Review: Dabangg

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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51 thoughts on “Review: Dabangg

  1. And the hits just keep on coming, courtesy these search terms that recently led to my blog :-)

    - upasana handcuff
    - superstructure for tamil women
    - sandhya mridul bicep
    - chineese dj cuckoo bar in 2009

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  2. hey i got “superstructure of tamil women” too!

    i also keep getting hits to my twilight review from someone in citibank in ulan bator, mangolia.

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  3. Oh I quite liked it, and most of it thanks to Chulbul Pandey. Such an awesome throwback and have we had one such film, this good, since Main Hoon Na?

    Oh and totally with you on the screen presence of Sonakshi. Total awesomeness.

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  4. @Baradwaj: muahahah , “superstructure for tamil women ” , sandhya mriduls biceps ??? What kinda weirdos are these ? I would have understood atleast if the search had been for another part of Sandhya’s anatomy.Wasn’t surprised by your review of “Dabangg” though.Have read enough to know of your love for ummm retro-masala ? :P

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  5. I saw this as a sort of double feature with Machete and I feel like I need a cigarette. It’s difficult to remember that i don’t even care for Salman when he goes to town like this. And really, he’s the only one who can these days.

    You can add me to the Sonakshi chorus – and I truly appreciated that she didn’t suddenly start to simper and trill some song about how the grass is green and take a swing in the middle of a field. I didn’t expect them to make her the grimmest character in the movie and girl carries it off. I half-expected her to cotton on to Chulbul’s guilty conscience and pop him one.

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  6. thr film reads from left to right as

    **unbearable crap**
    sonakshi(who looks like moushmi chatterjjee)
    **more unbearable crap**

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  7. AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.

    Thats almost orgasmic pleasure – cannot bloody wait. I just wish i was in the old-fashioned Regal in Connaught Circus to watch this.

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  8. and you got the meaning of sonakshis love dialog wrong. I heard it more as ‘im not afraid of YOUR slaps I’m scared of YOUR loveL thus bringing home the power differential in a cop wooing a defenseless village girl in lawless bihar.

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  9. I think the thing that makes Dabang works is the harmony of three elements coming together : The real life persona whimsical and quirky persona of Salman, the equally quixotic on screen persona replete with a moustache and a name like Chulbul Pandey and finally the script, which not only harnesses the above two personae of Salman, but also seems to going for a quirky note even when Salman is not on the screen.
    So, there is no other mood that we are allowed to dwell on for a significant amount of time – the sombre moments are allowed to pass through unmilked , I did not even feel any sense of pathos on the death of the mother, because it all felt like a nautanki, as you rightly say, and I was waiting for Robinhood Pandey to come along and play the next quixotic scene.
    In fact, this film plays like set pieces chained together to showcase Salman Khan + Robinhood Pandey and this is why it is so much fun because it does not take itself too seriously.
    I think in Bollywood, the actors are the auteurs instead of the directors, and this is Salman’s note; if he can channel his inner quirkiness he has a template for hits, just like Akshay continues to channel his goofiness in film after film.

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  10. Also, forgot to add, Anupam Kher’s death, which was supposed to be a tragic scene, the director couldn’t resist striking a quirky note with a nod to “The case of exploding mangoes” :)

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  11. Gradwolf: Oh, I thought Main Hoon Na was constructed in a more tongue-in-cheek manner (you know, with deliberately winking references to older films), while this one is a straighforward masala movie that channels the general spirit of those films without doffing a hat to them in particular. It’s like Singam and stuff, but with a real director at the helm. But I agree. Till the Suneil Shetty portions in the end, MHN is bliss.

    BTW, looked up my Singam piece, and found that I could have used this line in this review too: “Unlike the metro-centric Kaakha Kaakha, where Suriya’s cop was an urban creature plagued by bereavement and betrayal, the small-town policeman of Singam is always on top, always two steps ahead. That’s the fun of the film, its unashamed courting of the mass audience, its unapologetic celebration of the hero as one of them.” I wonder why many people expressed a dislike for Singam. I thought it was one of the best Tamil masala movies of recent times. Though after Dabangg, I wonder what it’d be like if a director who’s more than just a good technician (like Selvaraghavan, say) steps up to make a hardcore masala movie in Tamil.

    Amrita: “I didn’t expect them to make her the grimmest character in the movie and girl carries it off…” That’s what really surprised me. I can’t remember the last time a heroine in a masala movie was treated like an actual character, and written in such a low-key fashion. Also agree about the point about Salman. I’m not a fan in general, but this is exactly his kind of role (as Rahul notes) and no one else can pull it off in Bollywood.

