All I’ve heard for the past couple of weeks in India is how much Farhan Akhtar’s Don sucks. If rumor (by which I mean professional reviews) was to be believed, Akhtar, having had the temerity to remake a “classic” was now justly reaping the sorrow of his impertinent ambitions. So, of course, I had to go see it for myself.
I knew what it was about: often described as a B-movie with A-list actors, Don the Older is famous in India for its music, its iconic dialogues and some of the zaniest scenes ever shot. It was good, campy fun but I must say that if Don’s your idea of a sacred classic, then you must be the moron that’s been programming TV lately.
Anyway, it’s now been about forty-eight hours since I saw it (sorry, but my curiosity wasn’t great enough to battle the opening week crowd of a Shah Rukh Khan movie) and all I can think about is this film that Aishwarya Rai once starred in. I can’t remember the name of it – thank you, God – but I do remember that its story was allegedly penned by her mother. I recollect that detail distinctly, because I greatly admired her courage in admitting to it. However, the point is that my best friend, having seen it previously, rented the DVD and played it for me.
“You’ll like it. I mean, it’s not great but it’s pretty nice,” she said. “Plus, Aishwarya Rai and Arjun Rampal, what’s not to like?”
Three very long hours later, I looked her in the eye. “Are you telling me,” I asked, “that you actually liked a movie in which a woman and her husband are run over by her obsessive stalker, leading to the death of her husband and her own amnesia; the stalker then convinces her that her child is actually his child, hires her as its nanny, takes them both to South Africa [Why? Because he can, obviously], she falls in love with him, he feels guilty; she construes that as his continuing grief over the death of his non-existent wife, she runs away, has another accident, regains her memory, forgives him her husband’s murder, and they all live happily ever after? And, oh yeah, this whole post-accident scenario is engineered by her own mother-in-law?”
She paused to think. “Um, yeah… I guess I didn’t think of that.”
Ladies and gentlemen, my best friend is a woman of great insight and keen intellect. She is also, as I am myself, an avid fan of the Hindi film industry or rather, Bollywood, which is an animal of a slightly different hue. We enjoy it, we fork over handfuls of our hard earned money for it, we discuss it, we rent it, we buy it, we hum the songs, we know the lyrics, we get the in-jokes, we follow the gossip and we’ve learnt the lingo.
In return, Bollywood has destroyed our ability to think once confronted by it and taught us how to truly enjoy a story – without any perspective whatsoever. Rational thought is for those miserable beings who prefer life burdened by iffy things like logic. Had I seen that movie someplace other than the freezing and very uncomfortable floor of my friend’s studio, it is entirely possible that I too would have been sucked in by the sheer romance of loving thine enemy. Thine murdering, lying, drunk-driving, stalking enemy with the pretty, pretty face.
And this is what Farhan Akhtar counts upon when you sit down to watch his movie. Don the Younger is a stylishly executed psychological exercise on a grand scale. It takes everything you know about the movies, especially Bollywood movies, as well as all you think you know about Don the Older and stands it on its head. I love it.
Oh, the movie taken by itself has several flaws, chief among them the Jasjit subplot that drags the running time down by several extra minutes that the rest of the script patently disapproves of. In Don the Older, one went along with it because there was a certain charm to seeing Pran dressed in tights and making like the Namrata Joshi’s review in Outlook, bemoaning the lack of Shah Rukh’s manly chest in the pool a la Amitabh Bachchan’s furry one. I suddenly realized that that’s the scene that establishes how close the two have been getting to each other. By contrast, in Don the Younger, you feel just as surprised as Vijay when Roma first throws herself at his chest.
Paradoxically, however, the subtle twist of scenes such as that one is also why I loved this movie even though I care nothing at all for the genre and regard all remakes with a suspicious eye.
Not because I’m opposed to their existence per se or view it as a sign of creative paucity as some people have suggested, but because I think they’re more trouble than they are worth. You need to love the material enough, and disagree with its execution just as much, to want to do it all over again. Chances are that if the above two conditions are true, then you’ll end up destroying the very thing that caught your interest in the first place in an attempt to bring everything else up to its level.
