Let’s acknowledge, first, the genuine attempt by director Karan Malhotra to infuse into his film the sensibility of Bombay cinema, not Bollywood – the Hindi cinema of the nineteen-seventies and eighties that Amitabh Bachchan transformed into a blood-spattered battlefield, both literally and metaphorically, in the mind. (Agneepath begins in 1977.) This cinema was no longer interested in Rajendra Kumar singing shy, swoony odes of love to a sweetheart whose face was hidden from him by a veil, or in the hill-station romance where exuberant actors would pretend to be someone else in order to woo pouty, pretty-faced heroines on vacation. Despite instances of both these kinds of films, the Bombay cinema was essentially Bachchan’s cinema, and it’s a thrill to see at least some of those rhythms replicated here – the mirror-image stagings of key scenes (the entry of the hero, first as child and later as adult, in festive, gulal-smeared circumstances; the hanging of a good man avenged by the hanging of a bad man), or the film’s most expressive instance of sentimentality, the extraordinary moment where prostitutes offer their upper garments to erect a shield from male eyes around the birth of a girl child. This big-heartedness, this generosity is not something we often see today in the Bollywood cinema which is all about satisfying the self (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Agneepath welcomes back to the Hindi screen the masterji, the zamindar, the prostitute-equivalent with the heart of gold, the venerable mother-figure, and, especially, the villain (Sanjay Dutt) so larger than life that he looks like he’s risen from hell, hulking and hairless. There is also a sincere attempt to infuse some of Bachchan’s anger into the proceedings, that smouldering rage against an establishment that just won’t let him be. Vijay’s (Hrithik Roshan) father, the doomed masterji, muses, “Bahut gussa hai mere bete ke andar.” The child actor frets and fumes, but very little of this anger finds its way into Vijay as an adult. The director and the star (understandably) see the protagonist as a tragic figure, but the only time he is shaped by the titular fire is when his path is determined for him in an early scene staged around a burning house and lit by the torches of a lynch mob. Elsewhere, there’s only water – most of it in Hrithik’s eyes.
Has there been a gangster in Hindi cinema who has wept as much? Vijay weeps when he spies his estranged family from afar. He weeps when his sister returns to him. He weeps around his girlfriend (Priyanka Chopra). He weeps when he visits his birthplace and sets eyes on his now-dilapidated roots. After a point, you may feel like calling him aside and whispering into his ears the injunction that Aamir Khan delivered to the dithering Saif Ali Khan in Dil Chahta Hai: “Mard ban. Be a man.” It’s hard to see Hrithik as someone possessing the “jungli khayal” that his mother accuses him of. Even his posturing is filled with a delicate feminine grace, as if he were starring in a dreamy ballet. (Those long strides in slow motion. That self-aware blossom of a smile.) When Hrithik, in the climax, is stabbed from behind, his arms flail about as he sinks to his knees, and you feel he’s auditioning, yet again, for the part of Jesus. You can almost hear his silent scream: “My lord, my lord, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Such a “hero” would have been laughed off the screen in the Bachchan era, where real men did not flaunt six-packs and biceps like walking advertisements for the local gymnasium – their masculinity lay inside, fostered by the punches life threw at them. When Vijay, as a child, shoots a cop, we are reminded of Nayakan. That was another film where the hero toted around a paunch, and was none the less masculine for it. This isn’t to say that a startling handsomeness like Hrithik’s lies outside the precinct of movie masculinity, but what we sense in him is an excessive preoccupation with how he looks and – more importantly – how he wants us to think he looks. (His performance in Guzaarish was honest and heartrending precisely because, in that film, he didn’t care how he looked.) At no point in Agneepath was I able to buy Hrithik Roshan as a gangster. The Bachchan performance in the earlier film is not one of my favourites – but even amidst the very showy (and distracting) histrionics, we were never allowed to lose sight of the anger within the character. And without that anger, there is no fire – no matter how many times you recite Agneepath.
It’s not just Vijay who’s all surface, with little inside. Kancha, the villain, is introduced in a scene that imbues the character with tremendous psychological heft. He hates mirrors – or perhaps he’s afraid of them – because they remind him of how he looks. How much more this antagonist’s self-hatred should be, then, when confronted with a protagonist as supremely good-looking as Hrithik. But nothing much is made of this, just as nothing much is made of Rishi Kapoor’s character, who sells little girls to leering old men from the Middle East. These vivid brushstrokes are audience-grabbing ways to introduce these characters to us, but they don’t paint them, thereafter, in particularly significant ways. I would have also liked a little more investment in the relationship between Vijay and the good cop (played beautifully by Om Puri). What lies at the root of this man’s affection for someone so clearly on the other side of the law?
Perhaps it’s the fact that we never really see Vijay as being on the other side of the law. In the great gangster films like Deewar and Nayakan and Vaastav (which I kept thinking about throughout this film), we are presented with the other side, the moral side, the male’s petulant privilege of doing wrong balanced by the female conviction of what is right. The mothers and the daughters in those films shamed the men into introspection, whether what they were doing was right (even if they reconciled themselves, eventually, with reasons of their own making). That sense of morality, which is so necessary to showcase a man compelled to be the man that he is, is absent here. (The mother figure, played by Zarina Wahab, barely makes an impression.) We see Vijay, therefore, not as the tragic figure that the director and the star envision, a good man cast into murky waters by the doings of destiny, but as a mere hero who bays for the villain’s blood in order to avenge himself of his daddy’s death. We could be watching Yaadon Ki Baarat – with blood.
Agneepath is thunderously staged (quite literally; the background score is a force of nature) and it’s never boring, but the film never amounts to anything. I especially enjoyed the song sequences, which erupt with the kind of spirit and colour and noise that we don’t find, any more, in the modern-day multiplex film, which prides itself on being cool and removed. And Katrina Kaif, in the roof-raising Chikni chameli song sequence, may well be a metaphor for the movie. She makes all the right moves, giving every part of her creamy anatomy a vigorous workout. She throws herself into this invigoratingly vulgar song – but the vulgarity never reaches her eyes. She’s designer-chic, a convent-educated actress simply playing a part, unlike a fleshy and robustly rustic Jayshree T, whose hips would have told an entirely different story. I watched Agneepath torn between these twin admonitions from my mind: “They don’t make them like they used to.” “But then, they don’t make them anymore.” In these parched times, perhaps we should be grateful that the well, even if shallow, hasn’t run dry.
Copyright ©2012 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.