Construction Worker: We're fixing it. What the Hell does it look like?
Bill Foster: Two days ago it was fine. Are you telling me the street fell apart in two days?
Construction Worker: Well, I guess so.
Bill Foster: Pardon me, but that's bullshit. You see, I don't think anything's wrong with the street! I think you're just trying to justify your inflated budgets! I know how it works! If you don't spend the projected amount this year, you don't get the same amount next year! Now, I want you to admit, THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH THE STREET!
Construction Worker: Hey, fuck you, pal.
- Falling Down, 1993
Seymour Skinner: Meaning what, exactly?
Homer Simpson: You know, push people around, make ourselves feel big.
- The Simpsons, S5E11, "Homer the Vigilante"
Technically, Ready should be the next film in my 100 Crore Club series but even I couldn’t quite bring myself to pay to see it again, though I remember enjoying it well enough at the time. Films like Ready are mayflies - born to provide a brief moment of pleasure before flickering away, leaving behind only a couple of catchy songs and a pile of cash.
That the wafer-thin Ready managed to join the 100 Crore Club and be one of the top grossing films of the year is a tribute to one thing - Salman Khan. Specifically, Salman Khan after Dabangg. Though Salman often seems to put across a DGAF attitude, the interviews he gave for Ready show a man concerned with giving the aam aadmi his 10 rupees worth of entertainment, with living up to the expectations set for him. Salman also had this to say:
“The people, and that includes me, go to the theatre to watch a real hero, and this genre was missing for a while. Now that they are liking this genre, I will continue playing these roles.”
Even if Ready’s Prem Kapoor wasn’t particularly heroic, he was delightful to watch and that was enough to satisfy Salman’s fan. Prem kept appetites whet for the next larger-than-life hero to stand astride our cinema screens, a hero who is much more interesting to talk about.
Yes, I’m talking about Ajay Devgn as one Inspector Bajirao M. Singham.
The lion of the police force!
Though there is some debate on whether or not he technically crossed the 100 Crore threshold,* I’m going to consider it close enough for government work. Singham is the third in the series of South Indian remakes to make it into (or near) the 100 Crore Club following Ghajini (Ghajini, Tamil) and Ready (Ready, Telugu). Singham, directed by Rohit Shetty and adapted by his usual team of writers, was based on the 2010 Tamil language hit Singam. Yunus Sajawal, the man behind classic stories like God Tussi Great Ho and Jodi No. 1 among others, is credited with the screenplay and if story has never been a strong suit of Rohit Shetty films his collaboration with Yunus Sajawal might be why.
As written and directed by Hari, Singam is the story of Police Inspector Durai Singam (Filmi Girl favorite Surya), a humble police officer who not-so-secretly would prefer to be running a shop. Singam’s method of policing is more like mediation. He encourages people to solve problems face-to-face instead of running to press charges, at one point yelling to a pair of bickering villagers, “Will you file a complaint just for the sake of it?!” Yanking neighborly disputes out of the realm of the state and firmly placing them back in the hands of the community.
The comedy tracks plays with this community angle as Singam’s right-hand man (Vivek) makes a mess out of mediation by, among other mishaps, accidentally encouraging a love affair and inadvertently helping some smugglers.
But Singam’s comfortable world is disrupted by the arrival of two outsiders - the beautiful Kavya (Anushka Shetty) and Chennai based gangster Mayilvaganan (Prakash Raj). Kavya is in the village visiting her grandparents. She falls head over heels for Singam after being on the receiving end of his firm hand of justice and does everything in her power to get the clueless law man to notice her. Meanwhile, Mayilvaganan ends up in the village when his wink-wink parol agreement is winked out by Singam. Insetad of sitting comfortably in Chennai while one of his minions checks in at Singam’s police station, Mayil is forced to get on a plane and drag his sorry butt out to the boonies to sign Singam’s book. Mayil is outraged at this show of power from a village police inspector and vows revenge: he manipulates his connections in the government to get Singam posted to Chennai, away from the village that is the source of Singam’s power and directly under Mayil’s thumb.
The second half of the film deals with the fallout from the transfer. Mayil continues to engage in his “business” of extortion and kidnapping, all while waving it in Singam’s face. And Singam has to figure out what it is he believes in, as a policeman, now that he is no longer acting as a village mediator. Should he give up and return to the village? Should he stay and fight that bully Mayil? Of course, he stays and fights, ending up as Assistant Commissioner in charge of the kidnapping squad and using the mighty fist of the Chennai Police Force to hunt down and put an end to Mayil.
Singham only superficially follows the narrative arc of Singam. The set-up is the same - Inspector Singham works in a village and girl-visiting-her-grandparents Kavya (Kajal Agarwal) falls for him while Goa-based gangster Jaykant Shikre resents having to come and sign some stupid police book - but there is addition of one more plot thread that changes the entire meaning of the film, a plot thread that happened to capture something of the political zeitgeist of mid-2011.
