Dharmendra returns with a solid boxing melodrama whose sincerity goes a long way in alleviating its stuffiness.
JULY 1, 2007 – WHEN I SAY Apne is a good movie, I mean that it’s a good movie of the kind that’s often derisively labelled a single-screen movie. It is, in other words, an utter anachronism in this multiplex age, meant only for those with either the patience or the stomach – preferably a bit of both – to sit through a near-mythical, Old Bollywood narrative (as is typically the case with films starring a member of the Deol family) in which we know the protagonist (Dharmendra) is a strong man simply because his name is Baldev. Early on, as he’s cycling through the mustard fields of his homeland, he stops when he sees a kid who has missed the school bus. The child hops on, and you think Baldev is going to drop him off at school – but what happens is that Baldev keeps pedalling, overtakes the bus, stops right in front, and helps the child get aboard and join his classmates. That’s the kind of bal this Baldev has. We also know he is a traditionalist because he’s named his sons after characters from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (Sunny Deol’s Angad and Bobby Deol’s Karan respectively), and the fact that Baldev is a son of the soil is borne out in his marriage to a woman named after one of the five rivers of the Punjab (Raavi, played by Kirron Kher with her customary dignity).
All of this would usually point to Baldev being one of those impossibly perfect people, a Model Indian, but – and this is where Apne gets interesting – Baldev is hardly a saint. He is a boxer – there, that strength thing again – who won a silver medal at the Olympics, and was later banned from the sport after being framed under doping charges. And this has made him a bit of a monster – the kind of well-meaning monster that overambitious, overenthusiastic parents often turn into when they look to their children to fulfill their unrealised dreams. Baldev had his hopes pinned on Angad, but the latter – after becoming National Champion – opted out of boxing for a more lucrative career in business, and Baldev hasn’t forgiven Angad for this betrayal. It doesn’t matter to him that Angad has built for his joint family a huge home and provided them every possible comfort. In one of Baldev’s least appealing moments, he bursts out that all this could have come later, that (even without Angad’s earnings) he could have still afforded to give his family the proverbial do waqt ki roti, that honour comes before happiness. And Baldev carries this grudge around like a giant chip on his shoulder. He’s nice to everyone else – even the auto driver who drops him home one night, to whom he gives an extra large tip and the remainder of the whiskey he’s been drinking – but his elder son.
Actors of a certain age – and of a certain screen image – choose their comeback roles with great care, attempting to give audiences the very things that they once loved about their hero, and it is to Dharmendra’s credit that his first major part in a considerable while has him playing someone so angsty, so borderline-insufferable. (Idealism being what it is today, he must have certainly known that viewers would identify more with the pragmatic Angad.) And things only get worse when younger son Karan takes up the challenge of fulfilling his father’s dream of making a Hindustani a world champion. (Bobby could have surely put in a few hours at the gym; once his shirt comes off in the ring, it looks as if his training diet was less about protein bars than potato chips. Also, his transformation from pop singer belting out Himesh Reshammiya’s terrible tunes to World Championship-quality boxer is tossed off with alarming casualness.) When Karan’s doctor-girlfriend (a surprisingly effective Katrina Kaif) advises him to take it easy after a particularly painful training session – he has a weak left arm – Karan replies that the pain he feels is nothing compared to his father’s. Baldev, overhearing this, proudly announces to his best friend (Victor Banerjee, slipping very comfortably into masala-movie mode) that Karan is a good son. It never occurs to Baldev that if he were a good father, he’d be more concerned about Karan’s well-being.
And yet, it’s impossible to entirely hate Baldev when you learn that he used to work in a steel factory and coach Angad in his spare time, which left him with very little sleep. Apne seems to suggest that Baldev, perhaps, is entitled to his petulance after all his sacrifices, however misguided they may have been. This texture in the characterisation is the thing that sets Apne apart from the likes of, say, Baghban or Baabul, those other Old Bollywood narratives that smugly spun their stories around one-note characters. I was especially reminded of all the ways that Baghban went wrong when I saw what they’d done with the mother here. Raavi is no glamour queen like Hema Malini; she is the lumpy glue that holds her dysfunctional joint family together. (There is, however, a bit of compensation in the fact that the other mother in this movie – Angad’s wife – is played by Shilpa Shetty, who, clearly, is some sort of computer-generated creature; I mean, that stature, those curves… surely they couldn’t belong to a mere human being!) If Baldev stays in Angad’s house, despite all his resentment towards his elder son, it is on Raavi’s insistence. And in an early scene, when Angad bends to touch his father’s feet, Baldev’s palm hovers in the air while making the appropriate gesture, as if he couldn’t bear to touch his son even to bless him, and the no-nonsense Raavi, by his side, places her hand on his and forces it down on Angad’s back. It’s a beautiful little tribute to motherhood, all the more beautiful for its offhandedness.
A good story, solid characterisations, strong motivations, a very serviceable cast (even if Dharmendra, at times, appears a bit rusty) – that’s more than half the battle won, and if only Anil Sharma had been a better filmmaker, we’d have had ourselves a real rouser of an underdog sporting drama, along the lines of Lagaan or Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar. But even knowing that we’ll have to settle for less – the staging is merely functional, and Sharma doesn’t know when to call it quits, piling up one family crisis after another – the tedium is considerably alleviated by the boxing sequences, which are staged very effectively, with obvious nods to Raging Bull and the Rocky movies (though let’s not forget that another Punjab da puttar, Dara Singh, entered the ring more than a decade before these films, with Boxer). A high-pitched training montage song here – one that goes, You gotta survive/You gotta hit the bullseye – even sounds like Eye of the Tiger from Rocky III. But a more useful frame of reference would be a very desi drama like Naya Daur, which cheered local resourcefulness over foreign savvy. One of Baldev’s protégés defects to an Australian coach, and it’s especially satisfying to see him get pummeled – later – by Karan. The most likeable aspect of Apne is this Indianness, which is a far cry from the jingoism of Sharma’s own Gadar. A fair portion of Apne is set in the US, yet there is none of the NRI-pandering we usually get to see – no putting down of the Americans with broad caricatures, and no chest-beating of our culture with outsize celebrations of Indian tradition. Perhaps Apne doesn’t need any of this because its characters, at heart, are truly Indian, and they don’t need to prove it in any other way than by simply bringing the trophy home.
Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express