“Simmba”… Ranveer Singh is ridiculously good in Rohit Shetty’s most focused film

Posted on January 14, 2019

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Spoilers ahead…

At the beginning of the Aankh maare music video in Rohit Shetty’s Simmba, Karan Johar pops up and declares, in mock horror, “Oh God, one more remix!”But of course, it isn’t just the song. The film is itself a remix — not just of the NTR Jr.-starring Temper, which it is based on, but of several earlier films that conform to the South-style “mass” movie. This is the comic-book version of the masala movie. The latter can sometimes tend towards drama. Indeed, a scene in Simmba in which a villain is impressed by the can-do spirit of the boy-hero seems to acknowledge one of the most iconic masala dramas: Deewar. But the rest of the film is pure pop. This “genre”, if you will, is all about stars and their signatures, and is most useful to separate the real stars from the wannabes (or the more actorly types). On his good days, Salman Khan can really carry off a “mass” movie. But based on his extraordinary performance in Simmba, Ranveer Singh can apparently do this even on a bad day.

The actor plays a corrupt cop named ACP Sangram “Simmba” Bhalerao. Grease his palm, and he’ll sell his mother. But you know he’ll change, based on the scene from his childhood where he is slapped in public for picking pockets. A statue of Shivaji looms over the boy, signifying the pinnacle of Maratha virtue. (Several succeeding frames are composed around this statue.) But the transformation will have to wait. For now, the city is a jungle of vice and Simmba is the purloin king. And Ranveer plays these early portions like a Chuck Jones/Tex Avery cartoon animal. He shows us what was missing in the Singham movies, where Ajay Devgn had all the energy of a wet blanket. At times, Ranveer speaks in song, setting his words to the tune of Sandese aate hain, or Tu hi re. It’s ridiculous, and he knows it’s ridiculous, and he also knows we know it’s ridiculous. It’s A-grade self-aware showboating, and you see why Sanjay Leela Bhansali took to this actor (though what Ranveer does in those films is a very different strain of showboating).

Even the romance with Shagun (Sara Ali Khan), he plays differently. He seethes with exaggerated jealousy when he thinks she has another suitor. This hammy flavour livens up an unremarkable track, whose only point of note is for future biographers of Sara Ali Khan: In both her films so far, she’s been the one who initiated the romance. There’s a point of note for Kader Khan biographers, too. One of the songs between Simmba and Shagun is a recreation of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan hit, Tere bin nahin lagda. A Punjabi-laced track between two Marathi speakers? This is when you recall how precise Kader Khan was in making characters speak in their own lingo.

But it’s not all fun. Ranveer gives us the gamut that only a good performer can. (I’m assuming it’s the actor and not the director, because no other protagonist in a Rohit Shetty film, so far, has done so much with so little.) When the villain, Durva (Sonu Sood, whose body seems to be made of dumbbells), reveals how ruthless he is and how he can hurt Simmba, you can practically hear the hiss as the air goes out of Ranveer’s cockiness. You sense the hesitation, now, on how to tackle Durva. Then, there’s the softness with which he speaks to a sister-figure, Aakriti (Vaidehi Parshurami), and the textured relationship he has with the upright head constable Mohile (a terrific Ashutosh Rana), who regards Simmba with a mix of contempt and disgust. In the midst of all the teasing, Ranveer hints that Simmba wants to be loved by this man, who refuses to salute him.

We know, of course, that the salute will come — and the catalyst is Aakriti’s rape by Durva’s brothers. There’s some nice writing here, which equates Simmba’s corruption and the badness of Durva’s brothers — all this is due to the lack of parental supervision, which leads to a solid bit of melodrama where Simmba asks to be slapped by an older man he has wronged, almost as if making up for all the times he was spared the rod. The rape itself is the ickiest part of the plot. It’s become inevitable that these “mass” movies, in the midst of all the macho preening, pay lip service to a “social issue”. But at least, the plot point isn’t as hard to swallow as, say, the lip service to farmer suicides in the Vijay-starring, Kaththi. Simmba is no saviour from the outside, standing up for women’s rights. Had this been someone else, and not Aakriti, he might not have taken it so personally. After all, whatever the issue, it hurts more when it affects someone we know and care about.

Plus, the writing puts us in Simmba’s headspace. In a fun, masala-flavoured line in the jollier portions, he croons that he loves only money: “Main paison ka nahin, sirf pyaar ka bhookha hoon… Aur main sirf paison se pyaar karta hoon.” So when Aakriti’s distraught father reveals that she wanted to become a doctor in order to serve people and not earn money (“paisa nahin kamaana chahti thi”), it’s like a slap on the face. Hence the positioning of the first major action sequence, post-interval. (There’s a minor chase in the first half, but that’s more of a hero-introduction stretch.) In order to beat up the bad guys, Simmba has to stop being bad himself. He has to earn this righteous wrath, inside the police station that he has disrespected so far. After beating up the goons dispatched by Durva, he steps into his office and steps out wearing the khaki uniform — cinematographer Jomon T John lowers the camera and gazes up at Simmba, who, for the first time, looms before us like a deity, the sun shining behind his head like a halo. The transformation is complete.

The courtroom scenes and the message portions in the second half are a drag. The writing, too, is sometimes off. We’re not shown why Durva’s mother would offer testimony, or why Simmba would beat up a Corporator. (I thought this latter bit was leading to a twist, but it’s just more righteous anger.) But again, unlike other “mass” films, Simmba refrains from making it all about simple bloodlust. Simmba is held accountable for his actions. An enquiry commission is put in place (though you’ll laugh when you learn who heads it; we are still, after all, in a Rohit Shetty movie, where things can’t be allowed to get too serious). But to the film’s credit, this is the extent of the lightening up. There are no duets in the second half. There’s no comedy. The bright colours from the first half — a superbly designed stretch in a dhobi colony looks like the world’s biggest rangoli — give way to muted tones (though I felt the golden light was overdone).

And there’s no more wisecracking from Simmba. Ranveer enters yet another performance zone: straight-on drama. I kept waiting to see if he’d break character, but there’s just one grim smile he directs towards Mohile during that big action sequence (he’s saying, “This is what you were praying for, right?”), and later, a smile he shares with a guest star. Everywhere else, he is dead serious. And unlike most films in this genre, the hero’s testosterone is diluted by splashes of oestrogen. He speaks to Durva’s mother before leading away her sons. He asks female cops in the station to beat up the rapists. He actually consults with the women around him before embarking on his spree of vigilante justice. The film would have still worked if Simmba had made this decision on his own — that is how most vigilante-justice action-dramas work — but this extra bit of writing helps. It makes it look like more than just… lip service.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi