Review: Ghajini

Posted on December 27, 2008


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If you’ve seen the Tamil version (and if you don’t suffer from short-term memory loss), this remake has little to offer.

DEC 28, 2008 – AFTER TAARE ZAMEEN PAR, WHERE AAMIR KHAN concealed himself admirably in the shadows until interval point, it wasn’t surprising that, for his next starring role, he’d choose something that would allow the camera to gaze adoringly at him from start to finish. That’s surely a reason for the actor’s interest in playing Sanjay, in the remake of AR Murugadoss’ Tamil potboiler-blockbuster Ghajini. (The latter, in turn, took its cues from Memento, retaining the short-term memory loss gimmick as the basis for a fairly linear revenge thriller and jettisoning the rest – not just the ellipses and the narrative circumlocutions but also the nagging enquiries into the fundamental human desire to get even.)

But there’s more to this decision than just a star’s vanity. There’s also an actor’s opportunity to play the kind of hero practically no one, with the possible exception of Mohit Ahlawat in James, plays anymore. Sanjay is the sort of morally uncomplicated superbeing from what Hindi masala movies used to be (and what Tamil masala movies still are) – a deva, so to speak, to the villain’s asura. (Pradeep Rawat endows this villain with a suitably demonic disposition.) It’s the whole retro thing, but done straight, without the safety net of ironic detachment – and for a Hindi film audience weaned increasingly on overly civilised leading men, more at home with emotions than explosions, you can sense the attraction of the noble savage.

And Sanjay isn’t just a metaphorical savage. He’s a business tycoon who, thanks to a sound-effects enhanced battering on the skull with an iron pipe, lives life in frustrating snatches of fifteen minutes – his mental slate is wiped clean every sixteenth minute – and there are times he appears, quite literally, inhuman. At the film’s beginning, when facing a mirror that reflects merely a physical presence but not a fully formed existential reality, Sanjay’s anguish finds release in a yell that invokes a werewolf serenading a full moon, and towards the end, when he finally locks eyes with the villain who reduced him to this state, his lips part in a feral snarl, held together by little more than flecks of anticipatory foam.

Sanjay is a savage whose brute force can twist a man’s neck so it turns a clean 180 degrees, and perhaps fittingly, the first time we catch a glimpse of this hero, in an action sequence, the feline camera flips a clean 180 degrees and lands lightly on its feet to worship his awesomeness. And yet, he won’t employ force to obtain the woman he loves, and even in these gentler moments – detailed in a charming romantic track with Kalpana (Asin) – Sanjay is someone far removed from the present day. The first time the couple clasps hands, it’s almost by accident, and in anticipation of a happy domesticity as man and woman enter the house they hope to make their home. Sanjay’s savagery is rivalled only by his chivalry.

So, on one level, you can see why the prospect of playing this old-world hero would leave a modern-day chameleon like Aamir Khan salivating – and my initial expectation was that this famously fastidious actor would put his fastidiousness to good use in overhauling the original thrill machine into a vehicle worthy of him. From what we’ve heard about him and his obsession with his craft, I figured he’d turn the world’s libraries inside out – or, at the very least, cause Google to crash – while researching anterograde amnesia (the fancy-pants term for Sanjay’s condition).

I thought he’d figure out a way to explain away the niggling discrepancy of, say, the protagonist apparently thinking in English (which is why the numerous tattoos on his body, which remind him to kill the villain, are all in English), but penning unending journal entries in Hindi. I wondered if, along the way, he’d also tweak the conceit of the hero wielding a Polaroid camera – he takes pictures of people and places so he can recall them after the sixteenth minute, thus giving a new dimension to the term “photographic memory” – to accommodate the infinitely less cumbersome (and mega-memory possessing) digital cameras of today.

But more importantly, I was curious if he’d understand that Memento was about short-term memory loss only so much as The Man in the Iron Mask, to invoke another classically themed revenge saga, was about a fellow whose mug was encased in metal – and that the real point of the film was underscored in an early scene at a café where the protagonist is asked what good his avenging is if he won’t remember, fifteen minutes later, that he has avenged himself. We lower ourselves to the level of animals to do the things we cannot do as humans, but what if this debasement couldn’t provide the closure we needed to resume life as humans again?

