Review: Dabangg

Posted on September 11, 2010

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MIXED DOUBLES

Two films for the price of one – an entertaining, star-centric potboiler, plus a delicately textured relationship drama.

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SEP 12, 2010 – LAALGANJ, UTTAR PRADESH, ISN’T A LOCATION you expect to encounter in today’s big-budget commercial cinema – but there it stands in Abhinav Singh Kashyap’s Dabangg, at once terrain and time machine. The moment is right for a pop quiz. When, last, did the screen accommodate a hero wrapped in a lungi? When did we last see song sequences shot with extras who look like people picked off the streets, blessedly human in their imperfections, rather than gym-toned automatons from Shiamak Davar’s school of dance? When was the last time you saw so many men opting not to barber themselves down to a baby’s bottom, preferring instead to luxuriate in dense thickets of facial foliage? (This film could set some kind of record for the sheer number of down-turned handlebar moustaches sighted in a single scene.) When did we last hear words like lobh, mandbuddhi, varmala, laanat, from the mouths of people bearing names like Sumant Kumar and Rajjo?

As such, an undertaking like Dabangg would appear cause for celebration simply because it exists, for bringing back to Hindi screens the kind of hinterland that Bhojpuri cinema has encroached upon and encamped in. Even its values are charmingly retro. When the heroine – the aforementioned Rajjo, played by Sonakshi Sinha, the rare star kid with actual presence – breaks into dance in the middle of a song hitherto energised by scores of male dancers, they look away chastely, as if her moves are solely for the eyes of the policeman-hero, the irresistibly named Chulbul Pandey (a pencil-moustached Salman Khan, perfect in a tailor-made part). Rajjo may cavort in backless blouses – and she’s thankfully filled out with pleasing curves; as contrast, observe the depressingly spindly Malaika Arora Khan in the chartbusting Munni badnaam huyi – but there’s a modesty about her that isn’t in currency with today’s heroines. Sinha isn’t given much dialogue, and she conveys emotion mostly through gesture – the lowered eye, the furrowed brow, the bashful smile. The low-key register of this performance is so old-fashioned, it comes, at first, as a bit of a shock – almost as shocking as the towels whipped around in a song sequence, which resemble the flying scarves that used to animate our qawwalis many moons ago.

This is when we realise that Kashyap has gallantly served up two films (rather, two movie sensibilities) for the price of one. The first, of course, is the deliciously cheesy masala entertainer that we were promised by the promos. For audiences familiar with Tamil and Telugu star-vehicle potboilers, Dabangg is merely another entertaining chapter in the ongoing (and seemingly never-ending) saga of the wronged protagonist avenging his misfortunes. (The only difference is that, in the older days, the hero would be a straight arrow driven by morality and a mother’s love; today, he’s confidently crooked, though there’s still a loving mother in the wings, here portrayed by Dimple Kapadia in wiry gray hair.)

The must-haves of the potboiler are dutifully ticked off. The hero is introduced in an action sequence where battened-down godown doors prove no match for his flying torso, and after he crashes feet-first into the villains’ hideout, he hoses them down and announces, “Abhi to sab ko nehlaya hai. Ab sab ko dhouunga.” Translation is futile; it would only dilute the punch in the dialogue. The hero, naturally, needs a signature style statement, so he deposits his sunglasses on the rear of his collar, so he can see front and back. And in the climactic showdown with the treacherous Cheddi Singh (Sonu Sood), the latter has to suffer the ignominy of physically tearing his shirt off, while the hero’s shirt bursts its seams simply on account of his burgeoning muscles.

The surprise of Dabanng, however, is that this aggressive masala-fest, hero versus villain, is a mere bookend to the unexpectedly low-key relationship drama in-between, played out in an Omkara-land, resplendent in earthen hues, where politics runs headlong into passions. In the time-honoured masala tradition, family is this film’s steely spine – even when Prajapati’s (an excellent Vinod Khanna, as Chulbul’s distant stepfather) factory is set on fire, the last image is of flames licking away at old family photographs. And accordingly, the first glimpse of on-screen violence isn’t that of Chulbul liquidating the bad guys holed up in that godown, but Prajapati lashing out at him as a child, 21 years earlier. Some of the most involving scenes unfurl between fathers and their emotionally abused children (whether Chulbul and Prajapati, or Rajjo and her father, the drunkard movingly embodied by Mahesh Manjrekar in a terrific instance of against-type casting).

These scenes widen the film’s canvas and allow it to breathe. Unusually for a film of this nature, Kashyap orchestrates most of this drama in a minor key when operatic sturm und drang would be the expected mode of expression. (Even the score is muted.) So on the one hand, there’s carefully calibrated restraint, and on the other, we have a hero who, in the midst of fighting, cannot help but break into convulsive dance steps upon hearing a catchy ring tone from a thug’s phone. How, then, do you classify such a movie? As a classy nautanki, perhaps – and Dabangg falters only in its scenes with Chulbul’s half-brother (Arbaaz Khan), whose romance carries little consequence. (The breakdown of his wedding ceremony is among the more bizarre aspects of the film.)

But the Chulbul-Rajjo track more than compensates. (And they have a beauty of a duet in Sajid-Wajid’s Tere mast mast do nain.) Theirs is not – as in Ghajini, another throwback to the potboiler period – a love story coloured with brash cuteness. This is a mature romance. When there’s no one to bless Chulbul at their wedding, Rajjo squeezes his hand in a show of support. That’s the first time she touches him physically – though the first time she touches him, emotionally, is when he makes a purchase from her and says she’d better accept the payment he’s offering with all his love, otherwise he might have to slap her into taking the money. And she replies, “Thappad se dar nahin lagta hai saab… Pyaar se lagta hai,” that she’s isn’t as afraid of being slapped around as of being in love. Returning to that pop quiz, when did we last see a heroine who could whip out a punch dialogue on par with the hero?

Star Ratings

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