Cast: Hrithik Roshan, Sanjay Dutt, Rishi Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra,
Director: Karan Malhotra
Runtime: 178 min.
Verdict: Awesome. And Mr. Rishi Kapoor simply knocks it out of the park.
Genre: Drama, Action, Crime
Unlike Mr. Mukul Anand’s film, what moves us here is its utter purity that distills through its frames into its characters, into its narrative, right down to its themes. I wouldn’t want to be so sure of that order though, and it could easily be the other way around. Behind his suits, his shoes, his sunglasses, Vijay Dinanath Chavan harbored a desire to not merely be accepted but worshipped. A 36-yeard old Vijay Chavan outgrew his childhood just as much as Mr. Bachchan outgrew the character, and the accomplishment was the manner in which Mr. Mukul S. Anand built a film around this individual phenomenon where characters found themselves quickly pushed to the peripheries once it entered (a lot of Agneepath has to do with entering and leaving) those frames. We covet what we see, said a real wise man once, and amidst the banality of the rural the glamour of the urban (Kancha Cheena), and by that definition the western, was probably what installed itself within Vijay Chavan, whose amalgamation is mirrored in the way Jean Michel Jarre was at clash with that traditional melodramatic score, and which also mirrors in Mr. Anand’s aesthetic and oeuvre (he remade Cape Fear before Martin Scorsese).
Mr. Malhotra, whose film probably appreciates the undercurrents and understands the limitations of Mr. Anand’s film better than anybody else, completely strips away all these layers of deception, these facades behind which its characters hid, and pulls the narrative back to its primal self in an almost declarative manner. The paranoia of the urbanization of the rural owing to foreign investment and the ensuing cultural dilution is not the talking point anymore, and it should not be now that we have a whole range of foreign brands endorsing the film, and what we have here is a rather straightforward tale dynastical/feudal oppression and the ensuing revenge. Mr. Malhotra, as the trailer announces, is concerned only with revenge, and that ways this film is as much a remake of the older Agneepath as it is of M/s Abbas-Mustan’s Soldier. Only that it is a significantly better realized film, with a far greater narrative clarity (the plot might still trouble you but it makes for perfect dramatic sense, in the process alleviating a lot of the problems I had with the original) and some really unsettling compositions, invoking just as much extra-textual stuff as Mr. Anand’s film, and which leads me to suggest ‘correction’ instead of ‘remake’. Here is that age-old story of an ordinary man thrust in an extraordinary situation, a little boy robbed of his forming years, and there’s probably nobody who can convey that combination of sincerity and brainwashed resolve (Fiza, Mission Kashmir) better than Mr. Roshan. He is not the guy who walks into a room and owns everybody around, and Mr. Malhotra rightly stacks larger-than-life figures against him. The film’s narrative, then, assumes its title and the parent poem in a figurative sense, into its very core, unlike Mr. Anand’s where a mostly kitschy (but stylish) literal justification to it is merely appended at the end.
It is a rather strange Mumbai that Agneepath creates, with little to no traces of modernization (despite the guns and telephones), with back alleys and stone roads, and what we get is the feel of a medieval world controlled by warlords and where the regime is merely another faction living within its own cocoon. There’s not merely a distinct lack of sophistication but civilization altogether, the only places accumulating any sense of decency being the chawl, and wherever it is his mother and sister live. Rauf Lala (Mr. Kapoor), who controls the city, is probably the closest approximation of Mr. Danny Denzongpa’s materialistic Kancha Cheena, and yet he might be miles away in that he’s out in plain-view. He sells little girls and he is despicable, and there’s a great conviction in there, and although I wouldn’t describe here for you how incredible Mr. Kapoor is, I would leave you with the tease that the resolution of his angle, which quite brilliantly stages the film’s central idea, is intensely awesome. And here I intend to imply the awesomeness of the fist-pumping kind.
