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HindustanTimes Wed,23 Jul 2014
The Alpha Beta
Jonathan Gil Harris, Hindustan Times
September 15, 2012
First Published: 15:01 IST(15/9/2012)
Last Updated: 19:05 IST(15/9/2012)

Karan Malhotra’s Agneepath is one of the biggest box-office hits of the year. It may seem to represent a return to an older Bollywood style: Agneepath is, after all, a remake of Mukul Anand’s 1990 cult classic tale of revenge, and like the latter, it is a highly stylised melodrama in which the hero suffers terribly, schemes patiently, and ultimately succeeds both in avenging the righteous and killing the bad guy. 

So how can this self-conscious throwback be considered an instance of the new wave of India Bana Pardes  movies that I discussed in last week’s article? In some ways, Agneepath would seem to be the opposite of Don 2, the exemplary “India Becomes Foreign” film. That movie imagines an Indian world in which India curiously no longer exists, as everyone in it is a rootless NRI, shape-shifting across international borders and identities in the manner of global capital. Agneepath, by contrast, doesn’t set foot out of India, and its characters remain resolutely themselves, rooted in a strong, old-fashioned sense of family. At first glance, this film’s shaping logic is anything but India Bana Pardes: On the contrary, it might seem to be India Bharat Vaapis Bana.

Yet the film provides an illuminating variation on the theme of India Bana Pardes. What is pardes in Agneepath is not a foreign culture or country. Rather, it is a foreign element that haunts the structure of the Indian family itself. In particular, the film mines something in the nature of the father-son relation that brings out the other meaning of Bana Pardes: Becoming Strange or Becoming Estranged. Agneepath shows how the reverence that the son is supposed to extend to the father can easily camouflage a violent repudiation of him. And it does so in a way that subtly illuminates India’s complex relations to its past traditions in an age of economic liberalisation.

Agneepath is a story of a loyal son seeking to honour his father – not just in the film’s onscreen narrative, but also in its production history. Much has been made of how Karan Johar wished to do a remake of the original Agneepath, which had been produced by his late father Yash Johar. Though now regarded as a cult classic, the original had bombed on its initial release in 1990. Karan has described its failure as a major trauma that devastated Yash Johar both emotionally and financially. In commissioning Karan Malhotra to script and direct the remake, Johar has sought to pay tribute to his late father, as the Dharma Productions homage in the opening credits (“we miss you”) makes clear. Which is to say: Johar has produced a film whose very story mirrors the conditions of its production – a son trying to salvage his father’s lost honour.

HE’S A NEW MAN: Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay (left) works for a quartet of crime bosses. Hrithik Roshan’s Vijay serves his underworld apprenticeship with a new ganglord.

Yet this conceals one important detail about Agneepath’s father-son relation. Although the hero Vijay claims to avenge his father, his seeming act of filial memory is really an act of forgetting. His father, Dinanath, is a Gandhian pacificist; after Dinanath has been falsely framed by the evil Kancha Cheena, and has been violently assaulted and hanged from a tree in the village of Mandwa, Vijay smoulders with a decades-long desire for righteous vengeance. But that desire means that even as he insists on remembering his father, he forgets Dinanath’s path of ahimsa and takes the opposite course – a course of violence learned in the Mumbai underworld.

A similar forgetting in the name of remembering afflicts the parallel story of the film’s production. Even as Karan Johar has paid tribute to Yash Johar with Agneepath, he has produced a movie that differs greatly from his father’s. The basic foundations of the story are the same, but the remake literally loses the plot once Vijay leaves Mandwa for Mumbai. In the original, Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay works for a quartet of crime bosses whom he knocks off, one by one; his sidekick is a Tamil nariyal paaniwaala and his love interest is a Christian nurse. All are missing from the new version, in which Hrithik Roshan’s Vijay serves his underworld apprenticeship with a new ganglord, Rauf Lala (Rishi Kapoor) and has a new love interest, Kaali Gawde (Priyanka Chopra). 

