Grand card-board Mob opera!
Director: Karan Malhotra
Actors: Hrithik Roshan, Sanjay Dutt
The ageless, eccentric baldie Kancha Cheena (Sanjay Dutt), modeled loosely on the lines of Marlon Brando (Col. Kurtz) in Apocalypse Now, has a thing for the Bhagwad Gita. The line, "Kya lekar aaye the, aur kya lekar jaoge," referring to the perishable human body that's merely a cloth or uniform for the eternal soul, is Kancha's favourite catch-phrase.
The land he lords over looks equally mythical. The absence of the nation-state is worrying. It's clearly Kancha's Lanka, his private North West Frontier that the police find hard to penetrate, fearing for the lives of the locals and their own. The village is Mandwa, not very far from Mumbai, where lynch mobs rule, and Kancha's writ runs.
We're in the early '90s. There are no cell-phones, though more than a few microphones at press conferences. Growing up within the ranks of Mumbai's notorious underbelly is young Vijay (Hrithik Roshan), son of 'siddhantwadi' (principled) Master Dinanath Chauhan, waiting to avenge his father's humiliation and death. Rauf Lala (Rishi Kapoor; intelligent anti-casting) is his mentor; Priyanka Chopra (in an extended cameo) plays his girlfriend.
The philanthropic father was a Gandhian, and would advice his son, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." "Mahatma Gandhi wasn't born in Mandwa," the son would tell him. Little Vijay and his pregnant mother were driven out of their village. Kancha's the Ravan. Vijay must be Ram.
This is the Ramayan in ways that several huge blockbusters have vaguely reinterpreted in the past (Anil Sharma's Gadar, or Prakash Jha's Apaharan, for instance; even the producer of this film Karan Johar's Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham, for that matter). It's simple enough to spot Hindu mythology in so many Hindi film stories. Making it too explicit (Mani Ratnam's Raavan) is unnecessary. The popular philosophy - karm, dharm - easily follows.
Vijay has an unusual sympathiser in the city's police commissioner (Om Puri), since they share a common enemy. In return, Vijay saves the commissioner's life. They're probably even now; if not, Vijay tells the cop, he can clear the debt in his next birth. It's not surprising the makers of this film profess to believe in reincarnation. This picture is an unabashed film buff's product of the same thought. It's a 1990 Mob opera, modified, reborn.
The debutant director (Karan Malhotra) is an equally unapologetic devotee of Bollywood's old-world scale and melodrama that few get right. He does, to a great extent, though almost every scene's an announcement, the jarring background score is always in jaagran (or concert) mode, and the camera is constantly at close-up or mid-shot, which can get exhausting to the eye.
The original Agneepath, inspired by Scarface, was directed by the late Mukul Anand, a filmmaker highly influenced by Hollywood's visual detailing and slickness. He was widely regarded in the '90s as a "tech-wizard" of sorts. Which was fair, given he made films like Khuda Gawah in 1992, set in the rugged terrains of Afghanistan, when the biggest hit pictures playing at theatres near you were Beta and Tehelka (the latter gets a nod here)!
Would this movie have the same impact on the young as did Anand's incredible Hum (1991) for the generation before? No. Would this Agneepath suffice still? Yes. Despite its commercial failure, the original had rightly earned the gravel-voiced Amitabh Bachchan his first National Award since his debut in 1969.
The external logic of a star driven, fantasy fed film such as this may not be easy to gulp for many. The internal logic, or the reason you believe it all, depends a lot on the credibility of the headlining performance. Bachchan's irreplaceable, of course. So is Hrithik, India's hardest working, most intense super-star, ever.
In a career spanning 12 years, there's something to be said about an actor for the number of times he's likely to have heard, from masses or critics, that "this is his best performance yet": Koi Mil Gaya, Lakshya, Krishh, Dhoom 2, Jodha Akbar, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Guzaarish. One can safely add this film to the list.
An earnest Vijay Dinanath Chauhan delivers poetic justice before a nearly packed hall on the proverbial 'first day first show'. Audiences at my cinema respond to the cues and lines. The comments passed sometimes distract you from the screen. Everyone guffaws at the same time. This is the kind of genuine theatre experience, now getting rare, which remains most precious in the life of a film-goer. Reason can take over later. I had a ball!