Mandwa, that little isle cut away from the motherland, is something of a synecdoche for all the terrorist hotbeds, close enough to cause havoc but far enough to resist quarantine. You almost wonder what the Indian Coast Guard (already born by the film’s timeline) is doing, and I wonder if that was intentional. The strangest weirdest bit though is the archetypical Kancha Cheena (Mr. Dutt), a completely homegrown entity, and who, over and above Vijay Chauhan (Mr. Roshan), returns to his Mandwa. We see the massive figure walking down to the village in a long shot, and just as memories of High Plains Drifter start condensing, Mr. Malhotra provides for a heavily disconcerting over the shoulder shot of the village. The raw scalp in the foreground, and somewhere deep within the subconscious a memory started itching, which turned into a full-blown realization the moment Kancha walks into the village and picks up the salt in his fist (a close-up here). Maybe it is because Jan 30th happened to be just a couple of days before, or probably because Master Dinanath (Mr. Chetan Pandit) invokes Mahatma Gandhi for only the 11,347th time in Hindi cinema history only a little while before Kancha’s homecoming. We’ve had our fair share of Gita-quoting villains (Aks comes to mind), some of them just for the heck of it, but to become the very embodiment of anti-Gandhi, what with Mr. Dutt’s bulky physicality almost spelling out violence. And this was the guy who made Gandhi trend recently. He walks around with a stick and opens the doors for creating cocaine (salt), and I was completely blown away. We don’t get images as macabre as this every now and then.
And if the Mumbai in Agneepath is medieval, Mandwa is straight out of the dark ages, a sort of externalization of Kancha’s barren ugliness, quite literally the underworld. And again, despite the machine guns, or maybe because of it, there’s the memory of Col. Kurtz floating around, and so yeah, Vijay Chauhan’s walk down Mandwa’s memory lane becomes a tour through the heart of darkness.
The thing is, Vijay Chauhan is our everyman, innocent more than anything else, pitted against all these heavyweights, all of whom are quite central to the frame. And although my kind of tonal austerity might even suggest downplaying his introduction, it acknowledges the absolute dramatic/thematic idiocy of the mother’s arc in Mr. Anand’s film and justly brands her as the misguided one. And still, despite Vijay knocking off all the bad guys, and their sons, the film doesn’t justify vigilantism of any kind. Any other movie (M/s Abbas-Mustan’s Soldier) and the dude could’ve been an undercover cop, but because he’s not, and because he still has to will himself through all this ugliness is an accumulation of the film’s moral weight (I’m reminded of William Costigan, and even Joseph Pistone without the accompanying righteousness). The physicality here in his film is palpable, and whoever it was that did the sound design (Vijay being banged against the wall had me wincing and hiding for cover) deserves my hat tip.
**SPOILERS ABOUND, KINDLY SKIP FOR LATER. YOU MIGHT CONSIDER THE NOTE THOUGH**
A small bother here. Killing off Kaali (Ms. Chopra) is an ill-advised move. I understand where the film is coming from, but it’s a decision that’s a bit of a cop-out. The moment we lay our eyes on the adult Vijay Chavan, we know he’s on a death wish. And the moment he declares his name, and such is the clarity of narration here, we immediately realize all hell is going to break loose. Still Vijay acknowledges her love and reveals his own for her, and they decide to marry despite knowing his eventual fate, and the film here achieves a moment of pure grace. What would simply have been a throwaway character, as is the case with the original, here turns into one of the film’s thematic manifestations (innocence et al.), and by conveniently dumping her off, the film both dissolves and resolves the beauty of it all. I think she should’ve lived on, you know, and a parting shot of her, or the little sister, in the vein of Billie Frechette might have been dramatically devastating. But then, what the heck, you want to draw an estimate of Mr. Malhotra’s filmmaking chops all you need is the opening burst where Kancha distributes money. Agneepath is the sort of blockbuster we’ve absolutely forgotten to make, like Ghatak, and if you were to ask me, Mr. Johar can safely say he’s done his father proud. So yeah, there you go.
Note: No, Mr. Mukul S. Anand’s film is not a classic; it is in fact not even close to being a classic. It is a most interesting film, a film that has influenced me a great deal, and I would be the first to admit that to hail it as something close to holy writ is taking our reverence for a decade that churned mostly nonsense a bit too far. Going by that rule, most of our films in a decade’s time ought to be eligible for the “classic” tag. I mean, we’re so forgiving for the past, we might want to extend that generosity to the present as well.