In the mid-nineteen-eighties, when a fair-sized ruckus was raised about Shiva Ka Insaaf being India’s first 3-D superhero film, the response was a barely stifled yawn. Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna, lazily scratching their chest hair, could run faster than speeding bullets and clear tall buildings in a single bound, and we never thought to ask questions. We were weaned on valorous epics, and we didn’t need elaborate backstories about dispatches from exploding planets and the salubrious effects of a red sun. Why bother about a superhero who became a superhero only because he was able to channel the powers of Shiva, and who needed a perplexing costume change while doling out vigilante justice? That is why Endhiran/Robot felt somewhat redundant. With any other actor, the transformation from man to metal might have proved auspicious – but Rajinikanth? He could whip up tornadoes with his feet when he was a mere human, and now we told that technology was needed for the superstar to become Superman – as if he were Shah Rukh Khan.
The most intriguing aspect of Anubhav Sinha’s Ra.One is that it is a heroic story that revolves around a hero whose persona is as far removed as possible from that of the virile heroes of the vintage Hindi action movie. After Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, I said, “I must say I continue to be intrigued by what appears to be Yash Raj’s ongoing mission to neuter the Hindi film hero. When Surinder and Taani go to the movies, he’s the one who sobs through the typically teary dramas, while she prefers the full-on masala entertainers where one he-man can apparently take on an entire village. And speaking of action, this film’s equivalent of a fight sequence occurs when Taani is insulted – but instead of Raj galloping to her rescue, she hops on a motorbike and avenges herself. (He sits behind her, petrified, holding her purse.) In a subsequent scene, Bobby explains to a bewildered Surinder the meaning of the word “macho.” The only cut more unkind may be that, even without heels, the heroine towers over the hero.” Looking back, I wonder if I gave Yash Raj too much credit, Shah Rukh too little, for no hero, before or since, has so consistently perched himself upon the fence between the traditional roles of hero and heroine. The non-action heroes before him, whether Rajesh Khanna or Rajendra Kumar, were men who were simply in touch with their emotions, the way poets and drunks are. But Shah Rukh took emasculation to its Everest.
In Ra.One, Shah Rukh’s man parts are imperiled by break-dancing, a wayward football and fire. He drives a yellow Beetle, the kind of car last favoured by Sonam Kapoor in Aisha. After he assumes the form of a video-game character named G.One, his son reaches out and touches his smooth face as if in a soap commercial, like the one for Lux where Shah Rukh famously lay amidst rose petals. He then wraps himself in Kareena Kapoor’s dupatta, and in what may be a belated wink at Vir Sanghvi – who asked Shah Rukh, on a talk show, if he were bisexual – he cups Kareena’s breast as well as Arjun Rampal’s family jewels. (After a point, you’re no longer sure if a line like “Uske paas bahut badi bandook hai” is a warning or a personal ad.) Shah Rukh is, quite simply, the last person you’d imagine as a superhero – and it’s a relief that Ra.One isn’t exactly a superhero movie. Early word indicated that this would be one of those movies where our stars would act in their kind of movie, while it’s actually a case of their technology being employed in our kind of movie. Ra.One is, in a loose sense, Kasme Vaade possessed by the spirit of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. A man dies, is reincarnated in a lookalike, and finds a way to stop the unstoppable bad guy (Rampal), who happens to be able to assume the form of whoever he touches. The film is best experienced as old wine in an expensive new bottle, with nicely wrought visual effects.
Either intentionally or inadvertently, Ra.One has turned out to be the kind of film Bollywood doesn’t make anymore, the tearjerker family drama cum comedy cum action extravaganza, which, of course, was the mainstay of Hindi cinema in the nineteen-seventies and eighties. There’s plenty of talk about dil. There are special appearances by Ramlila and Karwa Chauth, and the movie borrows its philosophy from the Gita, about a soul shedding one body and entering another like a change of clothes. More moral instruction arrives through a reference to Old Bollywood, referencing the lines neki pe chalen aur badi se talen taaki haste hue nikale dum from Do Aankhen Baarah Haath. A runaway locomotive resembles a remnant from The Burning Train, and the spirit of its music composer, RD Burman, is invoked in a teera… para para refrain that underscores the action scenes. The heroine is one of those flighty creatures from the older films whose mood changes from scene to scene, less a part than a prop. The hero comes between a loved one and a fusillade of space-agey shrapnel. And a Tamilian caricature is rendered so outrageously that I laughed in disbelief – he returns to his home after a day at work and heads straight to a shrine, humming Vatapi Ganapatim bhajeham.
So how does one respond to Ra.One? With a silly smile – that would be my recommendation. It doesn’t take itself very seriously (which is what made Krrish intolerable; Ra.One is merely inoffensive), even if much of what it tries to pass off as comedy carries the whiff of Karan Johar’s stale leftovers. It has a scene where the heroine pulls a remarkably long strand of mucus from the hero’s nostril, which may be a giveaway that children are the primary target audience. Shah Rukh fans should be happy too, for their blue-eyed boy is literally blue-eyed here. (The other avatar, however, is coiffed in curls that suggest a hasty reject from Farhan Akhtar’s wigmakers.) Shah Rukh sighs, at one point, “Kya karoon – sab ladkiyaan mujhpe marti hain,” and the refrain from the title song of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai plays in the background. As I said, this isn’t a film that embraces tomorrow as much as it celebrates yesterday, and its most remarkable achievement may be that, with one foot tentatively toeing the future and one stuck resolutely in the past, it didn’t end up peeing all over itself.
Copyright ©2011 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.