Though the Internet has shortened our attention spans to about half a minute,** it’s worth pausing and rewinding back to the spring of 2011 when the public was furious over revelations that public resources were sold off cheaply to corporations in exchange for bribes *** and over the mismanagement of the Commonwealth Games. Enter Anna Hazare and the Lokpal Bill. Anna Hazare acted like a lightening rod for the urban, middle class outrage at their wasted tax dollars, drawing tens of thousands of people into the streets to protest government corruption and support the creation of a national ombudsman bureau, independent from the government, which could investigate and oversee the politicians. Anna-mania petered out by the end of 2011 as both the public and the media lost interest but when Singham was released in the summer of 2011, the sticky discontent with elected officials was still very much in the public consciousness.
Singham removes the Vivek comedy track and much of the romance track in order to make room for a political outrage track. Unlike Singam which spends most of the first half delighting in village life, Singham opens with a Goan police inspector being forced to commit suicide after being accused (falsely) of corruption. The police officer’s widow (the always welcome Sonali Kulkarni) and her battle with corrupt officials trying to have her husband’s name cleared run parallel to Singham’s village story, eventually intersecting in the second half when he arrives in Goa. On top of this, the villain isn’t just a greedy bottom-feeding gangster as in Singam but he’s given political ambitions.
Mayli operates in the grey area of the law. He is only able to blackmail property owners because they didn’t pay their full tax to begin with. And he scoops up his kidnapping victims when they are out alone, putting shopping bags in the trunk of a privately owned car at the mall. Mayli’s demands for cash are like a tax for operating in that me-first, upwardly mobile grey zone. But Jaykant is after something else, not just cash but real political power. Mayli gets Singam transferred to Chennai by telling a minister friend that Singam is his cousin, a harmless little favor between friends; Jaykant gets Singham transferred to Goa leaning on the levers of power.
The biggest and most telling difference in the two films is this - Singam takes out Mayli within the existing system. He might have had to fight to overcome apathy among his fellow police but at the end of the day, they were able to effectively neutralize him. Singham takes out Jaykant outside of the system by leading what was essentially a lynch mob. Singam’s state works; Singham’s state is broken. Singam expands his notion of community into the civic space; Singham smashes the civic space, quite literally, in fact, ripping up a public light fixture in order to attack a goonda. Singam has parents and family concerns; Singham is, for all intents and purposes, a lone lion.
There is a scene close to the beginning of the second act of Singam where we see Singam coming home from work. Unlocking his house in Chennai, he just seems so lonely. There are no cooking smells or people milling around, just an empty bed. And it’s soon after this scene that he expresses his misgivings about his position in Chennai to Kavya. He wants to quit and go home but Kavya tells him to stop and think about what he’s really doing in Chennai. Has he even really tried to make things better in this unfamilar town?
The equivalent sequence in Singham has Singham wanting to return to the village because he’s chafing under the demands to play along with the corrupt system and if he doesn’t quit, he’ll simply be forced to open a can of whupass on Jaykant.
Singham was written to be the perfect vessel for a Hindi audience that was frustrated with the system and wanted to smash it. They didn’t have time for romance or comedy, they wanted straight up vigilante justice served Ajay Devgn style. Singham is the Tea Party’s wet dream, a reactionary, masala Falling Down and it connected big.
If I’ve focused a lot on the political aspects of Singham so far it’s because the film itself is mediocre. Singham was lucky enough to ride the mood of the viewing public to box office success despite it’s flaws as a masala film - and it’s flaws are myriad.
Hari’s Singam was a well-crafted, straightforward masala film. It nails all the expected narrative beats, the comedy is funny, the leads have good chemistry, and the songs and song picturizations are really good. Rohit Shetty’s team was just not as good as Hari at putting together a complete masala narrative. They tore the narrative down to bare bones, carelessly ripping out the village comedy and most of the romance, and then threw the parallel story with Sonali Kulkarni over top of the remains without bothering to tailor it to fit. The songs are mediocre and thrown in almost at random, with the exception of the title track, which is just as kickass as Singam’s, even if Ajay is nowhere near the dancer Surya is.
Kajal Agarwal tries but she doesn’t have the filmi heft of an Asin or Kareena, who can make a romance track work through force of sheer will power. Still, the relationship dyanmics between Kavya and Singam/Singham stay the same in both films and it is refreshing to see the heroine chasing after a hunky hero, even having a point-of-view daydream song about him.
Rohit Shetty’s direction is also nowhere near as smooth as Hari’s. The village scenes are done very broadly, in the style of a Golmaal film, but the Sonali Kulkarni track scenes are very serious and the transitions between the two don’t quite work. Ajay Devgn, the one man lokpal, similarly flips between the two moods. Now Golmaal; now Halla Bol; back to Golmaal and repeat.
That’s not to say that Singham is a bad film because it’s not. It’s just not a good film. Singham, like Ready, is a one time watch, of and for the time it was made. Unlike Singam, repeat viewings of Singham don’t reveal additional pleasures - jokes previously missed, songs better appreciated, plot points reinterpreted. The only thing that a repeat viewing of Singham revealed were the cracks in the shoddily built foundation. I wonder if the contractor was bribed... better call the lokpal.
* Some sources have only 98 crore gross.
** In fact, I’m surprised anybody made it this far in my post, unless they were skimming.
*** Touching even the filmi world with Friend of Shahrukh Karim Morani, whose daughter Zoa is a Bollywood hanger-on, among the accused.