Don (2006)

Don

Normally I’m not a fan of remakes since they are generally nowhere near as good as the original, but Farhan Akhtar’s Don is the exception that proves the rule – at least for me. As much as I love the original Don with Amitabh Bachchan, Iftekhar, Helen and co, the remake slickly updates the story and adds a few new twists that make the end at least just that little bit better. I love Shahrukh Khan when he’s in anti-hero mode, and this is an excellent example of how good SRK can be when he’s being bad. There are a few misses, but overall good casting, clever writing and an excellent soundtrack make Don one of my favourite SRK films.

The remake follows the original 1978 Don fairly closely in terms of the screenplay but sets most of the story in Malaysia where Don (Shahrukh Khan) is the ‘most dangerous and cunning criminal’ in an organisation than spans the globe smuggling drugs. Don heads up the Malaysian arm of the gang and works for Singhania ( Rajesh Khattar), the rival of fellow ultra-elusive gang member Vardhaan. DCP DiSilva (Boman Irani) is on the trail of the criminals along with his colleague Inspector Verma (Sidharth  Jyoti) and Interpol Officer Vishal Malik (Om Puri).

Shahrukh appears to enjoy playing the utterly ruthless and callous Don and he seems to slip effortlessly into evil mode when required. His Don is perhaps a little too flamboyant and his fashion sense is rather quirky (those terrible ties-inside-the shirt!), but his panache and flair in the opening scenes when he imitates some ballet dancers and then a few moments later causes carnage and mayhem during a drug deal gone wrong is superb. He’s cool, collected and practical when it comes to getting rid of police informers and in dealing with recalcitrant gang members, but does show his softer side to Anita (Isha Koppikar) and a little more uncertainty with fellow gang member Narang (Pawan Malhotra). This shading makes Don more interesting and generates some empathy for what is really quite an unpleasant character at the start of the film.

One of the misses is the remake of the classic Helen number Yeh Mera Dil. Kareena Kapoor takes on the role of Kamini, the revenge seeking fiancé of gang member Ramesh (Diwaker Pundir), killed by Don for his disloyalty. Kareena just doesn’t have the vibrancy or class of Helen, and her seduction routine is clinical and passionless as a result. There’s no rage, no thirst for revenge or abhorrence at getting close to the man who murdered her fiancé and it ends up as nothing more than a lot of shimmying in a gold lamé dress.  It’s not surprising Don looks somewhat disdainful and fairly unimpressed throughout.

Priyanka Chopra is much better as Roma and at least looks as if she is capable of murder. At least up until she actually tries to kill Don at which point she seems to lose her mojo. Still, it’s a good effort and she does well in the songs too, although I think Isha Koppikar takes the honours here – plus who doesn’t love a giant disco mirror ball. Both Priyanka and Isha  look stunning and are obviously included to up the glamour quotient, but both do a good job in their roles and appear as strong and confident characters throughout.

Don is seriously injured and captured by the police during a chase in India which gives DCP DiSilva the opportunity to replace Don with a local entertainer Vijay (also SRK) who is the spitting image of the gangster. SRK’s Vijay is a tad more sensible than in the original, and Shahrukh makes him a very different character to Don. He even looks quite different, using facial expressions and body movement to emphasize the difference between the two characters – at least up until the surgery to make them both the same.

However, since only DiSilva and the fake Don know about the impersonation, when DiSilva is killed during an operation to catch Singhania it all starts to go pear-shaped for Vijay. As well as dodging the police and fooling the gang into believing he is Don, Vijay has to deal with Roma’s attempts at revenge and somehow get a disc with information about the gang to Malik to prove his innocence.   Meanwhile Jasjit (Arjun Rampal) is also out for revenge after DiSilva caused the death of his wife, adding more layers to the plot and a means to bring it all to a satisfactory conclusion.

The updated film has plenty of high powered car chases and some cool fight scenes which all work pretty well. There are a couple of escapes too – the first is rather unnecessarily convoluted, but the second is fun as it involves Don wrestling one of his gang members for a parachute while plunging to the ground after jumping out of a plane. Now if this had been a Southern Indian film, Don would have had a handy gun and some explosive to deal with the problem, but here he just has to fight it out while the ground spins giddily below and rushes every closer.

