It’s too long, too bland – and yet, this muscular throwback to a yesteryear cinema culture isn’t without its occasional pleasures.
JAN 24, 2010 – STUCK FOR A BEGINNING FOR this review, and after a fair amount of pencil chewing before a blank computer screen – a metaphorical endeavour, of course, now that graphite-riddled writing implements have gone the way of the giganotosaurus – I sought inspiration from my appraisal of Apne, the previous offering from director Anil Sharma. There, I’d observed, “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…” That’s the opening for Veer, right there – except that I wouldn’t go so far as to classify this Salman Khan starring (and Salman Khan written) faux-historical as “good!” (Okayish would serve as a more accurate assessment.)
So we have, for the 2976th time, a hero who falls for the villain’s daughter, and a villain (Jackie Shroff) who’s not just the embodiment of evil but a sworn enemy of the hero’s father. Yes, it’s the old Romeo-Juliet palimpsest, but thankfully shorn of the shrew-taming plot device that’s often recycled when the lovers hail from opposite sides of the tracks. The gimmick – the USP; the eye-grabbing label on this particular vial of snake oil – is that the story unfurls under the Union Jack. The time is the 1920s, when London is festooned with posters of Janet Gaynor in Street Angel, and back home, decidedly unangelic tribal clans like the Pindaris are at war with the Rajputs, much to the delight of the British, whose philosophy was to stroke their pencil moustaches as they divided and ruled.
To this effect, Lord Macaulay encouraged Indians to study in England, so they would transform into little brown sahibs, imbibing the genteel essences of Western civilisation and turning their backs on the heat and dust of their homeland. The Pindari chieftain Prithvi Singh (Mithun Chakraborty), too, dispatches his son Veer (Salman Khan) to what our older films referred to as vilayat. Veer is already something of a modernist, at least to the extent that a defiantly old-school performer like Salman Khan can project a modern persona on screen. Early on, he saves a goat from being sacrificed at the altar, thus espousing an intriguing mishmash of the progressive and the regressive. Veer appears nominally opposed to superstitious practices, but at the same time, he proposes that the blades of the Pindaris will find better purpose in decapitating goras rather than goats. (“Talwar sirf firangiyon ki gardanon ke liye hai,” Veer roars. Thrice!) This mix of Western cool thinking and Eastern hot blood is further enhanced by Veer’s stint in England – he learns to be civilised in the presence of the British, while back home, he’s as cheerful a barbarian as the next Pindari.
And yet, he observes enough over there to realise that, like the British, Indians need to think of themselves as a nation, and it’s time they shucked off petty rivalries (say, the Pindaris versus the Rajputs) and united against a common enemy. So far, so good – for these action-oriented portions play like a greatest-hits compilation of masala-movie images down the decades. If Mithun offers homage to his own Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki as he holds aloft his infant son in the pouring rain, symbolically inuring the child to all kinds of calamity, Salman makes a nod to Amitabh Bachchan in Mard lassoing a chopper and preventing it from lifting off (here, Veer halts a hansom cab in London by sticking out a hand and grabbing a spoke), and there’s even an invocation of the Mahabharata (which is quoted explicitly) when the climactic battle pits kith against kin in a quest that isn’t so much about uprooting evil as upholding dharma.
The look of Veer is easy on the eye – all earth colours and lambent lighting – and the director (or at least his stunt coordinator) appears to have learnt from Ashutosh Gowariker’s missteps in Jodhaa-Akbar. The battle scenes are shot either in bird’s-eye sweeps or in quick-cut close-ups that hint at the savagery – there’s no ambitious attempt to capture the you-are-there-ness, which is, frankly, a relief. (If you can’t do it well, the way it should be done, it’s better not to do it at all.) There’s even the frequent dose of unintentional comedy, as when the colourfully clad Veer, after being ticked off by a martinet instructor about the need to adopt sober Western attire, offers a version on the GB Shaw quip about clothes not making the man (because it’s man who makes clothes). It’s priceless, really, this spirited defense of haberdashery from the star who single-handedly reduced the Hindi film hero to a shirtless pin-up.
Where Veer stumbles, apart from not knowing when to stop, is in its sluggish detours into romance. The Rajput crown-princess Yashodhara (played by newcomer Zarine Khan, of the marble skin and with expressions to match) is a prize Veer wins in a swayamwar, after surviving a bloody joust, and like a thousand Hindi film heroes before him, he adorns the parting of his bride’s hair with flecks of his own blood. That’s the kind of thrumming passion we want this couple to project, the sexual frisson of the touch-me-not Aishwarya Rai in Jodhaa-Akbar coupled to the laidback-Lothario advances from Veer. But their moments together are extraordinarily bland and boring, and inexplicably centered on a godforsaken brooch bequeathed by her mother. The one scene that leaps out of screen is when an enraged Yashodhara clamps her mouth on Veer’s wrist, leaving behind a circle of bite marks, which prompts Veer to remark that she’s presented him a watch, and that, henceforth, good times beckon.
Translated, of course, this is unadulterated tripe, but the line works beautifully in Hindi. That’s the other attraction for lovers of a certain kind of cinema from a certain age: a certain type of carefully calibrated dialogue. (The opening credits feature the rarest of sights, the name of the director in Hindi – as nirdeshak.) When was the last time you heard (the Britishers’) insidiously deceitful nature referred to as fitrati soch, or the irreversibility of the given word likened to an arrow that’s left the bow? (“Kaman se nikla teer aur zubaan se nikli baat kabhi vapas nahin aate.”) Gulzar embellishes this air of spoken grandiloquence with the sung – grafting, for instance, the auditory onto the ocular in Surili anhkiyon wale. He justifies this trademarked mixed metaphor by claiming, on behalf of the hero, that he’s heard that his lover’s eyes brim over with sleep, which, in turn, brims over with dreams. Forget Sajid-Wajid’s limp tunemaking, it’s the music in the words you carry home.
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