Saturday, February 26, 2011

बाबुराव सो गया

It all starts with the title. How does one creatively justify an ode to Bombay's gangster fact and the myth perpetuated by Bollywood that cops out with a title like Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai? The double i smacks of capitulation to astrological mores (should I be surprised given that Ekta "Balaji" Kapoor is the producer?). The choice of the new politically motivated, politically correct and logistically and sensibly offensive Mumbai instead of the more apt Bombay reeks of self-referential irony. A film celebrating our fascination with the underworld of Bombay has to yield to the pressures of a different clique of gangsters (referred to politely as politicians).

Once you get past the title and start hoping to celebrate the look and vibe of the period that the posters have whetted your appetite for, you realise that Luthria and Co. couldn't get their act together. All the visual texture of the film is sadly lacking. The annoying modern device of the steadicam (shakycam, unsteadicam, seasickvision) is seasoned with some unexciting camera setups and embellished by very terrible editing. These are things you could have ignored while watching those 70s powerhouse flicks celebrating machismo and superb dialogue-writing from Salim-Javed had the lines been spoken by the modern equivalents of Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna. Alas, you have to make do with Ajay Devgan (or Devgn as he wishes to spell it now -- he's only one vowel shy of becoming Bollywood's Mxyzptlk) and Emraan Hashmi. While Devgn's sincerity prevents you from getting really upset with him trying his best to hold up a role that is unmistakably fashioned as a tribute to Amitabh Bachchan's ouevre (Deewar, Trishul, Kaala Patthar). Costumes can only help a man so much. Devgn just doesn't have the charisma to make Sultan Mirza as engaging as Vijay (a Mercedes Benz with a 786 number plate is a great way to pay tribute to history and pop culture, but doesn't match up to a बिल्ला). Devgn was far better as Malik in Company, which was a far better film if you were looking for a modern take on the Bombay underworld.

Even talking about Emraan Hashmi's presence in the film would be giving him more credence that he deserves. Nothing has changed really since he chewed cinema screens while screaming his lungs out under the pretence of acting in Footpath. You cheer each time he is beaten up and cringe every time he gets upset. Vivek Oberoi, in his début, fared far better in Company.

The women (Prachi Desai, Kangana Ranaut) remain human versions of low-fat salad dressing and make all those trite parts for heroines in the revenge flicks of the 70s and 80s seem better written and better developed.

And then you have the songs where Pritam delivers the goods for a saleable soundtrack but fails to choose arrangements and styles appropriate for the period. A remix of R. D. Burman's 70s hit duniyaa me.n is quite strange for a film that is set in the same time period. Why not just pepper the soundscape with songs of the time? Since each song is non-diegetic and only employs the familiar Bollywood tropes, this department delivers a complete dud.

The biggest gripe, perhaps, is that the sum of all this merits the use of an adjective last appropriately used in Chemistry classes when discussing helium, neon, argon, kryton, xenon and radon. It's as inert as they come. Luthria may have succeeded in creating the largest, most expensive cure for insomnia ever in Bollywood. The film almost makes Govind Nihalani's Party look like a summer action blockbuster in comparison.

Milan Luthria's filmography gives me the impression that he might be capable to delivering something interesting while never departing from the conventions of Bollywood. Unfortunately, the problem of delivering more promise than product plagues all his stuff that I have seen including Deewar: Let's Bring Our Heroes Home and Taxi No. 9211. There are rumours that a sequel is in the works with the focus moving from Haji Mastan and Varadarajan Mudaliar to Dawood Ibrahim. Don't hold your breath. Go watch Nayakan, Deewar and Company again instead.

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