Sunday, August 12, 2012

100 Crore Club Member Badge No. 3: Dabangg

“It’s all about loving your parents.” - Karan Johar, Kabhie Kushie Kabhi Gham

Because we need each other

We believe in one another

I know we're going to uncover

What's sleepin' in our soul

- “Acquiesce” by Oasis

Dabangg (2010)

[Just in time for bhai-fest 2012 aka Ek Tha Tiger! For the intro to the 100 Crore Club series click here. Then see Member Badge No. 1 and Member Badge No. 2.]

In Jody Hill’s 2006 film The Foot Fist Way,* small town taekwondo instructor Fred Simmons (Danny McBride) discovers that he isn’t master of his domain like he thought he was. The film sees him trying to figure out where he fits in the world. As he doubts his power at home, he sees his power fade in his dojo. Who can he control? What kind of man is he? Does he have it in him to be as big a douchebag as his idol Chuck “The Truck” Wallace (Ben Best)?

I happened to watch The Foot Fist Way the day before I sat down to rewatch Dabangg for this series on the 100 Crore Club and I couldn’t help but see a bit of Fred in Chulbul Pandey. Dabangg is a fun masala film but it’s also a film about a man learning how to read the lines of power and accepting his place within them. But where Foot Fist Way’s Fred is pushing back against an indifferent society, in Dabangg Chulbul is pushing back against his family. The world Chulbul must learn to navigate is the family unit.


Dabangg opens like a classic Salim-Javed film of yesteryear. Far from Mumbai in a small town, we meet two small boys, half-brothers. Their mother (Dimple Kapadia) is a widow who remarried and her new husband (Vinod Khanna) favors natural son Makhi over stepson Chulbul. The conflict between the men of the family hurts maa intensely. She tries to tell Chulbul that Makhi is weak - which is why they protect him - but Chulbul doesn’t listen. His heart is full of self-pity, not love. Fast forward *mumble-mumble* years and Chulbul and Makhi are all grown up and played by actual big and little brothers Salman and Arbaaz Khan, respectively. Chulbul is now a police officer and continues to nurture his heart full of self-pity. Makhi, the weakling, is a layabout and nurtures his sense of entitlement.

The plot is set into motion when Chulbul gets on the wrong side of youth leader Cheddi Singh’s (Sonu Sood) political advancement by making off with a big pile of Cheddi Singh’s money - Singh wants it back and Makhi wants it to give to his girlfriend’s father to give to his father as a dowry payment for marriage is fixed elsewhere. And as Singh and Makhi chase after the cash, Chulbul is chasing after Rajjo (Sonakshi Sinha). Loyalties are tested, weddings crashed, homoerotic imagery displayed, mangos exploded, and Munni goes badnaam but in the end Chulbul recognizes what is really important and emerges victorious - family ties stronger than ever.

Before I talk about the content of the film, I can’t discuss Dabangg without touching on the “Sallu Craze.”** I mentioned in the Ghajini write up that Ghajini is widely seen as kicking off the neo-masala boom. Audiences loved the film; producers loved the money it brought in. And if there is one certainty in Bollywood it’s that nothing succeeds like success - a successful film spawns a host of imitators. But who were producers going to cast for another masala film like Ghajini? Who left among the romance-obsessed NRIs and waxed action stars had the charisma, the star power, and the sheer cojones to play a swaggering masala hero? Salman Khan.

And, lo, Ghajini begat Wanted.

Though Wanted didn’t join the 100 Crore Club, it did very well at the box office. But more importantly than money, it rekindled the public’s love of Salman Khan, who had been sleepwalking through a spate of poorly-chosen and poorly-conceived projects. He yawned his way through duds like Yuvvraaj and Saawariya and the audience yawned with him. But the gleeful masala of Wanted uncaged the bhai-power - and this new on-screen Salman was no tame housecat. He had the confidence and swagger a man who was past caring what other people thought; bhai gonna do what bhai gonna do and if you don’t like it - tough shit.

Actually, what bhai wanted to do was make Veer which released to a resounding flop (and cruel fat jokes aimed at heroine Zarine Khan) soon after Wanted. I don’t know if the brothers Khan consciously learned their lesson from the bloated budget, exponentially expanding filming schedules, meandering storyline, and expensively attired fleet of junior artistes of Veer but I do know that swift on the heels of the Veer fiasco came the conservatively budgeted and tightly scripted Dabangg.

From the moment Salman Khan confidently strides on screen to the sound of his own theme music, Bollywood would never be the same. Dabangg was more than a hit, it was a filmi event.

But what’s in this film that captured so many hearts and minds? It’s a story about brotherhood and loss and taking responsibility. It’s a story of becoming a man in the context of the family. Though there is a great punch line from Chulbul about being “Robin Hood” - because he steals from the rich - the politics and motivations of money and wealth and poverty never come into play. Dimple Kapadia, who is wonderful as the sturdy maa, has a single line about how lucky she was to be remarried, hinting that life for a widow with a child is not all sunshine and roses, but the topic isn’t really brought up again. This film isn’t her story.

Chulbul Pandey begins the film with the pompous attitude of a teenager. It’s his way or the highway. He deals out money, affection, and justice based on his own internal code.*** What this means in practice is a petty spat with his stepfather and his half-brother, both of whom constantly battle with Chulbul over everything, including whether or not Chulbul is even family!

As viewers, we can keenly feel the childishness of a grown man having a contest of wills with a child but Papa Pandey can’t show weakness and Chulbul grows up to emulate that behavior. The childish relationship calcifies into something really ugly. It’s not until both men let down their guards and acknowledge the power they have over each other that they can begin to heal.

Vinod Khanna is such a wonderfully sympathetic actor that we see his discomfort at never being accepted as a father by this small child and the moment when Chulbul finally addresses him as father is one of the emotional high points of the film.

Chulbul’s relationship with Makhi is also complicated. They both know Makhi is weaker and are both resentful about it. Chulbul wants the extra coddling that comes with being weak and Makhi wants the respect that comes from being strong. This contest of wills results in Makhi trying to wield power he has no control of. He gets in over his head attempting marriage negotiations; he savagely beats an employee for making a mistake; and he hooks up with Cheddi Singh in the hopes that some of Singh’s power will rub off on him. Makhi makes a mess of all of it - he doesn’t have the strength of personality to be in charge of anything.

When the man Makhi had beaten goes to the police to complain, it’s Chulbul who responds. He acts on their behalf, beating Makhi with a grim determination until the man tells him to stop. The resolution for the brothers comes when Makhi buries himself so deep in trouble that he has no option but to turn to Chulbul for help and even though Chulbul could save himself a lot of trouble by leaving Makhi to an awful ending, instead he accepts his brotherly duty as protector.

Don’t mess with things you can’t handle, Makhi.

The other power dynamic that fascinates me in Dabangg is that between Rajjo, her brother, and her drunken layabout of a father. Here is another father who has trapped himself in a dependent relationship with his child. The brother has abandoned the family unit to seek success for himself, leaving Rajjo to care for their father by herself. Rajjo’s father, played with a powerful empathy by Mahesh Manjrekar, allows himself to become dependent on his child. And because he gave up all of his power, when Rajjo’s father is finally forced to act, there is only one option for him - suicide. He finally claims responsibility for himself and it’s a really powerful moment. (I’ve cried watching this scene every time I’ve seen the film.)

But meta-narrative depth alone does not make a good film. What is special about Dabangg is that it marries this subtle exploration of family dynamics to some fantastic filmi fun - it’s the perfect combination of intellectual and popular. (Of Kashyap and Khan.) Dabangg is a small town fairy tale but with a solid emotional solid core.

Though there are plenty of serious moments for Chulbul Pandey, we are also given opportunities to cheer as he strides across the screen twirling his sunglasses and delivering cutting punch lines. And Salman sinks his teeth into this over-the-top herogiri with relish. He dances, romances, and goes bare chest to bare chest with Sonu Sood for our entertainment and we love it, returning to see the film again and again to partake in the Sallu craze.

Along with the Sallu craze, Dabangg also gave us two new stars - Sonakshi Sinha and “Munni.” For an industry that goes through heroines like toilet paper, the launch of a new girl in and of itself isn’t something to get excited about. But Sonakshi is different - she embraced her cachet as the daughter of swaggering 70s villain and all around badass Shatrughan “Shotgun” Sinha, nicknaming herself “Shotgun Junior” and (quite refreshingly) had no trouble firing a barrage of verbal smackdowns to anybody who dared ask about her dating status and willingness to wear a bikini. Though Rajjo**** is a woman of few words, Sonakshi’s flashing eyes spoke volumes and the “Tere Mast Mast Do Nain” girl was successfully launched onto the A-list.

As for “Munni,” watching the picturization for “Munni Badnaam Hui” was pure magic. I can only imagine that this is what it felt like to see “Piya Tu Ab To Aaja” or “Ek Do Teen” on the big screen for the first time. Malaika Arora Khan, as Munni, oomphs so hard that even the people sitting in the back of theater can feel it. Sung by Mamta Sharma, whose earthy alto is a welcome change from Sunidhi Chauhan’s brassy voice, Munni teases and excites and makes her mark on filmi history.*****

Dabangg is both part of the masala boom and not. The film is influenced stylistically by the masala of the South but the intellectual content comes by way of the new “realistic” cohort of Mumbai screenwriters who are more interested in relationship dynamics than in the wider world. The contrast becomes very clear as Dabangg is reinterpreted for the Tamil and Telugu markets. Though I haven’t seen the Telugu version yet, I did see Osthe and while the mechanics of the plot are similar, the focus is different. The broader world plays a bigger role - the hero is given a comedic sidekick and the hero’s main battle is with the political villain, not with his stepfather.