And so I couldn’t help but think that it was a stroke of pure genius for Akhtar to make his biggest liability – the fact that this was a remake – work to his advantage. The major part of this movie is engineered in such a way that it is aimed directly at your recollection of the “classic” Don. The most shocking moments of the film depend upon your remembrance of earlier plot details.
And I can’t believe I’m typing this, but – Shah Rukh Khan makes the perfect Don the Younger.
Do you remember a time when SRK wasn’t caught deep in the hugely successful facial-tic school of filmmaking perfected by Karan Johar? I do. I always thought he had more charisma than anything else but there were odd moments when he would actually receive direction rather than adulation from behind the camera and the results were always apparent. Here then is a sign that that SRK hasn’t died a peaceful death under the burden of all those cashmere sweaters and gently weeping mothers, wives, daughters, and other random women.
Amitabh Bachchan as Don the Older was first, last, and always an adult. That menace which managed to be sexy in spite of the fact that it belonged on the face of a vicious killer (“Better luck next time, baby!” Don snaps to a very seductive, post-coital Helen shortly before killing her) and that bucolic buffoonery which characterized Vijay (“Chhora Ganga kinare wala,” he announces while wiggling his butt in front of the camera), were both examples of Men. Please note the capital letter.
Don and Vijay as played by SRK are men who haven’t altogether left their boyhood behind. In an age where “old” is a dirtier word than ever before, when you see Don in his natty clothes with the tie tucked inside his shirt, it makes an altogether different statement from the one made by Bachchan in his floppy bowties. This is a sociopath (or do I mean psychopath?) who likes to watch cartoons round the clock and approaches the world as a kid would a candy store. On the other hand, Bachchan’s Don had had his inner child’s head bashed in a long time ago.
This painstaking touch with subtle details, by the way, is definitely reason enough to love this movie. Note Munch’s "Scream" hanging discreetly on the wall of the old fashioned walk-in safe of Stolen Goods. Nice. And how about the camera’s concentric dissolve in the song with the big, flashing disco ball? Very nice. Akhtar even provides Vijay with his very own plinky-plonky instrument in the Morya Re song with its tongue in cheek reference to Rahul’s banjo or whatever that annoying thing was in DDLJ. I’ll forgive them Isha Koppikar’s unfairly hideous wardrobe for that one.
I suppose on one level it is rather sad that I’m so excited by a movie that can be squarely tagged as nothing more or less than “commercial cinema”. You can read into it a judgment upon the state of writing in Bollywood. However, it is also true that I cannot find it within myself to look down upon films that do not seek to serve any greater purpose than entertainment. I enjoy what is today called “multiplex cinema” [the “parallel cinema” of yesteryears] but that doesn’t mean I’m above the mainstream.
Perhaps this is because I am an Indian and a writer. Growing up in an India before the advent of satellite television, our main source of entertainment was books, which were plentiful and more current than the videos we rented from our neighborhood cassette shop. It seems to me that we read everything in those days – comics, classics, romance novels, contemporary fiction, histories, biographies… literary snobbishness was rare.
This has continued to shape me in my writing life. I definitely have my preferences and prejudices (who doesn’t?) but a well written story must always command my respect. Sometimes it seems to me that I am more of a reader than a writer.
And thus, my enthusiasm for Don, much in the same vein as Rang de Basanti and Lage Raho Munnabhai. I can already hear you all squawking in outrage at such blasphemy so let me explain that this is from a writer’s point of view.
Each of these films is based around a central conceit (in the obsolete sense of the word meaning theme or idea) around which the actual script is built. In RDB, it is youth culture. In LRM it is translating Gandhi. For Don it is Bollywood.
This is not a novel concept – outside of the traditional Bollywood blockbuster this is how most people prefer to write. These films, then, become exciting only because they are true-blue Bollywood products: made within the star system, on lavish budgets, and marketed as entertainment complete with catchy music yet employing tricks of the writing trade that seemed to have gone out of fashion except in art cinema.
The big difference between these movies, as many amongst you have of course already noted, is that RDB and LRM aspire to deliver a “message”, while Don remains unfettered by such intellectual baggage. Although RDB and LRM will no doubt go on to catch the deeper fancy of pop culture, Don is, I think, far more clever within its limitations because unlike the other two movies, it does not simply ask for audience participation – it requires said participation.
I can’t help but think it a sign of interesting times ahead.