The film has a great soundtrack from Shankar-Ehsan-Loy which uses two songs and the general theme from the original film. The second remix is Khaike Paan Banaraswala which fares much better than the Helen remake number, and is a lot of fun – I suspect most of the direction here was asking SRK to act goofy and he manages to do so repeatedly!

Overall the casting is excellent and the support actors all seem to fit their parts well. Boman Irani is in sensible mode as DiSilva and he makes a good world-weary cop. I find he can be erratic, depending on the director and is often better in comedic rather than straight roles, but he does an excellent job here and suits the role. Om Puri is a little under used in a role that doesn’t give him much scope, but has a couple of good scenes with DiSilva where he is suspicious of absolutely everyone and he fits that character style perfectly. Perhaps most surprising is Arjun Rampal who I remember thinking was much better here than in any of his films I’d seen previously, and puts in an emotionally mature performance as a devastated man out for blood.

I went to the cinema prepared to be disappointed in Don and was instead surprised by how much I enjoyed the film, and still love watching the DVD. Expensive production makes the stunts work well and lifts the thrill factor, but none of that would matter without good performances and a well thought out rewrite of the story. The film works for me because of SRK and Boman Irani, but everyone has their part to play in making Don such an entertaining film. The Malaysian backdrop looks amazing, the soundtrack is great and the dialogue and stunts are brilliant. It may be a remake but it’s a great film in its own right and I love this version just as much as the original. 5 stars!

99 (2009)

99-Poster I generally enjoy heist or caper type films, and 99 is a fairly good example of the things I like most about the genre. Raj and DK have a keen eye for the little moments of absurdity and joy that pepper our lives, and the characters in 99 have hopes and schemes that are real world sized. Their ambitions fit within their neighbourhood – a really good coffee shop, a fresh start, a comfortable life with no running from the cops. Empathising with their flaws and stupid choices comes a little more easily when the dreams are so relatable. 99-the plan Sachin (Kunal Khemu) and Zaramud (Cyrus Broacha) are small time crims, working a technology angle rather than being standover merchants. They see themselves as perpetrating a victimless crime in a situation where nobody really gets hurt and lots of people benefit. Things go awry, as they often do, and while running from the police they steal and crash a Merc belonging to AGM (Mahesh Manjrekar).

AGM is an old school boss, the kind of bookie that newspapers here would have called a colourful racing identity. Rahul (Boman Irani) is separated from his wife, probably because of his gambling addiction. He keeps bargaining with God to win another hand, win another bet, and thinks he can beat the house. He places a bet on the cricket while having his own away game on conference in Mumbai, and is referred to AGM as his bookie. He goes home to Delhi, skipping out on the debt.

AGM sends Sachin and Zaramud to Delhi to recover the losses from Rahul, part of their agreement to work off their debt. Another character says they looked like Laurel and Hardy, and they do have about the same degree of acuity. Sachin uses AGM’s credit card to put himself up at a fancy hotel and meets duty manager Pooja (Soha Ali Khan). In between waiting around and menacing Rahul, he romances Pooja and generally looks on the bright side.

Rahul wants to win one more big bet to settle all his debts and maybe even get his wife back. The boys won’t wait, and they steal the money he is ‘borrowing’ from a client to settle the outstanding. But in a classic Delhi taxi scam their bags, including The Bag, are stolen. Rahul and Laurel and Hardy team up to win back the cash in another bet on the cricket finals, targeting high-roller JC (Vinod Khanna) as the key to success. The game is afoot! The cricket theme permeates all aspects of the characters’ lives. They’re all stuck on 99, waiting for the opportunity to make their century and claim success. None of them wants world domination or is chasing the money just for the sake of it, except maybe Rahul, they just want to get ahead. The match fixing scandal of 1999-2000 is well known so that adds another dimension as honest crooks rely on a match controlled by bigger crooks.

