The general line of inquiry when an older film is appropriated for a new generation is an apoplectic “But how could they?” With Himmatwala, though, we’re more likely to wonder, “But why did they bother?” The sole cultural cachet of the 1983 blockbuster comes from its birthing the No.1 female star of the era. Otherwise, the film is an awful embarrassment, a compendium of bad-filmmaking clichés that we’ve worked hard over subsequent decades to forget (though one could argue that no one can easily erase from their mind those stiff-jointed dance routines, which played like Nazi rallies amidst earthenware). At least Farah Khan, whenever she references that era of cinema, toys with the tropes. She recognises them as kitsch, and she ups the ante by kitsching it up further, with a hefty wink. Sajid Khan, on the other hand, seems to be – heaven help us! – serious about the whole thing.
And when you remake, with all earnestness, a bad movie, how can you not end up making a bad movie? Khan is so determined to pay homage to his boyhood memories that he even sets his Himmatwala in 1983, and he recycles the melodramatic subplot involving the hero’s sister who is tortured by her husband and father-in-law. For added measure, he throws in an attempted rape, as if to remind us that, in those days, this was one of the reasons the hero had a sister. And then he spoofs the shower scene in Psycho, right down to the matching dissolve between the bathtub drain and the victim’s eye. Did I mention that there’s a tiger somewhere, which cannot seem to make up its mind whether to dine on hapless villagers or inflict divine retribution on villains who threaten these very villagers? The bewildered creature’s Hamlet-ish indecision – to devour or to defend, that is the question – may be the most touching thing Sajid Khan ever put on screen.
So once again we have Ravi (a joyless Ajay Devgn) walking into a village ruled by a despot (Mahesh Manjrekar, reprising Amjad Khan’s comic-villain routine, and taking it one level further with a joke about his pillow-soft buttocks). Once again, he tames a shrew (Tamannaah Bhatia, as unremarkable here as she is in her Tamil outings). And once again, he overcomes forces of evil. I perked up during a flashback when Ritesh Deshmukh, who plays Ravi’s friend, summons up a meta moment by suggesting that they watch Jeetendra’s Himmatwala. Imagine the possibilities. Ajay Devgn steps into a theatre to watch Jeetendra play the same character, and then, The Purple Rose of Cairo-style, Jeetendra steps out of the movie and begins to have a conversation with Devgan, as Sridevi looks impatiently at her watch, getting late for a Justice Choudhury schedule where she is to shoot the Mamma Mia Pom Pom number. But before any of this can happen, Deshmukh comes under a truck. It could have been worse. He could have ended up watching Himmatwala.
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