The expectations for an Abbas-Mustan movie are usually so low that if the film keeps you awake you may come away saying that it was some kind of success – but nothing prepared me for the dazzling mix of style and substance in Race 2. Not since Hitchcock made To Catch A Thief, almost sixty years ago, has star power been so decadently, so purposefully yoked to a suspense story. When we see ridiculously good-looking people embroiled in sweaty struggles on screen, we watch them with a smirk. There is a streak in us that demands that only the average lookers – the unremarkable people who do not appear on magazine covers and who make up most of the world – be engaged in exotic quests, whether for riches or romance or revenge, because in identifying with them, a part of the wish-fulfillment rubs off on us. But the “director duo” – that very moniker is funnier than most of what passes for humour in their films – have somehow pulled off a thriller where we root for the beautiful people. Walking out, I thought, “How did they do this?”
At all other times, I was thinking: “Will my readers buy the above paragraph?” There’s my stab at the trademark twist that informs every Abbas-Mustan movie, which are getting increasingly bad. This is how I imagine the siblings spent their childhood – getting bored with an illustrated version of Little Red Riding Hood, and entertaining themselves with the notion that the wolf was really the grandmother in a mask, out to avenge herself on a son who banished her to a lousy cottage in the woods. How much better that sounds, especially when you have Zeenat Aman playing the old lady. Okay, so she isn’t an old lady anymore. She’s a hottie. And the forest isn’t a forest anymore. It’s a chateau in Gstaad. And let’s make the woodcutter a billionaire with a six-pack. He saves the little girl – after all, Indian audiences don’t like to see bad things happen to children – but he also reforms the grandmother and sings songs with her and marries her – only to discover that he forgot to sign a prenup. Cut to many decades later, and we’re faced with endless variations on this philosophy.
An early development in Race 2 centres on a deal, in Istanbul, between Mafia tycoon Armaan Malik (John Abraham) and casino czar Vikram Thapar (Rajesh Khattar). Millons of euros are at stake, and yet, the scene begins with Armaan’s half sister Elena (Deepika Padukone) climbing out of a pool, in slow motion. She heads to the pool chair between the men, and fusses with her wrap, arranging her long limbs to her satisfaction. Time stops for a while. And then, realising that there’s still a deal to be made, we get a hasty insert of a document being signed. Every scene is similar. The point isn’t the plot. It’s the people who appear to be in the middle of a photo shoot while the plot unfolds around them. And the exposure is equal-opportunity. Why, we may wonder, does Ranveer Singh (Saif Ali Khan) make his entrance by the beach, and why does Armaan come with a backstory that includes street fighting? So that these painstakingly chiseled heroes can go shirtless, of course. Even the decidedly less-chiseled Vikram Thapar gets a nude scene, his posterior thankfully pixelated – and all he’s doing is heading to a safe-deposit vault to inspect his… Coin purse? Family jewels? The jokes write themselves.
It’s not polite to reveal the plot in these films, so let’s just say that it unravels along these lines. Someone does you wrong. You want revenge. So you make plans to steal the dome of the Taj Mahal. But only after a lot of singing and dancing, sometimes with backup dancers dressed like the devil – literally, with red horns. There’s also a scorpion skittering across a mountain-hugging road in North Cyprus. Some sort of metaphor, I suppose. Because it carries a sting in its tail? Because, in the film’s latter half, a character is poisoned? Because, like Saif, its name begins with an ‘S’? Who knows? Meanwhile, Elena cheats in card games with the aid of microchip-enhanced sunglasses, though everyone knows that the real reason for the appearance of this accessory is so that Ranveer can inspect it and park it in its rightful place, in the midst of her décolletage.
With no panache or propulsion – we have to wait till interval point until someone says, “Let the race begin” – why do these films become so popular? Are these movies, with their opportunities for infinite star-gazing, simply an indoor approximation of astronomy? Or does the attraction lie in the deluxe what-if scenarios in a world run by desis, with white men and women reduced to lackeys and item-number extras? Or is it the pull of a Bollywood universe that no longer has any use for distinctions between good and evil? Elena shoots down a man in a nightclub (and yes, she replaces the gun in a holster strapped high up a thigh) – not because she wants to save herself from his advances or because he’s bad, but simply because he didn’t consent to a business proposal. And this murderess (how positively Victorian that term sounds today!) is our heroine, destined for happily-ever-after with our hero.
No one is required to perform or even give a halfway-decent line reading. When Elena, driving her expensive car, exclaims, “Gaadi ke neeche bomb hai,” Deepika Padukone seems more cross about an unexpected annoyance, like a chipped nail before the prom, than worried that her life may be about to end. But maybe this is the only way to get through these films, where Anil Kapoor plays a sexist, fruit-loving ex-cop who claims that mangoes are named mangoes because “man goes… aadmi jaata hai… kaam se.” And this is, by no means, the worst bit of dialogue. Not when Omisha (Jacqueline Fernandez) is around to whisper, “Men are many but money is money.” She’s probably echoing the wisdom of the directors, who, anticipating a big hit, leave the door open for another installment. On to Race 3, then, where, by the film’s end, Saif Ali Khan is revealed to be the heroine’s father. Only, he’s still a hottie.
Copyright ©2013 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.