Saturday, July 05, 2008

ek ajnabee: a boring stranger on fire

[thoughts on Tony Scott's Man On Fire and Apoorva Lakhia's uncredited reworking of the film, Ek Ajnabee (rants dedicated to that may be found here and here and there's something dedicated to Taran Adarsh's egregious reviewing habits as well)]

Reportedly, when Brian Helgeland was in a video store, Quentin Tarantino, who was working there, recommended the 1987 adaptation of Quinnell's novel Man On Fire. Seventeen years later, Helgeland's adaptation made it to theatres as a Tony Scott vehicle. One almost wonders if Apoorva Lakhia went through a Helgeland-like experience himself before he decided to execute a false shuffle with the elements of the film and script his "original" follow-up to the uncertified cure for insomnia named Mumbai Se Aaya Mera Dost.

Tony Scott’s version, despite being a serviceable action thriller, also finds the director out of control with his technique. The dynamic camera, kinetic style and greedy editing cartwheel into overdrive in an explosion of jump cuts, pan, sweeps and jitters soaked in a diseased veneer that augments the feeling of a bad trip. The script and the performances bolster the latent themes of retribution and redemption (which, with the American Joe sweeping in the aid of the Mexicans, fuel a right-winger’s wet dream), but Scott’s style constantly draws attention to itself and nearly destroys the experience. “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21) is a quote that comes up in a conversation between John Creasy and Sister Anna; Scott seems to have appropriated it and presented his version (“Do not be overcome by the screenplay but overcome the screenplay with technique”). This is the altar where Sanjay Gupta attends mass.

With the bids rather low on Scott’s original, Lakhia, it would seem, had an easier task before him. All he really had to do was translate things to a suitable milieu, make things believable in the desii universe and, with a few competent performances, he’d have a reasonable copy that bore only a whiff of kerosene. Alas, Mr. Lakhia had bigger fish to fry in castor oil.

He cooks up a script with dialogues laced with cuss words destined to be bleeped in all releases. These include the F-word, anatomical slang and an offensive term owing its origins to the female of the canine species. Since the Big B has been game for all sorts of new age on-screen excursions, he gets to drink Starbucks coffee, mouth some of these in addition to the familiar set of pronouncements that kept dialogue writers busy and paid in Bollywood for decades (बुरे वालों को सज़ा देना ऊपरवाले का काम है और ऊपरवाले तक पहुंचाना मेरा काम है). Perizaad Zorabian stands in for Radha Mitchell, Arjun Rampal for Christopher Walken and Rucha Vaidya, who was last seen standing in for Dakota Fanning in the I Am Sam ripoff Main Aisa Hi Hoon (translated: I Am Like This Only), stands in for her again.

A character that seems to have received a lot more attention in the writing and the making is that of Wong played by Raj Zutshi. He has a ball with the makeup and some choice lines. In 1972, Anand Babu (Rajesh Khanna) repeatedly voiced his hatred for tears in Amar Prem; here Wong expresses his hatred for crowds. He also gets a mouthful of non sequiturs to spit out: a coward born is a coward dead; कमजोर लोग मुझे बचपन से ही पसंद नहीं ; life's a b*tch. It's a pity the film's about someone else.

The songs and background score from Amar Mohile along with the title track from Vishal-Shekhar emerge as the only interesting fruit in this catastrophic cultivation. In addition to Lara Dutta's cameo at the end, we also get yet another one from Abhishek Bachchan. Another bit of tradition gets its due when Sanjay Dutt shows up in a music video during the end credits. All this doesn't do much to hide Lakhia's conceit best evidenced by the cap that the Big B is wearing in the scene where the family is headed for London. The cap bears the name of Lakhia's last film and serves as a reminder of the kind of misguided self-congratulatory entity we are dealing with.

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