Review: Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag

Posted on September 2, 2007


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The only thing good about this wretched retread of ‘Sholay’ is that it makes you remember the glorious original all over again.

SEPT 2, 2007 – THE LITIGIOUS TENDENCIES of the Sippy family apart, Ram Gopal Varma claims he chose to name his Sholay-remake Aag because that could be the title of your average, disreputable, vendetta-themed potboiler from the seventies or the eighties. And as you sit through Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag, it becomes increasingly – and disturbingly – clear that that’s all he thought Sholay was: a generic, dacoit-land revenge saga, possibly the kind that would have made it into one of those Indrajal Comics featuring the homegrown hero Bahadur. Because the basic one-liner sketch of Sholay is simply this: Bad Guy polishes off Good Guy’s family. Good Guy hires a couple of Bahadur-equivalents to bring down Bad Guy. Period.

But you know and I know and everyone (except, apparently, Ram Gopal Varma) knows that when it comes to Sholay, its story is so not the point. What Ramesh Sippy crafted, along with Salim-Javed, wasn’t a great movie so much as an unstoppable train of great characters and great moments that retroactively added up to a great movie. There’s very little organic greatness in Sholay. It’s a cheerfully unapologetic pastiche of bits from – among others – Once Upon a Time in the West, Mera Gaon Mera Desh and that genius Kishore Kumar vehicle Half Ticket, and even the staunchest of its defenders would be hard-pressed today to conceal an embarrassed smile at some of its more dated conceits, like the climactic image of Sanjeev Kumar single-handedly (rather, single-leggedly) bringing down Amjad Khan’s dreaded dacoit with a lethal combination of flying kicks and a fixed expression that suggests not rage so much as acute constipation.

And yet, each time Sholay shows up on TV, we can’t tear our eyes away – and that’s because of scenes such as the one where AK Hangal’s Imam sahib discovers that his son (played by Sachin, who contributes a cameo in Aag as well) has been killed. The way this sequence spools out is a master class in masala-movie screenwriting. Just a little earlier, we’ve seen Sachin reluctantly take leave of his aged, blind father, and now, as his horse returns to the village of Ramgarh with its lifeless rider (who’s been murdered by Gabbar Singh), we already feel for Imam sahib. After all, the son didn’t want to go; it’s the father who forced him to take up a lucrative job in a beedi factory in another town, and it’s during the travel to that other town that the boy met his untimely end.

And the scene keeps building. A crowd gathers. Jai and Veeru haul the body off the horse, just as Imam sahib joins them and breaks down. Kashiram reads out a note from Gabbar, which says that unless Jai and Veeru surrender, there will be many more such deaths. The terrified villagers urge Thakur to see reason. And then, Thakur lifts what has so far been standard-issue melodrama into the realm of myth. He issues a rallying cry, pointing out that down the ages – “Yug yug se…” – people have fought back against tyrants, and such efforts have always involved an element of sacrifice.

But the villagers are still unconvinced. They protest, “Hum is musibat ka bojh nahin utha sakte,” that they can’t bear this burden anymore. And then comes the stunning closure to the scene, the big bang that releases the slow-fuse tension that’s been building all along. Without raising his voice, Imam sahib rebukes the cowering villagers by reminding them of what he’s just lost, saying that if he is willing to support Thakur, the others had no business opposing him. And look how beautifully he puts this thought across, by picking up on the word bojh that was tossed around barely a moment ago: “Jaante ho duniya ka sabse bada bojh kya hota hai? Baap ke kandhon par bete ka janaaza.”

That, among other things, is what Sholay is about – not just the plot, but magnificently sculpted dialogue like this one, and the one that Jai utters when Veeru considers giving up a life of petty thievery by buying a plot of land in Ramgarh and taking up farming. (But how will they farm, Veeru wonders, considering that they don’t know the first thing about wielding a plough. And Jai responds, with a casual dash of existential philosophy, “Buraai ne bandook chalaana sikha di thi… neki hal chalaana sikha degi,” that if their opting for a life of crime had taught them how to handle a gun, their choosing the good path would automatically guide them in their new career.)

We often laugh at masala movies, and if we can appreciate them anymore, it appears to be purely from a retro-kitsch angle. But consider how, in that Imam sahib scene, a simple moment of conflict and tragedy has been elevated to deeply affecting popular art. And when Ram Gopal Varma expressed his admiration for Sholay – he’s apparently seen it dozens of times – these were the things you thought he’d pick up on, the things he wanted to repackage for a new generation. You thought he’d show us what we’re missing in our mainstream cinema, by going back to – among other things – the way songs were used in Sholay, which was a virtual textbook on the various genres of the Hindi film song. (The happy and sad versions of the friendship song, the festival song, the item number, the keep-the-clock-ticking-till rescue-arrives dance in the villain’s den, and the roothna-manaana song, with the hero pacifying the cross heroine.)

And you thought he’d take a fresh look at the relationships. You thought, perhaps, that he’d refashion the friendship between Veeru and Jai (now Heero and Raj, played by a tired Ajay Devgan and stony-faced newcomer Prashant Raj) into the sort of male-bonding better suited to our more cynical times, where not even soul mates burst into the kind of lyrics in Yeh dosti. (I mean, Tera gham mera gham, meri jaan teri jaan, aisa apna pyaar?) These revisionist touches, we thought, would compensate for the fact that Aag could never hope to reach, say, the rhetorical heights of its predecessor. (Because for one, no one writes dialogue like that anymore. And even if they did, no one apparently wants to listen to them anymore. Film is a visual medium, we’re constantly reminded these days, as if it weren’t an integrated audio-visual experience.)

But Varma isn’t interested in any of this. His characters are a joke. His screenplay is not much more than an exercise in spot-the-corresponding-scene-in-Sholay. (That’s why this review of Aag is filled with recollections from Sholay. When the filmmaker can’t stop invoking the earlier film, how can the viewer?) His dialogues are drowned out by the unbearably loud background score (which incorporates reworked versions of RD Burman’s evocative themes from the original). And save for a Holi-revelry number – staged like the one in Nayakan, with rain and bleached colours and surging, free-spirited multitudes (surrounding the hapless, fish-out-of-water Mohanlal, who plays the Thakur equivalent) – his song picturisations are a horrific blur of tacky skin show and terrible choreography.

And you want to ask Varma: This is your idea of a masala movie, simply because it’s a mix of various seemingly-incompatible elements? There’s a reason films like Sholay are labelled masala, and that’s because the best of them are a perfect blend of these elements. When you saw Sholay, you got not just the dialogues and the songs, you also got a revenge drama with equal doses of comedy, friendship and romance, along with a more-than-cursory nod to the textures of the society around. (What is Jaya Bhaduri’s widow-in-white if not a symbol of the complications of losing a husband in a feudal setup? And what is it if not a celebration of pluralism that Imam sahib is included in the celebration of the Hindu festival of colours?)

It’s telling in Aag that its heroes move from Nasik to the generic gangster-land of Mumbai, thus reversing the anonymous-big-city-to-comforting-Ramgarh trajectory of the heroes in Sholay – for at least in the movies, save for a Lagaan here or a Swades there, India doesn’t live in the villages anymore. So okay, we’ve made our peace with that. But why, then, remake Sholay so faithfully that even the constructs that depended on the rural setting to fully work are retained? Sushmita Sen plays the widow in Aag, but in today’s Mumbai, all things considered, how could this character carry the emotional wallop that Jaya Bhaduri’s did in Sholay?

And that’s why the hysterically over-stylised Aag becomes just another guns-and-gangsters saga. It is brave of Varma, in this current cinematic culture not exactly conducive to the masala movie, to update one of the best examples of the genre (which isn’t quite the right word in this context, for the masala movie wouldn’t be a masala movie if it weren’t a conflation of a number of genres). And if his acknowledgement of the heyday of the masala movie – in the form of nods to Amar Akbar Anthony and Kabhi Kabhie – is any indication, he does seem genuinely fond of that kind of cinema.

But he’s too ambitious to do what Subhash Ghai did with Karma, which was to simply retell the Sholay story in a solidly comforting mainstream format. (And, for a minute, let’s try and forget Dharmesh Darshan’s awful woman-centric spin with Mela.) Varma appears to be mining for subtext in Aag. In Sholay, when Veeru teaches Basanti how to handle a gun, it’s because she’s trying to pick raw mangoes from branches her extended arms cannot reach. It’s to shoot down the mangoes. But in Aag, this shooting practice occurs due to Ghungroo’s (the Basanti character, played intolerably by Nisha Kothari) fascination with guns. It’s as if Varma is choosing this film – of all times – to wink at the gun culture we live in.

But this is nothing compared to how he conceives Babban Singh (the Gabbar Singh update, played by Amitabh Bachchan with a huge appetite for chewing up all the scenery in sight). Varma makes Babban an extremely modern (and therefore non-mythical, and non-masala-movie) embodiment of evil, someone who muses that the innocents that die at his hands are no different from those that die at the hands of America or the Al-Qaeda. This villain isn’t a simple bogeyman who’s stepped out of our darkest imagination; he’s very much a part of the complex reality around us, for when Babban escapes from jail, it’s thanks to the complicity of the all-too-corrupt police.

These updated touches may be Varma’s nods to the textures of the society around us today, but they cannot save a film that fails at the most basic level – by not giving us a story to get involved in, with characters to care about. It’s occasionally fun to watch certain scenes, like the one where Amitabh Bachchan plays the harmonica, and get all meta about the fact that he played the instrument in the earlier film too, but as a different character. But when it comes to something really important, when one of the heroes dies at the end, you barely register the loss. You’re supposed to be shedding big, fat masala-movie tears about the premature death of a beautiful friendship – yeh dosti and all that – and instead you heave a sigh of relief that this interminable travesty of a remake is finally coming to a close. Aag isn’t masala; it’s a mess.

Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi