In the 70s and early 80s, directors like Manmohan Desai perfected what came to be known as the Hindi movie formula—–big-multicasters with larger-than-life heroes, chawanni-flinging dialogs, black-and-white linear stories with strong moral messages, elaborate expositions that allowed one to miss thirty minutes of the movie at any time and still be able to follow it once he came back, eye-patched white-suit wearing villains, ever-sacrificing “Nirupa Roy” mothers, epic running times so that even if one did not quite enjoy the movie, one could get 3 hours 20 minutes of shut-eye in a cool air-conditioned theater.
The late 80s and the 90s saw a transformation in this well-accepted standard template, one that was caused by a change in audience tastes. Movies that slavishly followed the older formula, for instance Amitabh Bachchan’s so-called comeback series of movies, were rejected and many of the older movie moguls faded away. Barjatiya-Chopra-Johar became the standard-holders for the new formula namely that of NRI romances targeted towards the international market which were defined by drastic improvements in production quality, foreign locales, family values, syrupy love stories and Manish Malhotra costumes.
In the 2000s, things changed once again. Multiplexes altered the economics of film distribution as it allowed the movie moguls to target niche educated urban 15–35 audiences with disposable incomes, the demographic that had benefited the most from economic liberalization. Brought up on a steady diet of Hollywood movies on Star Movies and from the video library, this market segment were no longer content with supposedly down-market, dated old-school Bollywood of Ajit and Bindoo and Johnny Lever.
They wanted movies with a Hollywood look and feel. They wanted Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, Danny Boyle and more than a bit of David Lynch.
In response to this demand, Sanjay Gupta and his ilk launched a wave of slavish almost frame-by-frame imitations of foreign flicks, as they sought to distinguish themselves stylistically from traditional Bollywood by their adoption of “oh so cool” editing and narrative techniques like jump cuts, non-linearity, freeze frames, split screens, super slow motion. Some of these movies attained commercial success yet so like each other were they in terms of their derivativeness that none of them could be said to stand out in a defining way.
As the first decade of the 2000s come to a close, we were looking for that one movie that future generations could point to as that which represented the new “formula” of the 2000s, an “international” looking movie with a true Bollywood heart.
Well that movie is finally here.
It is Kaminey, Vishal Bharadwaj’s most commercial venture ever.
Don’t go expecting “Blue Umbrella”, “Dev D” or for that matter “Omkara” or “Maqbool”. This is as formula as formula can be but with the dash of originality and execution that made “Amar Akbar Anthony” or “Hum Aapke Hain Kaun” such iconic representatives of their times.
The story, once you strip it off the fluff and style, is as old as the hills—of blood being the strongest bond of all, of identical “judwa” brothers caught in a comedy of errors, one on the wrong side of the law and one on the right, each with distinctive styles of speaking reminiscent of an old Bollywood device by which idiosyncrasies were built into the way characters delivered dialogs in order to make them memorable (Gulshan Grover tried to give each villain one such “style” from “Baad maaan” to “Kismaaaatttt” and Shakti Kapoor had his “Aoooo” and “Oaaaaa” and “Lolitaaa”). The villains are numerous, in a throwback to the “Zindagi Ek Jua” days, with distinctively bad-ass personas —be it the parochial Manoos-cum-underworld badshaah Bhau or the mysterious Tashi (I could almost see Danny Dengzoppa in that role) or my personal favorite— the Bangali Dadas who have some of the best lines of the movie, that too in Bangla.
The style too is very inspired—-the character-interactions and the fast intersections of disparate storylines are very Tarantino-esque (the riff of “Dhan Tana” sounds very similar to the “Pulp Fiction” theme), there is more than a bit of Guy Ritchie in the guns and the mayhem with the climactic “shootout” more reminiscent of Sergio Leone than a “tumhari ma humare kabze main hain” classic “axion” ending the new generation loves to lampoon.
What however makes “Kaminey” rise head and shoulders above its contemporaries is the cleverness by which the story and the style are packaged together, making it an amazing “commercial” product standing on the four “foundations” (or “bamboos” as anyone who has seen “Mard” would say) of Hindi movie success— “deramaa”, “emosion” , “pheel good” and “phataak” music. A lot of credit for “Kaminey”‘s distinctiveness must go to Vishal Bharadwaj who, perhaps more than any of new contemporaries, has his finger on the pulse on the new audience, in the same way that Manmohan Desai and Yash Chopra and David Dhawan and Subhash Ghai once had. He is helped to no small extent by Shahid Kapoor, who carries a lot of the film on his muscled-up shoulders, an eclectic cast of highly competent performers and a tight, flab-free script which expertly straddles the fine line between poking the audience in the eye with a finger and deliberate “Look I am an arty fellow” obscurantism, while delivering a heady shot of clever profanity-riden, earthy “real” lines of the kind that “aaj ka launde” prefer in their movies (some of which are not even spoken—-like the “apna haath jagannath” scribbled on the bathroom).
In conclusion, Kaminey is not high art.
But it is fun. A whole lot of fun.
And I would say that in itself makes it worth going to the theaters to see.