LOST ACTION HERO
Abhishek Bachchan finds his true self in a lushly imagined, if somewhat generic, fantasy. Plus, a woefully silly thriller.
OCT 5, 2008 – THIRTY YEARS AGO, DRONA WOULD HAVE BEEN a perfect vehicle for Amitabh Bachchan. Strip away the elements of myth, of fantasy, and you’ll unearth the story of a normal guy who battles both his own demons as well as a demonic villain in order to avenge what’s been done to his parents. When I caught the promos of Goldie Behl’s film and noted that Abhishek Bachchan (playing Aditya, who transforms into Drona) barely cracks a smile, I wondered why – but now I think I know. Bachchan Sr., in those movies, wasn’t exactly a happy man either, and his brooding scowl alerted us to the crosses he had to bear. Here too, what Bachchan Jr. is asked to do is become a reluctant hero – not a superhero in the crime-fighting Superman or Batman mould, but more of an ordinary hero who begins to discover in himself unknown reserves of strength when he holds in his hand a teardrop shed by his mother. (Jaya Bachchan takes over the Nirupa Roy duties here, and the lullaby that she sings is the film’s musical motif, featuring most prominently when the villain meets his justly deserved end at the hands of her son.)
The reason this film about an ordinary hero looks like one about a superhero is that it’s set in a world that’s far from ordinary, a fantasy universe borrowed primarily from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the Harry Potter adventures. The crux of Drona revolves around a plot point not unlike the one about the knights of the Crusades guarding the secret of the Holy Grail – the title of this film, therefore, isn’t a name arbitrarily picked from the Mahabharata for its coolness quotient; it actually means something – plus Aditya is a put-upon orphan who lives with a Dursley-like family and who discovers, on a fateful birthday, that he’s not what he thought he was. So if you wanted to be really cynical, you could accuse Behl of doing nothing more than taking his favourite bits from these books and films, tossing them into a blender and garnishing the mix with elements from fantasy film and fiction down the years.
But this is no lazy rehash. If anything, Drona comes off as the work of a fan who wants to reimagine the very things he’s a fan of – and Behl does this with the help of a superb behind-the-scenes team that appears attuned to his vision to an extent that collaborators rarely are, unless the director is, say, a Sanjay Leela Bhansali. This is a gorgeously mounted production, whose eye candy value alone is worth the price of entry, but it’s not just money that’s been thrown at the screen – it’s also imagination, which is far more precious. It’s not just the big effects sequences that seek out your attention – the dazzling animated stretches; the whorl of stones sinking into desert sand as it reveals the mystery in its midst; the stormy visual of Aditya’s forefathers whispering to him their secrets while he is reborn as a saviour – but the tiny details, like the hero’s steed bearing on its neck a tattoo of a blue conch that forms a part of the quest. Behl and his writers have conjured up a fully-formed, fully-connected alternate universe where even the scar that Drona is left with after being disfigured by the villain mirrors the scar his mother bore, and where a sequence with the villain and his clone is counterpointed with one where the hero faces a ghostly doppelganger. (Pop psychology students could tie themselves up for years deconstructing these moments.)
For all the conceptual-level detailing, however, Drona remains a somewhat generic construction, an extremely simple good-versus-evil saga – the hero’s costume is white, the villain’s is black – and it doesn’t resonate enough to reach greatness. I wished, for instance, that Aditya’s first run-in with the evil Riz Raizada (Kay Kay Menon) had been more memorable, a more worthy prelude to the clashes that follow. But the surreal, almost whimsical tone of individual scenes more than make up for this overall lack of distinctiveness, especially whenever Menon is on screen. As in the Harry Potter series, the sidekicks are more interesting than the dour protagonist, and it’s a relief that Abhishek’s study in monochrome (however necessary) is contrasted with an antagonist who practically explodes in technicolour. With a coif that resembles a rooster comb crossed with a Mohawk, and with an index finger fitted with an instrument of death that looks about as sinister as a pointy thimble, Menon is deliciously campy, never more so than when manipulating a couple of puppets that appear to function as some sort of conscience.
And Priyanka Chopra finally gets the opportunity to atone for her multitude of sins in that other fantasy, Krrish. She plays Sonia, Drona’s bodyguard and, by my count, she actually outstrips him in the action department. (How I wish she hadn’t been saddled with that silly Oop cha number, though it’s a blessing that there’s very little by way of a romantic track. The closest we get to a love scene is when Aditya and Sonia dispatch a bunch of bad guys attired like Ringwraiths and lock eyes while swinging silently on a length of rope.) Except for the climactic swordfight, where Drona takes on his nemesis, Sonia is the one shielding her man from harm, helping him in his quest by clearing the scenery of the villains baying for his blood. Where Bachchan Sr. fought his battles – internal and external – with no help from anyone else, and certainly not his heroines, Bachchan Jr., fortunately, exists in an era where it’s not considered emasculating to ask your girlfriend to chip in with a few well-timed wire-fu moves. Now that’s the kind of thing that makes a hero super, if you think about it.
THE QUESTION WHOSE THRILLING ANSWER we’re meant to anticipate in Sanjay Gadhvi’s Kidnap is clearly whether a tired Sanjay Dutt will manage to extricate his daughter from the clutches of a kidnapper, but the real poser may well turn out to be this: Will Minissha Lamba’s cleavage distract audiences from a script so preposterous, a David Dhawan enterprise would appear, in comparison, a model of clear, calm logic? Minissha (who plays Sonia, Dutt’s daughter) gets going with a song sequence where the choreographer’s instruction was simply to arch the back and hug the hands together, at all times, as tightly as possible. She goes on to a scene where she confronts her mother (a hapless Vidya Malvade) at the breakfast table, attired in clothes more appropriate for an item number. And after being kidnapped and being held in a sparsely furnished hideout, she demonstrates her resourcefulness by somehow stumbling into Huma Khan’s wardrobe. At one point, her father, who hasn’t set eyes on Sonia since she was a child, appraises her and appreciatively exclaims, “You’re looking so grown up,” and you’re not entirely sure he’s referring to her age.
But however your twisted mind interprets that statement, there’s at least something about her that points towards adulthood, which is more than can be said for Imran Khan. The actor tries on a variety of scowls and stares and grimaces, but nothing can shake off the disquieting impression that he’d rather be out by Aditi’s side, consoling her about the loss of her cat. But part of the problem is also that he’s playing a ridiculous character with a ridiculous motive (that’s revealed far too early), who does ridiculous things (like taking Sonia to the wide open sea when she says she needs to bathe; cue more cleavage) and goes about setting a ridiculous series of clues that Dutt has to decipher if he wants his daughter back. Some of the tasks Dutt is expected to perform are so insanely dangerous, they seem more suited to a crack officer of a SWAT unit rather than the portly, wealthy global Indian that he plays, with a net worth of $51.7 billion. But at least he has all that money to unwind with after these mortally gruelling two-and-a-half hours. What about us?
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