But by the end, only a pale shadow of this latter aspect appears to have trickled into the Hindi version (though, to be fair, Murugadoss didn’t address this at all during his first grapple with the material). Finally in the lion’s den, Sanjay cracks his knuckles and breaks the bones of a horde of henchmen, but soon after his exertions leave his opponents in the dust, he stops cold. He’s forgotten what he was doing there in the first place, and the sight of the heap of bodies around him does nothing to remind him. He’s physiologically possessed by a raging fury but psychologically unable to make shape or sense of it – and this is one of the few moments you see what this film could have become had it been driven by Aamir Khan, the actor.

Because mostly otherwise, Ghajini is simply a sleek showcase for Aamir Khan, the star. There is, of course, nothing wrong in a big star wanting to give his faithful audiences the full blast of his big star power – and, quite frankly, that’s the sort of thing that often attracts us to the movies in the first place – but watching the film, I couldn’t help thinking: All this effort, and for this? Had Aamir done Ghajini as a lark, the way he did Fanaa (which, for a while, allowed us bask in the warm wattage of effortless star power, till it turned completely ludicrous), we could have indulgently dismissed it as the kind of trifle even the best of performers has to peddle in order to save himself a seat at the marketplace.

The problem with Ghajini, though, is that it takes itself far too seriously for something so fundamentally silly. It’s not content being a big, trashy B-movie (or perhaps a more truthful way of putting it would be that those of us who expect consistently great things from Aamir Khan are unable to look at it as just a big, trashy B-movie). It wants to make us believe we’re watching something better, something greater, something cleverer than what it actually is – and this inflated sense of its own proportion seeps right through to its protagonist’s frame. Sanjay is so strikingly, so aesthetically bulked up, it’s as if he were jointly conceived by Michelangelo and Talwalkars.

When it’s just another he-man hero flexing the biceps, when it’s a Mithun Chakraborty or Sunny Deol, this would barely register. But when it’s Aamir Khan, you ask if the short-term memory loss somehow managed to leave untouched the brain cells containing the information about his incredible, multi-machine exercise regime, which would surely span several stretches of fifteen minutes. It’s not that Aamir Khan is beyond masala movies today – if anything, a good actor should be able to do anything while still in his prime – but through his choice of roles and films, he’s become one of our few star-actors of whom we demand more, and when we sense something missing, when the actor adds to the flaws in the film instead of helping us gloss over these gaping holes, we transform into crotchety nitpickers.

I suppose those who haven’t seen the Tamil version (or those who have, but are afflicted by, well, you-know-what) would at least have the machinations of the plot or the occasional surprise in a performance to cling on to – but for the rest of us, Ghajini is, scene for scene, moment for moment, practically the same movie, with the same pluses (the romantic portions) and the same minuses (pretty much everything else, including a drearily manipulative subplot about exploited teenage girls).

Aamir Khan plays Sanjay almost exactly the way Suriya played this character. Asin may speak a different language here, but otherwise she imports wholesale every single expression from her earlier portrayal of the same part. Jiah Khan, as the medical student who first hinders and later helps Sanjay, is as infuriating a character as her predecessor was. The background score, as in the Tamil version, is so deafening, there are times you wonder if it’s your skull over which an iron pipe has been brought down hard. Even AR Rahman’s best song here (Behka) is positioned at the same point in the story that Harris Jayaraj’s best song (Oru maalai ilaveyil neram) was positioned back there – how’s that for eerily wholesome symmetry?

One significant departure from the Tamil version is the climax – they’ve thankfully streamlined it (in other words, the villain has no equally evil twin) and they’ve also shaped the Jiah Khan character to function as an agent of closure. By replicating an earlier moment of loss, Murugadoss is able to squeeze in a couple of effective emotional beats into a segment which was earlier just about choreographed fisticuffs.

But the kind of fix there needed to be more of is the replacement of the generic dance item in the second half of the older film with the far more situational (and therefore, far more relevant) Kaise mujhe tum mil gayi, just after Sanjay takes leave of Kalpana and just before you sense something terrible is about to happen. The aching sense of separation – virah, if you want to look at it in old-world terms – is one those things you didn’t know needed to be there till you actually see it there, and the way the song is staged glazes the central love story with a layer of heartfelt sentiment. A few more touches like this one, and this violent tale of revenge might have actually stuck around in some corner of the mind fifteen minutes after stepping out of the theatre.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi