“Zanjeer”… Puppet on a chain

Posted on September 7, 2013


It’s impossible to take seriously a hero who’s groomed as perfectly as Ram Charan is in Apoorva Lakhia’s remake of Zanjeer. The super-buff, gym-toned physique is probably the least of the problems. God forbid we catch sight of a thatch of chest hair or the hint of love handles, even given the punishing schedules of police officers. (Ram Charan plays ACP Vijay Khanna.) But this grooming extends to a meticulously sculpted stubble and teeth that are so dazzling, so white, so uniform that you half expect him to blow into a cupped palm and turn towards you with a thumbs up. And that hair. It’s been teased into a quiff, and not a strand slips, not even when he’s moving faster than the wind, flattening hapless opponents. And he smolders like a model, the lower half of his face tapering into a perfect triangle. There’s not a line on that face, not when he’s happy, not when he’s sad, not when he’s playing (gulp) videogames with his BFF Sher Khan (Sanjay Dutt).

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None of this would matter in a trifling rom-com, where a good-looking hero can get away with just looking good. But this airbrushed aura is fatal in a red-blooded action film. This is not to say that the earlier Zanjeer is some sort of sacred classic. Like most films from an earlier era, it can stand some tweaking. The fights, for instance, look staged and silly, and they could benefit from today’s advances in tech-aided choreography. The Hindu-Muslim-Christian brotherhood (represented by Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay, Pran’s Sher Khan, and Om Prakash’s D’Silva) is a charming 1970s conceit that would look a tad too cutesy in the more complex and fractured world we live in today. And the knife sharpener appears to have vanished off the face of the planet (along with the ten-paisa coin she collected per knife sharpened), and the heroine, today, needs to find something else to do. But the emotional beats are rock solid, and they need no improvement.

Lakhia, bafflingly, jettisons most of these emotions – though the barebones of the story is the same. (An orphaned Vijay settles scores with the man who killed his parents.) The earlier Zanjeer came in a more moral age, where actions had consequences. Vijay’s father was a crook who worked in a ring that manufactured adulterated medicine and alcohol, and his daughter died from this very medicine. So he turned good, and because no good deed goes unpunished, he ended up killed. In the remake, Vijay’s father is an utterly honest man – so there’s no divine-retribution drama. And because the adulteration is now with petrol and diesel, which burn a hole in the purse but don’t quite kill, there is no human-scale drama either. We no longer have the angle of the grieving father who seeks revenge because his sons brought home a bottle of (adulterated) booze on Christmas Eve and died soon after. These screenwriting decisions dragged the common man into the picture, and he’s lost in this abstract good-versus-evil tale that replaces grit with gloss.

We begin with a Bond-style opening credits number, and we end with something right out of an Indiana Jones movie, with the hero faced with water gushing into a tunnel. And though it’s a good idea to withhold the mystery behind Vijay’s recurring nightmares – the older film, narrated chronologically, laid this out for us at the beginning – the revelation, when it arrives, packs no punch. The sequence is stylised, like the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents in one of the Batman movies, and it registers more as cinematography than tragedy. (Other blatant inspirations include the baseball bat scene from The Untouchables, and the action sequence in the men’s rest room in True Lies.) Maybe Lakhia wanted to make a stylish action thriller – but why choose this material, which brings with it so many associations? Why invoke the earlier film with similarly named characters and with refrains from Bindu’s Dil jalon ka song worked into the number performed by the modern-day Mona Darling (poor Mahie Gill)? Why have the new Teja (Prakash Raj) watch a clip featuring Ajit, his villainous counterpart from the older film?

This has got to be one of Prakash Raj’s worst performances, but let’s not judge him too harshly. After all, look what he has to work with: blow-job jokes and clothes that appear to have survived an explosion at the paint factory. But his ineffectiveness is coolly eclipsed by that of Priyanka Chopra, whose heroine is a rich daddy’s girl from New York. She’s come down to India to attend the wedding of a… Facebook friend, and at this hallowed event, she thrusts her pelvis at the camera and belts out a song declaring that she belongs not to the people from Mumbai or Delhi but to those who have the most money. (I kept praying she’d find an excuse to skip the rest of the film, say, the golden anniversary celebrations of the parents of someone she just started following on Twitter. No such luck, alas.)

There’s a little thesis waiting to be written on heroines then and heroines now in hero-oriented cinema. The older Vijay was jailed on trumped-up charges. When released, his desire for a normal life with Mala made him decide to give up his quest for revenge. He even brokered a truce with Teja. But his innate need to fight the good fight kept rearing its head and it frustrated him (occasioning the film’s finest speech) and Mala, eventually, told him to go after Teja. She realised that Vijay could not be the man she wanted him to be unless he destroyed the villain who’d made him the man he had become. She made the decision as much for her sake as his. It’s too much to expect Priyanka Chopra’s Mala to do this much. (When she exhorts Vijay to go fight, it comes across as a petulant whim.) But she isn’t even allowed to be chased by the bad guys the way the heroine in the older film was. There was an element of danger in the older Mala crossing the train tracks, hiding in an empty coach and finding her way to Vijay’s house, seeking refuge. The new Mala conveniently runs into Vijay, mere seconds after the chase begins. Like many moments in this movie this one gives the feeling that, at some point, the entire unit just gave up, took the money and ran.

The most frustrating aspect of this Zanjeer is the cynicism on display, as if the audience would show up just because lines like “Yeh police station hai, tere baap ka ghar nahin” are reproduced. These lines were just seasoning. The meat came from Vijay’s core. All that analysis about the angry young man being birthed in Zanjeer was in a way short-sighted. That construct could be glimpsed in Sunil Dutt in Mother India, Dilip Kumar in Gunga Jumna, and even the Dilip Kumar of Mughal-e-Azam, who waged war with perhaps the greatest (and most unyielding) “establishment” of all: the Emperor. But those angry young men were from a more peaceful and poetic time (in the country as well as cinema), and the reason we acknowledge Bachchan as the angry young man is that he was the first hero who felt genuinely angry. His films felt violent – physically, verbally, emotionally – in a way those earlier films never did. The only anger in this Zanjeer comes from the audience.

Copyright ©2013 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi