John Abraham’s thesping skills have always been suspect, but after seeing Dishoom, where he plays a special agent named Kabir, I’m wondering if he’s losing the ability to do more basic things. Like smile. Or bring his hands close to his body. His torso resembles a tree trunk, and his hands angle downwards from his massive shoulders and lats. He looks like he’s holding the ends of an invisible skirt, ready to curtsy at any moment. But his attitude? The word for it isn’t just macho. It’s “macho” after a couple of steroid injections, duelling it out with “badass” and whatever you call the Arnold Schwarzenegger oeuvre. He smokes nonstop – though he takes no more than a few puffs each time. It’s a health freak’s token commitment to character. And he keeps shooting things he doesn’t like – like the music system piping out a Yo Yo Honey Singh number. Perfectly understandable. Less so is his confession that he prefers Kishore Kumar and Rafi. Imagining Kabir looking wistfully into the distance as the radio plays Khoya khoya chand is going to keep me in splits for a good part of the weekend.
I loved the plot point that has him betrayed by his girlfriend, named Alishka Iyer. Usually, the only thing Hindi cinema knows to do with Tamilian characters is to slap forehead marks on them and send them scuttling to the nearest temple, or have their tufts of hair shaking wildly while teaching Saira Banu how to sing. But here, Alishka has another man hidden in her closet. She sleeps around casually. Remember Tim Robbins, in The Shawshank Redemption, crawling out of the prison’s sewer pipe, stripping off and raising his hands to the pouring rain? This is the Penthouse version. I wanted to leap to the screen and plant a kiss on her. Kabir, alas, is less enthused. He looks mournfully at his gun and mumbles, “Yeh akeli hai jisne aaj tak mujhe dhokha nahin diya.” But give the film this much. At least it has the sense of humour to puncture Kabir’s relentlessly virile swagger. In a gag, we are informed that he has… testicular cancer.
The film, directed by Rohit Dhawan, is a riff on the buddy-cop movie. Kabir’s partner is Junaid, played by Varun Dhawan. In well-written comic parts, Dhawan can be a knockout charmer. He’s coasting here, making do with the bits he gets – like salivating at Nargis Fakhri’s cleavage. But for this film, this is enough. He gets a good running gag with Satish Kaushik as a voice on the phone. And he gets to dance opposite Parineeti Chopra’s newly minted size-zero body in the closing-credits song sequence. For a while, Kabir and Junaid’s odd-couple shtick keeps us watching. The film is big, shiny fun, the kind of beach party that only Bollywood has the money to throw. The high point is Akshay Kumar’s cameo as a swishy homosexual. Yes, I get that this is not a politically correct portrayal, but this is low comedy, and Bollywood has given us Kapoor & Sons earlier this year. I wasn’t so much amused by Akshay Kumar’s turn as gobsmacked by the blissed-out state of his current stardom, where audiences are willing to see him do anything, whether rescuing stranded Indians in Kuwait or leeringly ordering Kabir and Junaid to strip to their very tight bathing trunks.
But soon, the fun dries up. The plot gets going when a star cricketer named Virat – sorry, Viraj (Saqib Saleem) is kidnapped on the eve of an India-Pakistan final. The villains are played by Rahul Dev and Akshaye Khanna, who, to the delight of at least one movie critic, proudly flaunts his incipient baldness. But Rahul Dev is playing a face, not a role (though it is, admittedly, the kind of long, sculpted face Almodóvar would love) and Akshaye Khanna is given a depressingly low-key motivation: he just wants to restore his depleted coffers. A movie like this needs a megalomaniac who’ll throw his head back and produce laughs from his appendix. We get a bean counter. Jacqueline Fernandez pops up as a thief, though everyone who’s seen the promos will know she’s really been hired to do those moves in the insanely catchy Sau tarah ke number, by Pritam. Keeping with the cricketing theme, there’s also a bulldog named Bradman.
I didn’t mind that Dishoom is hardly coherent, that there’s no continuity, that people who can help with the case are found almost miraculously. But it’s a problem when a film with this explosive a title cannot be bothered to stage a single memorable action scene. I’m guessing Rohit Dhawan is an Indiana Jones fan. The film is set in the Middle East, and he gives us the man with the monkey from Raiders of the Lost Ark as well as the spoke-in-the-motorcycle-wheel stunt from The Last Crusade. But these stunts exist just to showcase the stars. A helicopter scene towards the end is conceived simply so that Kabir and Junaid can be seen hanging out of the craft, chasing their prey. A bike chase that heads into landmines is hardly the nail-biter it promises to be, but it does look cool when Kabir and Junaid bike towards the camera with explosions behind them.
But then, you could make the case that none of this, ultimately, matters. You could say that Dishoom’s only concern is to present a prototype of the Modi-era masala movie – and not just because the External Affairs minister (Mona Ambegaonkar) is modelled after Sushma Swaraj. The film is filled with a surreal number of rah-rah nationalistic touches. The number of hours Kabir and Junaid have to crack the case? 36, which is the number of states and union territories in India. The colours worn by the trio in the Sau tarah ke number? Close enough to be called saffron, white and green. We have the Muslim expat (Junaid) proclaiming, “Naukri karta hoon inki, sunta hoon Modi ji ki.” (Heck, the film’s title can be anagrammed to the “Modi Sho.”) The film’s Hindu-Muslim protagonists, who like to address each other with their initials, are J & K – and they’re very much part of India. And they capture a villain named… Wagah. Even Virat – sorry, Viraj is a staunch Indian. He won’t betray the country even when the villain threatens to shoot an innocent man – the poor man ends up with a bullet. And when, after it all, he comes out to bat, what do we hear? Saare jahaan se achcha! The national anthem, too, finds a place of pride, in the opening number, where our heroes warn us, “Jana Gana pe na khada hua… to dishoom.” Rohit Dhawan, have you made this movie for profits or a Padma Shri?
- dishoom = biff, pow, thud!
- “Yeh akeli hai jisne aaj tak mujhe dhokha nahin diya” = this is the only thing that hasn’t betrayed me.
- Kapoor & Sons = see here
- “Naukri karta hoon inki, sunta hoon Modi ji ki.” = I work for these guys, but I take my orders from Modi ji.
- “Jana Gana pe na khada hua… to dishoom.” = Stand up for the national anthem, or else…
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.