It’s not just the story that is different. The original Kancha Cheena was played by Danny Dengzongpa as a somewhat effete, pipe-smoking villain; this time round, Sanjay Dutt’s Kancha is an oversized monster - looking remarkably like The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum if he’d spent two decades beefing up on a wrestler’s diet and doing daily workouts at a gym next to a tattoo parlour.  Because the new Vijay has to overcome a limb-tearing adversary who would give even the Incredible Hulk pause, the result is an exceedingly violent movie that dismembers as much as it remembers the original.

A WHALE OF A DIFFERENCE: The original Kancha Cheena was played by Danny Dengzongpa (left) as a somewhat effete villain; Sanjay Dutt’s Kancha is an oversized monster.

The effect of both Vijay’s and Karan Johar’s forgetting in the name of remembering is a Bollywood counterpart to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. That play’s title character also seeks to honour a beloved dead father and avenge him; but even as the ghost of the father exhorts his son to remember, Hamlet keeps forgetting what he is meant to do. This simultaneous identification with and resistance to the will of the father distinguishes a psychodrama in which forgetting is the form that apparent remembrance takes. Bachchan’s own father, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, wrote the poem that gave the film its title; Amitabh’s Vijay memorises it without ever fully comprehending what it means as he pursues his career as a gangster.  (The poem is an ode to virtuous perseverance – tu na mudega kabhi – not to murderous violence.)  But Agneepath’s complex father-son drama is made even more glaringly evident in the remake.

This is in no small part due to Hrithik Roshan’s unusual performance as Vijay. As a star whose box-office successes and flops are very much associated with those of his own director-producer father, Rakesh Roshan (Kaho Naa... Pyaar Hai, Koi… Mil Gaya, Krrish, Kites), Hrithik comes to the film with the baggage of being a daddy’s boy. But Roshan’s performance alternates between a robotic brutality of a kind not seen in the original Agneepath and a desperate neediness for the mother who rejects him because of his embrace of criminal violence. This vacillation transforms the film into an extended nightmare in which Vijay completely forgets the lessons of the father he idealises. At the end, after he has returned to Mandwa, executed Kancha Cheena following a particularly gruesome fight, and is dying in the arms of his estranged mother, he asks her: “Maine thikh kiya? [did I do the right thing?]” Rather than answer in the affirmative, she says simply that she hopes he will be reborn as her son in her next life. Her non-committal response underlines the long distance Vijay has travelled from his father’s and her own non-violent path.

So what does all this have to do with India Bana Pardes? Perhaps we can see in the drama of a remembering that is really a forgetting Karan Johar’s own personal psychodrama, of needing both to honour his father and establish his independence from him. But the chord Agneepath has struck with its audiences suggests that its power has to do less with a personal than with a larger national psychodrama. What Vijay’s estrangement from his family speaks to, I would argue, is a sense of historical rupture in the wake of economic liberalisation. Manmohan Singh’s economic reforms began in 1991, the year after the release – and failure – of the original Agneepath.  The reforms have promised brave new futures for some; but they have also threatened an irreversible break with certain national traditions. Even as India continues to call Gandhi Rashtra Pita or Father of the Nation, it cannot help but move away from his and Nehru’s legacy under the pressures of globalisation, urbanisation, and a widening gap between rich and poor. In the process, just as Vijay violently estranges himself from the Gandhian father he honours, so has India in the age of liberalisation become pardes or estranged from the Gandhian ideals of non-violence and equal opportunity to which it still pays lip-service. 

At the level of national fantasy as much as individual character, Agneepath is what we could call the tale of the alpha beta – the son who claims to be dutiful but aggressively overturns the legacy of the beloved father. The film does what the revenge movie genre asks it to do: The hero salvages the honour of his father and slays the evil-doer who killed him. But it has also paid lip-service to the father’s memory while violently repudiating everything the father stands for. It’s often the case that, the more thoroughly we break with tradition, the more we will idealise it. And the more violent our repudiation, the more we sentimentalise that which we have repudiated. Sometimes we do need to separate from the father. But we must be careful not to disguise this estrangement as a starry-eyed tribute.

Next week: The Musical Ghosts of Dilliwood (Rockstar)

The author is Professor of English at George Washington University in Washington DC, USA

From HT Brunch, September 16

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