Kunal Khemu has a boyish charm that works well for Sachin, who isn’t the brightest crayon in the box. He and Cyrus Broacha have an easy chemistry that makes their scenes seem fresh even though the plot direction may be predictable. I could be underestimating Sachin as the subtitle team were a law unto themselves and even I know enough Hindi to know some dialogue was a bit mystifying. The boys make it up as they go and I enjoyed their antics as they tried to stay one step ahead of all their pursuers.

Boman Irani is quite restrained in terms of comedy excesses, but doesn’t shy away from showing Rahul as a jerk who will lie and wheedle his way out of trouble. He’s kind of seedy but respectable at the same time, an average man with a secret addiction. He is plausible and can be charming but there is a glint in his eye whenever he sees a chance. Rahul never learned any lasting lesson, but continued to coast on his luck and maybe God coming through on a bet or two.

Soha Ali Khan is adequate but for a film that works hard to build a little world, Pooja’s character is a bit lacking. I would have liked to see more of Pooja’s own decision making articulated. Initially she only agreed to help because Sachin whined at her, and while she did strike her own deal I didn’t really get why she would even consider getting involved to begin with. Simone Singh plays Jahnavi, Rahul’s wife. Like Pooja, although she is set up as a smart and down to earth woman there is little sense of anything about her other than her tension with Rahul. I didn’t have so many quibbles the first time I watched the film, but on a repeat viewing I felt that they existed to provide a foil for the relevant male character and not much else.

Vinod Khanna is perfectly cast as the smooth, slightly larger than life, JC. He is understated but faintly menacing under all the expensive charm. Amit Mistry and Pitobash round out the supporting cast with an entertaining blend of comedy, histrionics and sharp eyed opportunism. The soundtrack by Ashu is more bland than not, and quite formulaic – the whimsical acoustic song, the bhangra number, the sights of Delhi song, you know the drill. But they are integrated into the drama well and don’t derail the story at all. The song montages were often quite entertaining and let Raj and DK get a lot of slapstick out of their systems without dragging the main narrative down.

I hate to sound all hipster about Raj and DK but I do prefer their earlier stuff (I wasn’t blown away by Go Goa Gone) and 99 is lots of fun. While I am slightly disappointed with the female characters I genuinely like the good natured feel, the slightly dodgy characters, and the great use of locations. Even the opening titles incorporate the cast in the locations and foreshadow the twists and turns with some quirky angles and animation. The jokes take a swipe at everything from intercity rivalries to the film industry, and there are some zingy one liners courtesy of writers Raj and DK with Sita Menon. Of recent films in a similar genre I slightly prefer Ko Antey Koti and Delhi Belly, but I really have no complaints about spending a couple of hours in 1999 with these dudes. See it for a good modern robbers and more robbers caper with an appealing cast and a sense of humour about itself. 3 ½ stars!

Happy New Year (2014)

Happy New Year

I’m a massive SRK fan, and I loved both Main Hoon Na and Om Shanti Om, but given Farah Khan’s last film, I was hopeful but not too excited by the prospect of Happy New Year. Even after watching the film in a packed cinema,  I still have a feeling of ambivalence since overall Happy New Year is a bit of a muddle. The film starts very slowly with painstaking introductions of the characters that are a mixture of brilliantly funny and just plain crass. Then there is the set up for the actual heist – again a mixture of ridiculously mind-numbing cliché and clever, snappy comedy, but at least finally the film seems to be going somewhere.  Finally there is the actual heist which is fine, and a feel-good ending, suitably horrendously overacted but very masala, and the best bit of all – the end credits. No, not because it’s the end of an overly long film, but because Farah includes everyone involved (as she always does) and it’s very well done. A mixture and certainly not all bad, but unlike Om Shanti Om, not a film I’m going to rush back to the cinema to watch again although I will definitely get the DVD.

Shah Rukh plays Charlie, son of Manohar Sharma (who else but Anupam Kher?) a disgraced safe maker and security expert. Charlie knows that Charan Grover (Jackie Shroff – thankfully fully dressed for the entire film) set his father up and was responsible for the diamond robbery that put his father into prison. It just so happens that Charan Grover will have crores worth of diamonds locked away in his safe in Dubai over Christmas, just when the World Dance Championships are being held in the same hotel. Obviously then, Charlie will just enter the dance competition and make off with the diamonds leaving Charan Grover and his son Vicky (Abhishek Bachchan)  to take the blame.

