Monday, September 2, 2013

Sajid Khan's Himmatwala: NOT the worst movie ever made


Sajid Khan is notorious for giving precisely zero fucks about critical attention but I do hope that it would warm his heart a little that I was inspired to finally watch Himmatwala because Ajay Devgn has been going around town trashing it:

I think it will be critical to my director. But I think 80s were shown and shot like 80s while when we did Once Upon A Time in Mumbai we had shown 70s and 80s in a contemporary manner. So I think that's what did not work very well for the film.

Obviously this caught my attention as a masala fan because, when you untangle the syntax, Ajay is saying is that Himmatwala didn’t work because it was a film in the style of the films of the 1980s instead of a film made in the style of today and taking place in the 1980s. Everybody who’s been reading me for more than minute knows my disappointment with the way middlebrow Bollywood has been rapidly lurching towards the tired filmmaking conventions of its Los Angeles based counterpart, if Himmatwala was a throwback to the good old days, it was clearly my duty to do my best to rescue its reputation from the Passion for Cinema crowd.

But here’s the thing--Ajay is right but not for the reasons he thinks he is. It's not the old style of masala filmmaking that failed but the stale contents.

Himmatwala was adapted from the 1983 film of the same name--a film I haven’t seen, so I can’t go too deep into comparisons--by Sajid Khan. By all accounts, this was a very personal project for him. He loved the original film and he had absolute faith in his abilities to translate that love into something that would be a box office smash. After all, hadn’t he already proved with Heyy Babyy, Housefull, and Housefull 2 that he knew exactly what the public wanted? Much like any project from Filmi Girl favorite (and terrible human being) Srirish Kunder, something about the combination of Sajid Khan’s hubris and earnestness proved irristible to the media and they tore into Himmatwala like a tiger who hadn’t been fed in months, declaring it the biggest flop that ever flopped and the worst movie ever made ever… at least since Joker.

But the truth, as is often the case, is much more complicated. Yes, it’s true Himmatwala didn’t find a huge audience but it’s also true that it’s not a terrible film. In fact, Himmatwala is a perfectly fine film, as far as entertainment value is concerned and I would go as far as to rank it above Heyy Babyy and well above the first Housefull. (But below the superb Housefull 2.) I think the real disconnect in Himmatwala was between an audience expecting a Sajid Khan retro-comedy and Sajid Khan providing an unexpectedly earnest bit of retro-masala.

Again, I can’t compare the story of the 2013 Himmatwala to the 1983 version nor to the Telugu original but it goes something like this. Ajay Devgn stars as Ravi, the upstanding citizen who struts into the village of Ramnagar determined to set right the fortunes of his mother (the divine Zarina Wahab, who is far too young to actually be Ajay’s mother) and sister (Leena Jumani). In this battle, he faces off against the evil village leader Sher Singh (good old Mahesh Manjrekar), Sher Singh’s rich bitch daughter Rekha (Tamannaah), Sher Singh’s campy brother-in-law (Paresh Rawal), and Sher Singh’s douchebag nephew (a perfectly cast Adhyayan Suman). Using his pure nature, Ravi gets Rekha to fall in love with him and renounce her father but Rekha’s slimy cousin has been making time with Ravi’s sister and she’s tricked into marrying him! Will Sher Singh ever repent? How much bossitude can Ajay Devgn project on screen? (And how many item girls can be safely crammed into one song?) And what is up with that tiger?!

As I said above, Himmatwala is actually quite an entertaining film but I can understand why it didn’t catch on. There are two major problems with the film--neither of which has to do with whatever nonsense the critics were spewing over it. The smaller of the two problems is easier to deal with--Sajid Khan himself. Much like Salman and herogiri or Shahrukh and romance, the name Sajid Khan has become synonymous with comedy. But Himmatwala is not a straight comedy… but it starts out like one and the trailers certainly hinted at an Om Shanti Om style retro-comedy, so I can’t blame audiences for going in and expecting a Sajid Khan comedy and then feeling let down by a Sajid Khan masala film--even a good Sajid Khan masala film--that includes murder, attempted rape, the bullying of wives, and Adhyayan Suman. None of those things are remotely funny.

And Sajid didn’t help his case by starting the film with an extended Om Shanti Om-style retro gag featuring Chunkey Pandey as Michael Jai Kishen (GET IT?!) and Sonakshi Sinha in a disco jumpsuit singing about how glad she is that it’s Friday. He’s setting up expectations for a film that is not going to follow and I, too, felt more than a bit disconcerted as the first half moved along. Was I supposed to laugh or cry as the widow’s house burned down? This is not a question you want your audience asking themselves 20 minutes into a film.

The bigger structural problem with Himmatwala was in the conception. Not that making a masala film was a bad idea--even Ajay “I have horrible taste in films” Devgn has his Singham--but making a 1980s style masala film was a terrible idea. The world has moved on since the 1980s and the while themes like “money can’t buy you a heart” remain timeless, the actual plot points of Himmatwala just felt really stale. It’s like eating a bag of snacks that have been on the shelf a bit too long. The execution of the recipe could be flawless but there’s something ultimately unsatisfying about it.

At the risk of sounding like one of those white people [Thanks for the link, Moimeme!], Himmatwala was about as vital a piece of cultural work as Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot Pyscho remake--even if much better executed. What really bugged me about Sajid Khan rooting Himmatwala in the 1980s was that it implied masala storytelling itself was a fossilized art form. And it’s very much not, especially if the South Indian films I’ve been watching recently have anything to say about it. When I’ve seen Surya playing conjoined twins in a masala morality tale about corporate espionage and genetic engineering, Ajay Devgn tackling an evil-for-no-reason village boss in the 1980s just seems… inessential. For that reason alone--while it does pain me a bit to see the master populist Sajid Khan taken down a peg--I’m not too sad Himmatwala flopped.

There’s not much more to say about the film, though I would like to spare a paragraph for Tamannaah as Rekha, the rich bitch. First of all, Tamannaah is a delight and I look forward to seeing her in It’s Entertainment with Akshay. (Let’s just hope she brings her whip because Akshay is pretty great opposite a woman with a whip--RIP Jiah.) But I thought her character development was interesting for the simple reason that these days, the rich are who we are supposed to aspire to be--not the people we’re supposed to hate. And heroines go from salwaar suits to miniskirts, not the other way around--both are problematic, if you ask me, but nobody did. Anyways, Rekha’s character, more than any of the others, felt like a throwback, despite Tamannaah herself being anything but stale on screen.

In short, Himmatwala certainly doesn’t deserve the WORST MOVIE EVER tag and would be a fine choice if you’re on an airplane or in a hotel on a business trip far away from home. You’re certainly better off by miles with Himmatwala over Grown Ups 2 or Smurfs 2 or whatever crap Hollywood has to offer. Even a stale Sajid Khan film is better than that.

2 comments:

Danny Bowes said...

Ah, well. I'll always have that time Bastard Keith and me watched the trailer on his phone in the spring rain.

Sabman said...

The flaws you mention about Himmatwalla are pretty bang on. And it's no surprise that the movie flopped. It was lazy film making. A lot of the current Indian audience grew up on drama like this. So I wouldn't say it's an entertaining film even on a plane trip.

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.

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