Though he plays the role very well, Sonu Sood, as Cheddi Singh, is essentially a MacGuffin in Dabangg. The catharsis of the final battle is not a face-off between two foes but of the rescue and redemption of Makhi. Villains are the external manifestation of our fears and as Bollywood conflict has been internalized, villains have been banished from the screens. And I think it’s because of this that Sonu didn’t get quite the bump in popularity that Sonakshi and Malaika “Munni” Arora Khan did.

In 2010, Dabangg stood alone, waving its masala flag but the genre becomes crowded in 2011 and 2012... and what we know so far of 2013. Some were hits, some were flops, and some made no impression at all. But Chulbul Pandey will continue to stand tall. Box office is one thing and the heart is another. True to his name, Robin Hood Pandey stole our hearts and he isn’t giving them back.

* Actually, can we get a remake of this starring Akshay Kumar?

** For videos see http://filmigirl.blogspot.com/2011/09/sallu-craze.html

*** Kind of like American superheroes, no? Batman is so grown-up... (if by “grown-up” you mean a 17-year old boy.)

**** And I don’t think we should overlook the fact that Rajjo, like the first two heroines to join the 100 Crore Club, is competent, strong willed, and (mostly) fully clothed.

***** Although we can happily forget many of the “rustic” item songs that followed in “Munni”’s wake.

7 comments:

Jess said...

Love this movie. My favorite little detail of it is that all the songs/scenes etc look and feel the same. Even though a couple of the songs are dream sequences, we get no foreign locations, and no Chulbul suddenly in sparkly pants.

As for Rajjo, few lines but very effective. "Until my father is dead I won't get married" moment shows that even Chulbul knows he isn't talking her out of it, she is a strong woman. I also kind of enjoy that their "romance" in the first half isn't really romantic, because he has NO IDEA how to be romantic. But because we know what kind of woman she is, and what kind of man he is, we know it will work. Congrats to Sonakshi on embodying a masala heroine that you can't imagine anyone else playing. Difficult feat.

Any worries that Dabangg 2 won't live up to the first?

Sal said...

I loved this film. LOVED it. I think Salman is often a terrible, lazy actor (to the point that he won't even use the right emphasis/stress in dialogues, will regularly swallow words, and won't bother to make any connection with his co-stars), and I have had issues with several aspects of his public persona in the past years. And while I enjoyed Wanted, I think most of the big commercial masala/masala-adjacent movies that followed this one (Bodyguard, Ready, and Housefull 2 come to mind) are shoddily made.
But.
Dabanng is perfect. I think it's the closest thing to the best 70s masala films to have come out from Bollywood in a while. The acting is uniformly strong. Salman is perfectly cast, and his performance is deliriously watchable. Though there are several crazy action scenes, the milieu just feels so real - the small town, its people, the casteism, the college politics, the teeny details that make Chulbul's family ring so true. Abhinav has a good hand on both the fun stuff and the deeper stuff. And of course, "Tere Mast Mast Do Nain" - what a debut for Sonakshi Sinha. What sets Dabanng apart from the other movies I named is that Salman's charisma and herogiri are given a well-written, carefully made, authentic-seeming world to work in. A Bodyguard or a Ready seems to have been made entirely to let Salman do his thing, with no thought to actually making a good film. I am nervous about Dabanng 2, but ETT, since Kabir Khan is a competent director, might actually prove to be a Salman film that non-Sallu fans can enjoy.
Phew! Sorry for the essay, FG. :)

getfilmy said...

Man, Dabangg is such a freakin' perfect film. I thought it was the perfect blend of the South stylistically (mostly in the song and action sequences), with a very 70s Bombay masala storyline, but all updated for the millenium - cleaner, sharper and with no wasting of film time. It's so rare to find roles that are tailor-made for a particular actor and Chulbul Pandey could not ever belong to anyone but Salman.

I'm really curious about Abhinav's next film, whether he's sticking to masala or going in a different direction. He really impressed me with Dabangg big time - this is what today's masala films should look like. He also had a great original script to work with from writer Dilip Shukla.

I'm a bit wary of DB2...I hope Arbaaz can prove himself but...

jigar doshi said...

I'm not a salman fan, but enjoyed his dabangg. But this post, thesis of all the characters, that too now, was so not called for.
Got bored of the post mid-way and jumped to comments to voice my opinion!

jigar doshi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Filmi Girl said...

@jigar LOL! Whatever, dude. You didn't have to read it... I think commenting with this message was uncalled for but different strokes and all that.

Yunus Perveez said...

I don't think i need to profess my love for Dabanng ( i mean we did a whole podcast about it :-)) Or Sallu Bhai but maybe it's the way he should be working from now on.

Get a artsy director and find a compromise between Sallu's mass popularity and some tight storytelling.

I for one didn't enjoy Ready (Hate Anees'movies) or Bodyguard ( I had to google who directed that movie again as I had no clue) nearly as much as Wanted or Dabanng but have high hopes for Ek Tha Tiger!

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl