Salman Khan conquers the country with a startlingly stupid film
As a cursory glance at the box office will tell you, we all watched Dabangg this weekend. The film has been unanimously toasted, and a big bravo to Salman Khan for flexing his megastardom and tearing the shirt off the industry’s pretentions. With a sneering invincibility invoking Lord Rajnikanth himself, Khan swaggers and struts his way through the film, that thin line of hair above his lip acting like Superman’s spit-curl and endowing him with whistle-provoking screen presence. It’s the kind of thing our Bollywood men haven’t experienced in decades, and Khan pulls it off like only he can, unencumbered by the need to act.
Abhinav Singh Kashyap, not so much. Dabangg is unashamed, unapologetic, unpretentious – all laudable assets – but did it also have to be so goddamned unintelligent? The film had such magnificent potential, a throwback to the cheesy cinema of the 80s riding on the shoulders of a superstar who’d guarantee it an audience. There was room for irony, wit, awesomeness, in-jokes, but the debutant director seems careful not to have anything to do with the word clever – save perhaps a nod to Mohammed Hanif’s fantastic first novel – laying out a story so bloody plotless and coming up with a film that is nothing but background for Salman to trample on.
And that’s just pathetic. A tribute to a lost era of cinema is all very well, but you absolutely have to bring something new to the table. Om Shanti Om did it with elan, heading into the seventies and borrowing framework and plotpoints from the era, but also giving us a bonafide romantic comedy with heart and very distinct identity. Tashan is as 80s as cinema gets, with some brilliant moments as a Ramayana narrative is threaded through a bizarre action movie. This film, on the other hand, falls on the side of movies like Wanted: there may as well have been no script, with everything being superstar indulgence.
But, you might counter, it works. The film is a blast, people are having fun in theatres, and it’s full-on paisa vasool entertainment that delivers exactly what it promises. True that, but it held the promise of more. It isn’t a take on 80s cheese, it *is* 80s cheese. Except there’s one critical difference: there is no plot. Our worst films from two decades ago were hammy, melodramatic, over-the-top, blatantly manipulative – but you couldn’t fault them for a lack of storyline. From revenge to reincarnated siblings to evil thakurs to family feuds to impostors to amnesia, the films of the 80s, if anything, were immensely, claustrophobically plot-heavy.
In Dabangg, even a dying mother doesn’t really matter. The Aviator sunglasses, on the other hand, do. Anurag Kashyap, who recently tweeted a picture of himself with Quentin Tarantino, has praised his brother’s film highly, and said it’s the kind of film Tarantino would have made in India. Well, he might know Quentin better than us mere mortals, and while the worst of Tarantino’s frames can be criticised for too much self-indulgence, show me one shot that’s predictable. Dabangg could have been an iconic, subversive classic. It ended up a poor joke, one that had no business being longer than a 20-minute YouTube short. This isn’t a throwback, it’s a throw-behind, a film that celebrates the very worst of our cinema and revels in its awfulness. The star works without question, but the film is a monstrosity.
And yet we celebrate it, because people are dancing in the aisles and throwing coins on multiplex screens. First Ghajini, then Wanted, and now this. This film has guaranteed that twice a year for the foreseeable future, a megastar will be foisted upon us in a shameless and harebrained assault on the senses. And this just when we thought we had left that cinema behind. Groan.
First published Mumbai Mirror, September 15, 2010