    Rahul: Terrific comment. But I’m not with you about Akshay’s goofiness — not a fan at all. Then again, the Akshay films I’ve kinda enjoyed (Tashan, CC2C) have all bombed, while the ones I’ve hated (Namastey London, Singh is Kingg) have all worked big-time :-) BTW, “The case of exploding mangoes” LOL!

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  12. wdis

    that comment amuses me.

    i dont hate the film i just think its full of unbearable crap.

    ( re nri ^$%&, as opposed to muliplex watching big cinema script submitting wannabe S%$t?)

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  13. lets do a defense of my dabangg diss.

    first off, you need not be offensive to cater to a rural audience(or a mofussil one). they can tolerate your ugliness if theres a point to your film. a film like dabangg will work in the cities because it will let cockups watching here laugh at the salman khan type people from the b and c centers, but it will work in moffussil centers only ONCE. after this, between copycat films patronizing the audience and the rurals wising up about how they have been taken advantage of, dabangg will only serve to cleave the indian audience sharply between single and multi screen films and filmmakers.

    Thats awesome if you are a maker of multiplex films, you can protect your audience more easily, but it will get progressively more difficult for single screeners to reach across to city audiences.

    Dabangg is regressive in its structure. salim khan is trying to reinvent the seventies from the multiplex 2000s. that horse bolted long ago.

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  14. Aweseome awesome review…..will def’ly watch this one…didn’t expect the Sinha girl to whip up such a performance…my bad i guess of jumping the gun…..

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  15. Couldn’t agree with you…i thought the film tried to be a throwback to seventies cinema and kept committing the mistakes which underlines seventies Hindi cinema. There were too many side stories (in order to pay tribute to all the seventies stereotypes) for e.g. the ailing mother, the one sided stepfather, the heroine’s drunk father, the step brother gone wrong but comes around by the climax etc. But frankly very few of these characters had an emotional attachment to the actual story. If some of these characters and some of the redundant songs (the one in Dubai, the one inside the jail etc.) were taken out the film would have been much shorter and consequently much better. For a long time before and after the interval I was wondering what had happened to the film. It just wasn’t moving. One such tribute film comes to mind – “Kung Fu Hustle” such a short and entertaining film. When would Hindi cinema learn not to equate the value of entertainment with the amount of time spent in the theater?

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  16. Agree with your assessment co completely. After barking up the wrong tree many times before, with your undeserved support for films like CCTC, Drona, Jhoom Bara Bar Jhoom and Tashan as the torchbearers of contemporary masala cinema, here at last you have recognized the real article. And you are one of the very few who have recognized the value Sonakshi adds to the equation and her USP.

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  17. Utkal Mohanty: I’m indeed blessed that such worthy souls as you are around to guide me about which trees to bark up against and which not to. Thank you. Do visit again.

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  18. BR, I am not sold on Akshay myself. In fact I have watched only one of the movies that you have listed i.e. NL. My point was that he has been able to build an extremely successful career on the basis of his one note onscreen persona. (Or does he do anything else?)

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  19. Did you watch boss engira bhaskar? I thought it was a fun watch though not as good as SMS. Some of the comedy seemed forced in this movie.

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  20. hi asha

    (were you ever on IMDB?)

    I haven’t read oro’ s review because I may want to review it after I see it..

    regs..

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  21. Not being from T.Nadu, I have seen only one of Rajnikanth’s films..Shivaji..Dabangg reminded me a lot of that..actually my sister and I were saying Rajnikant meets Kamalahassan meets Clint Eastwood meets Keanu Reaves..and oh, i forgot the HULK..you get the trend?

    But we enjoyed the movie thoroughly

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  22. Hi Brangan,
    “(The breakdown of his wedding ceremony is among the more bizarre aspects of the film.”

    My friend from Haryana explained this to me as the caste angle in film. As Pandeys and presumably Master ji were upper class and Rajjo was potter ( Kumahaar in UP). So Master ji was shocked to see lower caste girl getting married to Pandey. There was scene before where Salman explains to girl’s father about his upper caste.

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  23. Siva: yes, i did. I didn’t care for SMS at all. this was somewhat better, thanks hugely to santhanam.

    Gaurav: Ah, thanks. I got that Salman was upper caste, but I didn’t associate Sonakshi’s pottery with her actually being from that caste. Now that scene makes sense.

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  24. Siva: Boss being better than SMS makes me wonder if we both saw two different movies! This was definitely better, thanks especially to Santhanam who seemed a lot more energetic and in his “elements” in this compared to SMS.

