The 90s are back.
Not that I have become thin again or that LK Advani once again has a chance to become the Prime Minister. No, the reason that the 90s are back, at least for the greater part of four hours, is because Raees and Kaabil are retreads of well-worn 90s formula, faithfully rehashing as it does ancient tropes, with only a thin patina of 2010s gloss airbrushed over them.
Which in itself is not bad, for 90s junkies like me, except that both fail in bringing something even mildly new to the familiar.
First Kaabil. You know something is off by two decades when in the first five minutes, there is a joke made on Hrithik Roshan and Yami Gautam’s babies being as white as goras. Not that one can fail to not notice Yami Gautam, the patron saint of fairness creams and its favorite brand ambassador, whose whiteness which, like snows on a mountain, can cause tone-blindness if not looked upon with shades, the joke, which would have passed unnoticed in the 90s, does sound a bit, just a tad off-color in this day and age.
And then we go back further. Yami Gautam, like Mithunda’s sister in each of his Ootie movies, is raped. And then, exactly like Mithunda’s sister, she commits suicide, clearly articulating the reason behind the act, namely that she is not the same for her husband after being defiled, and that of all the things she can tolerate, there is no greater torture than to see her husband’s (or in the case of Mithunda, brother and father’s) humiliation. While I am pretty sure I have heard this sentiment expressed in countless Hindi movies of the 90s, this so-called “Gudiya bigaar gayee aur sabka mooh kala ho gya” trope is absolutely atavistic in this day and age, leaving one wondering if it’s 2 am, and you are having trouble falling asleep, and have tuned into Zee Gold, to watch “Mera Pati Sirf Mera Hai” or actually in a multiplex watching a 2017 release.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love Sanjay Gupta. Those who have read “May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss” would know the reverence I hold “Aatish–Feel the Fire” in, and how it influenced the person I am today. Also a lot of world cinema I later came to appreciate I first encountered second hand in his films, from the work of Chow Yun Fat to Park Chan-wook. I equally admire Rakesh Roshan as a producer, and for every UN-recognized atrocity like making Viveik Oberoi a super-mutant in Krrish 3, he has given us a Karan Arjun and a Koyla, from which are culled many of the iconic lines that defined my generation from Rakhi’s “Mere bete Karan Arjun ayenge” to Amrish Puri’s “Brahma ne tumhe itna bootiphool banaya, toh phir tan par kapda pahenkar kyon ghumti ho?”
Unfortunately, Kaabil has none of this kind of awesomeness. Instead, it is as predictable as Raina in front of a short ball. As Roshan goes on his journey of roaring retribution, you know who is going and in what sequence and how. Though Roshan tries his best to bring credibility to his role, underplaying his role, it is let down by a really weak story, and surprisingly, given that Ronit Roy is such a knock-out actor, a really flaccid villain, making me nostalgic for the “bad men” of Aatish, who when their evil brother was killed would say “Woh mere saapne mein aayega, mujhe bolega naheen ki Dada tu hijra hain? Ghulam, Dada Hijra naheen hai”.
At one stage, Roshan tells the police “You will be know it all, but you won’t be able to do anything”. Watching Kaabil is a bit like that, you pretty much know it all from the trailers, but then you start watching, and you realize you can’t do anything.
Raees is similar in its retro-ness, except that the formula it chooses to follow is the Scarface knock-off, essayed with Glen McGrath-like metronomicity by Sanjay Dutt over multiple films, of the gangster rising from humble origins, overthrowing his bosses, tangling with politicians, and of the idealistic policeman who brings him down. Unfortunately, in India, you can never make the superstar black, forget even solidly grey, and much of the film wastes too much time in lionizing the protagonist. He helps the poor. He gives lectures on secularism. He kills but he feels bad. He smuggles in RDX but he was not aware he was, and he breaks down at the consequences of his actions, and essentially turns himself, so wracked by guilt he is. Given that the film is apparently inspired by true events of a bootlegger-turned-arms-smuggler associate of Dawood, one would have hoped that the film would be honest enough to not to scrub the protagonist, but a combination of the need to maintain the image of a superstar and, this is a conjecture, the politics of the very political director, put paid to that.
This part I do understand. What I cannot fathom is the choice of the heroine, who, and I don’t care how great she acts in Pakistani TV series, is seriously underwhelming in every scene, and I wish I had a fast forward button in the theater every time she came on to the screen.
What makes Raees rise above Kaabil though is Shahrukh Khan. There is an intense physicality to his acting, which is what made me a fan once upon a time, but over the years, the dictates of commerce and the weakness of his directors have made him cross over the line of subtlety to hammy overacting, the eyes reddening and the lips trembling in rage, but here, SRK is in almost total control, in the kind of role he was born to play. Returning to to his anti-hero roots he shows he still got it, his performance totally “chawanni-fek citi-maaro” in a single-screen way, as he dominates every sequence, no matter how cliched its execution is, so much so that he makes Raees watchable, despite the predictability of it all.
However watchability no longer cuts it, in the race to the top of Bollywood’s top-of-the-pile. You need the perfect mix of familiarity, uniqueness, concept, and marketing, as Bajrangi Bhaijaan and PK and Dangal showed, in order to rake in the real big bucks. Which is why both Raees and Kaabil will possibly not go beyond the middle of the pole, being as they are adequate star-vehicles, but lacking that rocket fuel, whose formula you wish you knew but whose absence you can easily detect.