwaish... and the lamp.
And, yes, Kasim is still running amok.
Will Aladin learn to stand up for himself? Will Jasmine return his feelings? Will Ring Master destroy Genius? And what did happen to Aladin’s parents?
All of these threads are woven together to culminate in a showdown between Aladin and Ring Master at, where else, the school dance. (Thankfully, Jasmine knows karate.)
Aladin’s fairy tale ends as our modern fairy tales do - with happily ever after.
Though it wasn’t such a happily ever after for director Sujoy Ghosh, who was ripped apart by both the critics and the public.(4) Reviewers couldn’t make up their minds if there was too much story or not enough story.
Anupama Chopra said: [I]t’s so convoluted that you can barely follow who is doing what to whom and why.
And that word-meister Taran Adarsh doesn’t even bother to get out his thesaurus saying simply: Sujoy Ghosh's screenplay is bad, to put it bluntly.
Audiences seemed to agree and the film swiftly disappeared. As did Sujoy Ghosh. And Ritesh Deshmukh returned to playing second banana to top heroes in films like Housefull and doing guest spots for cash in producer Vashu Bhagnani’s repeated attempts to launch his son Jackky.(5) Big stars Amitabh Bachchan and Sanjay Dutt never mentioned it again.
All of which is a shame because Aladin is a sweet and very entertaining film. One I’ve returned to numerous times since its release. So, what was it about Aladin that failed to hook almost everybody except me? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Aladin suffered from two major problems in connecting with mainstream audiences - a) it was too clever for its own good and b) the story of the hero didn’t resonate with viewers unused to the character type.
Despite the firm convictions of Taran Adarsh that the screenplay was bad, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the screenplay - much like that of Tashan - was actually just too clever for it’s own good. Aladin assumes a familiarity with not just Disney’s Aladdin but also an awareness of literary fairy tale tropes and an awareness of conventional filmi tropes. Nothing makes this clearer than the fact that even though the film is about a guy named Aladin and his magic lamp and builds on the traditional fairy tale of “Aladin and the Magic Lamp”, that not once is the fairy tale the film is using as inspiration actually spelled out for the audience. Sujoy Ghosh takes it as implied knowledge. Why is there a genie in the lamp? Because that’s how the story goes. But if the audience doesn’t know the story, the “why” is never answered and nothing makes sense.
In fact, not much is spelled out for the audience, who is expected to figure out for themselves not just who Aladin is but who Ring Master is and what exactly it is that genies can do. And this expectation that the audience will fill in the gaps of the story themselves is a large part of why Aladin is really not so much a children’s film but a film for adults who enjoy children’s films. Just as a viewer familiar with superhero origin stories can fill in the blanks themselves in a superhero film, a viewer who has seen umpteen children’s fantasy films doesn’t really need to have their hand held through the logistics of an evil magician. Sujoy must have expected audiences to read the character of Ring Master as a villain corrupted by greed just as easily as masala audiences are able to read the villain their hero must face, whether she is a corrupt politician whose fate is death or a cold-hearted father whose fate is reunion with his son.
Magic is amoral, it’s the wielder who is good or bad. Bad magic is used to selfish ends; good magic is not. It’s a thread that runs through stories from, well, “Aladin and the Magic Lamp” to “Harry Potter.” As Ring Master was corrupted by greed, Genius is pure... purely amoral. And perhaps this was another thread of confusion for critics and family audiences. If one is expecting the genie to be “good” - or at least righteous - then a sequence in which Genius spells Jasmine to be madly in love with Aladin could easily be misread. Watching Jasmine get closer and closer and Aladin, trying to seduce him, I squirmed in my seat knowing that none of it was of her free will, which means the end result of the seduction would essentially be rape, which seemed to be the point. (6) Yet, if audiences were reading Genius as “good” and the sequence as some sort of romantic-comedy hijinx when really they wanted adventuring, it gives Genius a different feel - Aladin “wasting” two wishes on a boring romantic plot instead of seeing that Genius is only as good or bad as the person commanding him. Genius can and will bring you a mountain of cocaine or a banana split with equal ease of conscience. And if a viewer missed that, then Genius’s moment of decision to grant Ring Master’s wish or not at the end of the film would also mean nothing. He’s “good,” right? So, why would he go against the hero?
That viewers needed to pick up on the fact that Genius the genie is amoral was complex enough but Sujoy added another twist by making the kind of magic that Genius uses a specific kind of filmi magic. Genius is the one who initiates every single song picturization in the film either through magic or by actually singing for Aladin in the beautiful “You May Be.” In that love ballad, Aladin is attempting to serenade Jasmine when his voice gives out. Coming to the rescue, Genius stands “off camera” and sings while Aladin lip syncs. It’s a clever staging but only if you have an appreciation for how song picturizations actually work. The same goes for the rest of the picturizations, which play with familiar tropes like the Club Song (Genius makes all the students dance in union, much to Aladin’s confusion) and the Cool Song (Genius creates a duplicate Aladin who wears sunglasses and raps). (7) Most viewers seem to have missed this thread of filmi magic entirely.