    Baradwaj: Are you writing about it in this week’s Between Reviews?

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  25. Gaurav: Thanks for that explanation. I also can understand why the director (or editor?) glossed over it so as to not affect the mood of the movie.

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  26. @Siva

    What are you saying! SMS was horrible to say the least, with Santhanam being the saving grace. And saw Boss yesterday which I thought was infinitely better. Again Santhanam steals the show and I thought the difference between SMS and Boss is Santhanam’s screen time.

    And in the last few days I’ve discovered several SMS lovers. Inexplicable!

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  27. Padawan: No, this week I have something of a obituary going on. Maybe next week.

    Gradwolf: There are SMS “lovers”? You’re making this up, right? :-)

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  28. No, I was not. Why do you ask?
    BTW, I keep coming back to your work. My husband says I am stalking you. Amongst other qualities, I admire the restraint with which you write. Case in point — your Firaaq review. You were subtle and yet so much was said on the difficult and sometimes ambiguous role of films(and its critics)
    Good writing on Indian cinema is such a rare treat.
    Asha

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  29. ok asha?

    Rameshram and brannigan..different people!

    rameshram does new releases and international film as well as some bollywood(and politics and photography and technology at rameshram.wordpress.com ™ brannigan is an indian critic kannukkutti and overall illayaraja fan on this site.

    I asked about imdb..because I used to know someone with a good grasp of old hindi songs from there. Called asha

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  30. BR,
    Me too enjoyed the film (though not a fan of Salman) similar to enjoying Govinda’s or Rajini’s movies — laughing at the “audacity” of the scenes playing………….. it was quite entertaining. Looks like on the way to become a huge hit paving way for Dabaang-2!

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  31. What is this “SMS” movie everyone is talking about ? Is this the Jiiva movie “Siva Meets Subbulakshmi” or something like that ?

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  32. Not just mood. I think its to escape Censor’s scissors also. I read somewhere Censor snipped some explicit caste references in Love Sex aur Dhokha.

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  33. ^^ Siva Manasula Sakthi :)

    Oh, and BR, i remember you saying something about Dev D’s music and i paraphrase, “Amit Trivedi’s score is so awesome that it is sure to be overlooked in the next National Awards”.

    Apparently not. Hope is restored.
    :)

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  34. Venkatesh: Siva Manasula Sakthi

    @BR: No, not kidding. There are people who thought SMS was good fun. I was quite irritated with the movie when I watched and can’t really explain now because I don’t remember much from the movie!

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  35. @BR: I haven’t seen Dabaang yet, but going by the recent reviews from critics like yourself, it seems that the trend of treating hard-core masala as good entertainment has come back. I remember the early Govinda movies being treated as crap until he suddenly became “cool” with the critics and it was considered hip to watch his movies in multiplexes. Poor Govinda had to continue acting like the Govinda everyone wanted to see, with the same antics in movie after movie – no one cared for the movie name as long as it was a generic Govinda movie.Interestingly no other Indian actor has got such a generic ouevre named after them!
    I do hope that this doesn’t become a trend with every other hero trying his hand at making homage-to-the-seventies movies. They’ll get burnt badly..

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  36. yadu: You seem to have the impression that “hard-core masala” is not “good entertainment.” I think differently. What does a film aim/want to do, and does it do it well? By that yardstick, IMO, this is a good entertainer.

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  37. BR: Far from it, I love good masala. I was only commenting that the general trend of critics used to be to skewer movies like these for being illogical and over-the-top. Now it seems as if folks are getting more tolerant. If the movie makers assume this to be generic acceptance, then we are done for as they would make more movies in the generic mode..

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  38. Finally was able to watch ‘Dabangg’ – agree with your assessment on the whole (esp. the Arbaaz Khan part) but I liked it less than you did – cannot pinpoint why – I’ll just blame Arbaaz Khan for it!
    I thought Sonakshi Sinha looked like Reena Roy…………wonder why!!! But the only reason I would see the movie again would be her.

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  39. I just skimmed through your post.

    IMO, it’s just a cheesy, cheesy super masalafied movie that’s successful for 3 reasons:

    1. South Indians
    2. The audience that would appreciate punchy dialogues and the mass style of the movie.
    3. The “intellectuals” who watch it ONLY to get a laugh out of it, because it’s “so bad that it’s good” fun.

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  40. Well – “and she’s thankfully filled out with pleasing curves;” – not anymore apparently – she is going to become another “generic” actress , she is on one of those serious weight loss programs.

    Tragic.

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