If it sounds completely illogical and nonsensical then that’s because it is, but although that’s not a problem for a Bollywood film, here the lack of logic is the whole point and it’s not as funny as it should have been. Farah Khan seems to want to be sure that everyone gets the joke too, because the details of the set up are repeated over and over again. Charlie gets together a team of misfits to help him steal the diamonds including his father’s right hand man Tammy (Boman Irani), explosives expert Jag (Sonu Sood), Grover’s son lookalike Nandu Bhide (Abhishek Bachchan again) and all round loser but expert hacker Rohan Singh (Vivaan Shah). Each has their own quirks and foibles, although my favourite is Tammy’s apparently bottomless bag which really does contain everything. On the other hand Nandu’s frequent projectile vomiting is fairly abhorrent while Jag’s loss of cool when his mother is insulted and Rohan’s general nerdy ineptness fall somewhere in the middle.

Needless to say, none of the five can dance which might have been thought to be a pre-requisite to enter a dance competition. Although they have plans to rig the results they still need to get through a judges round and in desperation they turn to a bar dancer Mohini (Deepika Padukone) for help.

Happy New Year

Strangely for a film about a dance competition the choreography is dull and uninspiring, particularly in Mohini’s introduction number in the bar. Deepika looks stunning, but the song doesn’t showcase her talent well at all, and Farah Khan seems as focused on objectifying the character of Mohini as she is with Shah Rukh Khan’s six pack. Which, by the way, does get plenty of objectification in the opening scenes. And a bit later. As does Sonu Sood’s admirable physique. So much so that unbelievable as it seems it was too much – enough Farah – enough!!

The songs by Vishal Shekhar are fine and reasonably catchy but not in the same league as Om Shanti Om. Best of the lot is Manwa Laage which has the best dancing from Deepika, good comedy and (almost) shirtless SRK – perfect!

I can understand why the costumes and choreography generally have to be so terrible and OTT for Charlie and Mohini’s group, after all this is a dance troupe that includes Boman Irani, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason why the other dance teams are almost as bad. Particularly once we reach the WDC and the dancers from various nations around the world have tacky costumes and lacklustre routines, making Team India look like a real contender. Think the standard of the dance competition in Disco Dancer but with headdresses and little kids added. There is a ridiculous side plot involving the Korean team but otherwise the film follows Farah’s theme of using older films as a template and adding in as many references to these as possible. Some work, but quite a few fall flat and the many references to previous SRK films are a good example of the later.

On the other hand, SRK, Sonu Sood and co. all do a good job with their respective characters and actually manage to make some sense out of the ridiculous dialogue. I love Sonu Sood here is he was funny without being too obvious, while Boman Irani does seem to force the humour a little too much. Vivaan Shah is a little overwhelmed by everyone else but seems fine in a small role, while Jackie Shroff actually adds some class to the proceedings – really! Abhishek Bachchan is good in a comedy role while Deepika absolutely shines and is one of the two lynchpins holding it all together. The other of course is SRK and without him Happy New Year really wouldn’t have had the same impact. Shah Rukh can stand there in the middle of a mud wrestling competition and have buckets of water thrown at him and still look cool. When he switches to over-emotional drama in scenes about his father he can make you believe in his thirst for revenge and when he dances on stage his enthusiasm is captivating. The romance between SRK and Deepika is less convincing but then the real love story is between SRK and his audience so the lack of chemistry doesn’t seem to matter.

Happy New Year is a mixture of almost equal parts good and bad. Cutting some of the repetitive scenes discussing the heist and shortening the introductions would certainly have helped, but Farah Khan needs to concentrate more on story development and less on comedy for the sake of comedy, more on structure and less on self-indulgent repackaging of classic Bollywood as crass farce. The problem is partly that when Farah Khan is good, she is very, very good, but when she’s bad she is repetitive and stereotypical in the worst possible way. Happy New Year combines the two and while overall it is entertaining, it should have been so much better. But if what you want is a mindless, colourful and extravagant 3 hours of entertainment, then it fits the bill perfectly.