Now we get to Aladin himself, who is the key component to this wonderful puzzle of a film and the beta male I alluded to earlier. The actual climax of the film is not when Aladin defeats Ring Master or when Jasmine falls in love with Aladin but when Aladin finally stands up to Kasim. He doesn’t hit Kasim or send him to jail or anything - no, Aladin finally decides not to let Kasim humiliate him anymore by just not letting Kasim humiliate him. Aladin can’t control the bully but he can control his own reaction. It’s a wonderfully subtle moment of victory but the problem is that if a viewer was expecting Kasim to get socked in the face (what usually happens to bullying pricks in Bollywood films) or a giant speech about respect (another posibility) then that subtlety makes it an easy moment to overlook.
And that subtlety is the biggest disconnect between Aladin and audiences. Reviewers and audiences alike understandably expected a film called Aladin that was advertised as family-friendly entertainer to be simple adventure story with a forthright hero and a straightforward quest. Instead they received a complicated meta-referencing story with a inward-looking hero whose quest was never spelled out. Aladin was called things like “a nerd” and “wimpy” in reviews, which just shows that the idea of the beta male just didn’t come across. Ritesh has played “a nerd” and “wimpy” in comedy films - those characters have oversized brains and tend to do things like comically overestimate their appeal to the opposite sex and/or comically cower in a corner while the hero does the bashing. This wasn’t Aladin. Even nerds and wimps care about things - the point of Aladin was that he didn’t care about anything. He was going through the motions of a life. And Aladin’s triumph is not getting a girl (as it would be if he was a nerd) or learning to fight (as it would be if he was a wimp) but in caring enough about something to take a stand. The rest was just magical set dressing.
Before I end this piece, I want to spend a moments with Jasmine, whose character was mostly ignored by reviewers. While the core of the narrative belongs to Aladin, I do appreciate that Jasmine was made into a well-rounded character instead of just a object of worship. It’s pretty clear that Aladin is initially attracted to her beauty and the fact that she is an outsider. To Jasmine, Aladin isn’t “Aloo” but a blank slate and he finds this irresistible. Jasmine, for her part, seems to become rather fond of her odd and oddly solemn classmate. And that’s the thing - Aladin asks for Genius’s help in wooing Jasmine but really she was already interested in him, he just needed to speak up and show that he was interested in her, too. Genius just provided the moral support.
Even if Aladin failed to hit the mark with mainstream audiences, I don’t think it’s a bad film. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve returned to it multiple times since its release and discover something new in the story each time. Aladin, much like Tashan and Jaan-e-Mann, is a film by a film-lover and made very much for a film-literate audience. The trouble with Aladin, much like Tashan and Jaan-e-Mann, is that the film is cloaked in the trappings of a simpler genre. Audiences who wanted Jaan-e-Mann to be a straightforward Yash Raj style love story were disappointed. Audiences who wanted Tashan to be a straightforward Dhoom 2 style action film were disappointed. And audiences who wanted Aladin to be a straightforward children’s adventure film were disappointed. A film like Aladin made with the perfect storm of money, confidence, and free reign of vision generally only comes once in a career (although I am very much hoping Shirish Kunder doubles down on his vision for Joker).
Though it was a failure at the box office, Aladin was a success with me. Sujoy Ghosh seems to be going in an entirely different direction with his next release, Kahaani but I’m hoping that Sujoy’s wonderful multi-threaded narrative and talent for catching subtle moments didn’t go back into the genie’s lamp.
[You can read my original review of the film, which contains discussions of the performances and other aspects I didn’t touch on in this post, over here.]
(1) That’s the secondary male lead’s job.
(2) A reference to the original Aladdin’s Chinese ethnicity?
(3) Not a double entendre. They really do make him rub lamps.
(4) Except for me. In full disclosure, I saw Aladin in the theater and loved it. My review, subtitled “The Best Film Of The Year So Far” got me a thank you from Sujoy and Ritesh personally.
(5) The failed star son launch is a whole other genre and one I would be happy to dig into one day!
(6) Even in the Harry Potter series, which used every kind of magic spell, didn’t touch the idea of the love spell until well into the series - book 6 of 7 - and for good reason. To fully appreciate what it would mean to flip a person’s romantic and sexual feelings on like that, one needs to have experienced a romantic and sexual relationship - otherwise, it just doesn’t make sense. In other words, this wasn’t a film for children.
(7) All of which are infinitely more clever and droll than the “parodies” created for Delhi Belly, which is, perhaps, the reason Delhi Belly did so much better at the box office.