Joining the Sports and Culture blog today is Indan film expert Rajinder Dudrah, who will be contributing bi-weekly reviews and insights on Bollywood movies and news.
A 12-year-old boy shoots a corrupt police officer in public and the sound of the gunfire reverberates throughout the cinema hall. Later, this same boy – now a grown man – literally steps into the shoes of an underworld Mumbai don, signaling that he will be taking over. This is the rise of Vijay Deenanath Chahaun, and it’s moments like these that stay with you in the Karan Malhotra (director) and Karan Johar (producer) remake of the original 1990 film.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Yes, that’s right – Karan Johar has backed a film that is a far cry from anything else that you might usually associate with the Dharma Productions banner under his contemporary stewardship (think Kuch Kuch Hota Hai 1998, Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Ghum 2001, Kal Ho Naa Ho 2003…). The 2012 rendition of the poem of the same name penned by Harivansh Rai Bachchan has been inked in violent red, with loud crescendo-filled sounds for film.
Agneepath is a story of revenge that invokes as many references from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, as much as it does from a seedy and broken present day urban India: villain Kancha’s (Sanjay Dutt) quotes are as enlightening as they are an affront on the senses. The breakup of a small family unit by a greedy landlord and his malicious henchman sets off a series of actions that begets a series of reactions that culminate in a bloody finale. Those of us who will recall the 1990 film will remember this story well. In the new film, though, not only is the casting very different, but it also takes the meanings of the poem (agneepath/the path of fire) through more intense and physically testing enumerations.
Hrithik Roshan as the young man who internalizes the quest for avenging his father’s murder is always present on screen through a calculated psychology. His intense stares and his everyday demeanor – with the skills of an efficient killer lurking underneath – quietly permeate the screen.
His nemesis, played by Sanjay Dutt, brilliantly ups the ante in dark baritones and even darker humor: he is more than Ravaan and Khalnayak combined in his own twisted psychology, with a brutal childhood past.
Priyanka Chopra is the dashing and bubbly Kaali: beautiful and comical with a throwback reference to her earlier screen role as Sweety in Kaminey (2009). Katrina Kaif as the item girl in the “Chikni Chameli” song post-intermission electrifyingly lights up the start of the second half, teasing and then disappearing.
The supporting roles, played by Rishi Kapoor as the dirty old Mumbai gangster who sells teenage girls in an open market , Zarina Wahab as the mother who struggles with the choices her son has made as much as she does with her own moral compass, and Om Puri as the stern and honest police officer Gaitonde, are all on form. The young Vijay, played by Arish Bhiwandiwala, has an arresting presence, and both his innocence and its loss remain with you until the very end.
The version I saw had English subtitles omitted from the songs, they were there for the rest of the film. This was an odd decision as the songs are just as important as the dialogues elsewhere throughout the film, and some of the developments may be lost on non-Hindi speakers. The on-screen intervention of messages directly promoting anti-smoking awareness was a surprise and almost even light relief: “Smoking is injurious to health” as Katrina Kaif lights up in her item song. Filmic and more exciting was the gang of eunuchs with machetes taking on an armed mob of men – lethal.
Agneepath signals the welcomed possibility that Dharama Productions as an A-list production house can do more than its popcorn romances with gritty and relevant contemporary material and Karan Malhotra has put in a directorial debut of high caliber. More a beautiful homage to the lines of the poem than to the 1990 film proper this version is violent poetry, audio-visually writ large – and that is truly cinematic.
Rajinder Dudrah is Senior Lecturer in Film and Media Studies at the University of Manchester, U.K., and co-author of 'The Bollywood Reader.'