Gabbar Is Back, directed by Krish (and based on an original story by AR Murugadoss), keeps making us think it is the real deal, a real masala movie. We see dabbawalas. We witness a lavani performance. We step into a barbershop. In other words, we see not Mumbai but Bombay, which is always a good sign in a masala movie. But there’s always something missing.
There’s something missing in the dialogues. There’s just one nicely shaped line, when the villain (Digvijay Patil, played by Suman Talwar) looks at the hero (Akshay Kumar’s Aditya) and sneers, “Suna hai evidence ka file ko mashaal banake ghoom rahe ho,” that he’s brandishing a file filled with evidence (against Patil) as if it were some kind of torch. It’s not just that the metaphor is apt. The line also foreshadows Aditya’s transformation into a crusader named Gabbar. But otherwise, there are no memorable lines, and even the ones that begin promisingly (“Puraani sharaab aur puraani yaadein…”) end with a whimper. And some make no sense. There’s one that says the System is like a diaper… kabhi dheeela, kabhi geela. Loose? Wet? Wouldn’t the line pack more power had the diaper analogy been taken to its logical conclusion and said our System was full of shit?
There’s something missing in the item song. The last time Akshay Kumar acted in a film produced by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, we got the awesomely raunchy Aa re pritam pyaare. This one’s a poor relation. It has Chitrangada Singh either (a) flaunting her sexuality and making a statement that she’s not to be relegated to “serious” roles (note also her item song in Joker), or (b) making a rock-solid case that good parts for unconventional-looking actresses are so hard to come by that you have to take up whatever comes your way. I’m leaning towards (b). And I’m thinking about Mahie Gill, who was downsized from heroine to moll in the span of a few years, from Paro in the Devdas update to Mona Darling in the Zanjeer update.
There’s something missing in the Shankar™-style flashback. This sort of flashback always involves the loss of a loved one, and in Ramana, the Tamil original, Simran played the part. She was dressed in saris. She was heavily pregnant. She looked like the kind of housewife who’d run around like a headless chicken in the morning and breathe a small sigh of relief when husband and kids left, and then unwind with a dumb movie on some random channel. In other words, even without much screen time, the archetype gets to you, and when she dies, you feel something. When Kareena Kapoor dies in the Hindi version, you feel nothing. She’s not playing a wife. She’s playing up her glamorous image, pouting incessantly and giving come-hither looks to the audience and to Akshay, in that order. She could be starring in a condom commercial. This is not the kind of flashback that births vigilantes.
There’s something missing in the characters. One of the hallmarks of the masala movie is the singular trait that defines its inhabitants – Sholay’s Basanti is a chatterbox, and so on. Here, Shruti (Shruti Haasan) likes to quote facts from Google. I think she means Wikipedia. Google’s a search engine, and it doesn’t have facts unless you type in a search term and go to a site which has those facts. A site like Wikipedia. But I am putting way more thought into this than the writer put into Shruti’s character. There’s no real payoff to this trait like there was to Basanti’s, because when Imam Saab’s son died, the extent of the tragedy was evident not just by the fact that the village went silent but that Basanti went silent. But those days of masala screenwriting are gone, and we have to settle for facile touches like this Google-quoting girl. Like the English-speaking constable (Sunil Grover). Like the meaningless “I am a brand” declaration from the villain.
The Sholay reference isn’t accidental. The title of this film, after all, references that film’s villain and the fear he invoked in the people around. We’re asked to believe that Aditya invokes that kind of fear in the corrupt, against whom he leads his vigilante crusade. But Akshay is too low-key a masala presence. The scene where he walks into the police station when cops are still looking for him; the scene where he addresses thousands of students from atop the police van that’s taking him to trial; the scene where he gives a lecture about the five fundamental forces (bending, shear, etc.) and demonstrates them while bashing up goons – these are great masala scenes in search of a great masala actor.
There’s one halfway-decent moment involving the kidnapping of a minister using masks. But the rest of Gabbar Is Back suffers from the attitude Bollywood has towards masala cinema, which is that of a rich man who has to accommodate a poor relation simply because the latter is also mentioned in the will. Masala movies bring in the big bucks, but they’re not “cool.” And to add the cool factor, these films keep winking at things that should be taken very seriously. Whatever the characters may be saying on screen, you constantly hear this line in your head: “I know this is ludicrous stuff, but hey, it’s kinda fun.” That attitude works in the films Farah Khan makes, not here. The title Gabbar Is Back merely indicates the return of the bogeyman, not the return of the glorious masala cinema of his era.
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