Saturday, 4 February 2017

Old-school ‘Kaabiliyat’ (4.5/5)

Originality of content in mainstream Indian/Hindi Cinema has always been an area of much debate and vagueness, where masters of ‘derived inspiration’ have done battle with champions of fresh thoughts. Owing to the mass market-driven compulsion of catering to a pan-Indian audience, where the lowest common denominator can make or break a multi-crore venture, well-packaged entertainment has by and large lorded over novelty of ideas here, with both ‘manufacturers’ (since film folk nowadays insist on referring to themselves as an ‘industry’ – albeit a most disorganized one) and patrons traditionally preferring the former.

At this juncture, we are faced with a most interesting question: is originality overrated, at least in the realms of mainstream cinema? It can be argued that there are only so many stories to tell, and shrewd manipulation of the theme (and the resources at the maker’s disposal) by way of skillful direction and a smart screenplay often scores over original content, provided the treatment and packaging are done adroitly enough. Look no further than commercial Hindi Cinema of the 1973-1982 period, the era that has been arguably the most influential in defining India’s contemporary pop culture, the age of giants like Salim-Javed and Amitabh Bachchan. Many of their best works (jointly and separately) were inspired by other films, both Indian and international. DEEWAAR owed its roots to Gunga Jumna and Mother India; MAJBOOR took off from Zig Zag; SHAKTI had its genesis in DEEWAAR (and to some extent Thanga Pathakkam); ZANJEER took its inspiration from Death Rides A Horse, AGNEEPATH borrowed liberally from Nayakan, and SHOLAY had too many points of influence to list in a single article. Yet all these films are counted among the most well-crafted pieces of commercial Hindi cinema, having stood the test of durability and in turn becoming inspiration points themselves.

This brings us to Kaabil, produced by actor-turned-filmmaker Rakesh Roshan and directed by Sanjay Gupta, both master craftsmen of the masala entertainment genre. Neither man has ever been a stickler for originality: while Roshan took inspiration from diverse sources such as Return To Eden (Khoon Bhari Maang), Ram Aur Shyam (Kishen Kanhaiya), KASME VAADE (Kaho Naa…Pyaar Hai), E.T. (Koi…Mil Gaya), and Superman (Krrish and Krrish 3), Gupta successfully Indianized A Better Tomorrow (Aatish), The Juror (Khauff), Reservoir Dogs (KAANTE), Oldboy (Zinda), and Seven Days (Jazbaa). Kaabil keeps the tradition alive while serving as a good confluence point of both Gupta’s and Roshan’s individual approaches to filmmaking.

Rohan Bhatnagar (Hrithik Roshan), a young voice-over artiste, is introduced to Supriya Sharma (Yami Gautam), an independent working woman, by a well-meaning mutual acquaintance. It is literally a blind date – both are sightless. They click and before long, Rohan has successfully wooed Supriya. Expectedly, marriage follows.

Soon afterwards, tragedy strikes the lovelorn couple. Local goon Amit Shelar (Rohit Roy) and his friend Wasim (Md. Sahidur Rahaman) rape a vulnerable Supriya when Rohan is away at work. Since Amit is the younger brother of influential corporator Madhavrao Shelar (Ronit Roy), the investigating officers waste no time in hushing up the case; they even help Madhavrao abduct the couple to prevent them from going for the all-important medical examination that must be conducted within 24 hours of rape. Far from helping the distraught couple, the police label them as frauds attempting to blackmail the Shelars.

Supriya commits suicide after being raped for the second time. When Madhavrao taunts Rohan and tells him to stop pursuing the case, the grieving man, who has already given up on the law, decides to take things in his own hands and deliver vigilante justice to his beloved’s tormentors.

Kaabil is a shout-out to Bollywood’s great revenge dramas of the 80s and 90s, the direct descendant of films like ANDHAA KAANOON, AAKHREE RAASTA, INDRAJEET, and Phool Aur Angaar, where the hero, traumatized after the rape and subsequent death of his wife/adopted daughter/sister, sets out on a mission to visit vengeance upon the evil-doers. While the premise itself is nothing new, the treatment is clever, with the protagonists’ blindness adding a new dimension to an oft-told tale, but not without silently outlining how much modern-day Bollywood, despite its nose-turned-up-at-everything-retro attitude, is still dependent upon the formulaic, masala cinema of yore as far as drawing inspiration is concerned.

Hrithik is in fabulous form; this is probably his finest performance since Krrish in mid-2006. The goofy lover, the talented dubbing artiste, the broken husband shattered by his wife’s rape and suicide, the relentless machine of death – he does full justice to every aspect of the role. He moves through the narrative as a Great White Shark might move through the ocean: smooth and unstoppable. The scene at the shopping mall, where the young lover’s helplessness surfaces on getting separated from his girlfriend, and his dubbing scenes, especially his spot-on mimicry of Amitabh Bachchan to impress his new wife, deserve special mention. In many ways, the character of Rohan Bhatnagar is a direct throwback to Bachchan’s Angry Young Vijay of DEEWAAR, SHAKTI, and AGNEEPATH: dangerous, calm, calculating, and a resourceful risk-taker. He reminds one of textbook ‘blind man’ performances such as Sanjeev Kumar in Qatl, Denzel Washington in The Book Of Eli, and Naseeruddin Shah in Sparsh.

Yami Gautam is restrained; there is a great deal of poise in her portrayal of Supriya who, even in her darkest hour, puts her husband’s emotional suffering ahead of her own trauma. Rohit Roy is suitably slimy, while Ronit Roy channelizes the innate menace of Madhavrao very well. But it is Narendra Jha, the chief baddie from last year’s Ghayal Once Again, who is a revelation as senior cop Chaubey. Clearly, here is someone to watch out for.

The technical aspects of the film are well-rounded. Akiv Ali’s editing is sharp, while Sudeep Chatterjee and Ayananka Bose’s cinematography is polished. The numerous close-ups capture the expressions of the characters in fine detail. Shyam Kaushal’s fight sequences are ingenious and tight; since our man is blind and has to rely more on his wits and other senses than physical sight, it was necessary to keep the action short and focused. Rajesh Roshan’s music is a bit of a letdown: barring "Main tere kaabil", none of the other songs stand out and the remixed degradation of the Kishore Kumar classic “Saara zamana” (from YAARANA) into an item number is deplorable. Pity – one has always associated Rajesh Roshan with melodious music, right from Khatta Meetha and Doosara Aadmi to KNPH, and though Kaabil does not have much scope for music, one wishes he had done better.

Some of the first reviews of Kaabil mentioned how the screenplay focused more on Rohan than on Supriya and how the plot was regressive in its portrayal of a rape victim as a sullied, broken object. One feels compelled to disagree. Apart from the fact that the film is Hrithik’s home production and was always going to focus more on him than anyone else, Kaabil is Rohan’s story, told from his viewpoint, not Supriya’s. Expecting her to have an equal role would be akin to demanding Radha and Basanti be given as much screen time as Jai and Veeru. Supriya’s importance lies in the fact that her tragedy is the fulcrum on which the machine operates, but Rohan was always going to be the main power switch. (And honestly, did anyone really think the makers were going to bank as much on Yami Gautam as Hrithik?) As for the “regressive” bit, that too is a misinterpretation: as Rohan correctly deduces, Supriya gives up her life not because she is weak, but because she realizes how hard her defenselessness against her abusers is going to hit her husband. Rohan’s silence to Supriya’s offer of walking away arose not from any kind of ‘disgust’ at his wife’s ‘tarnished honour’, but more from a husband’s helpless, frustrated rage at not having been around to protect his wife from her predators.

Kaabil is not flawless – it is not explained how a dubbing artiste could manage to book an (expensive) apartment in a Mumbai high-rise, or why Supriya stopped working after marriage, or why the phone booth owner was always conveniently absent every time Rohan went there to make a call – but these are minor quibbles. The film definitely packs a punch. Watch it if you are a Hrithik fanboy/fangirl. Watch it even if you are not. Because solid old-fashioned entertainment, especially one that does not take recourse to lionization of criminals or distortion of documented history, is a rarity from today’s Bollywood.

[Image courtesy: Google Images]

[A shorter and slightly altered version of this post can be found here:]


  1. So originality is, after all, overrated?

    1. 1. I'm saying that when it comes to the domain of mainstream cinema, there is a high chance that 'originally' might be overrated and it is actually the packaging that counts. I've given several examples in the article itself, and in addition to those, how many people realize/d, despite multiple viewings, that SHAAN is actually SHOLAY disguised as a James Bond film or that MUQADDAR KA SIKANDAR was actually "Devdas in the 1970s"? (The idea of the film arose from a chat between Prakash Mehra and Gulzar following the unfortunate shelving of Gulzar's 'Devdas', *-ing Dharmendra.) The extent of originality (in commercial cinema) probably depends on how well you have been able to hide your 'sources of inspiration' and adapted your content to suit the tastes, ethos, and social context of your target audience.
      2. I thought of giving it a 4/5 rating, but went with that extra 0.5 coz Hrithik in the film reminded me of the Hrithik of yore, the one from KNPH-Krrish I absolutely adored (somehow none of his films after Krrish really appealed to me and he gradually lost the sheen).
      3. Haji Mastan's daughter went on record saying DEEWAAR has hardly any resemblance to his father's life, except the bit about a dockyard labourer becoming a smuggler. In fact, many film analysts and historians like Diptakirti Chaudhuri (blogger and film writer; read his blog) and Vinay Lal and, more importantly, Salim-Javed themselves, have opined that it probably suited HM to have his 'aura' built around the misconception that DEEWAAR was based on his life. But it is true that Mani Ratnam/Kamal Haasan's 'Nayakan', which was unofficially remade in Hindi as Dayavan and AGNEEPATH, was based on the life of Vardarajan Mudaliyar. But no matter how sympathetic we are to Vijay in DEEWAAR, he is, at the end of the day, a criminal.

  2. SHAAN is actually SHOLAY disguised as a James Bond film or that MUQADDAR KA SIKANDAR was actually "Devdas in the 1970s" - I did not realize this; actually I am not sure I agree even now. From the high level perspective you are taking, potentially any revenge drama with avengers and the avenged can be in some way mapped to a generic design. Probably too abstract to be real for normal folks like me, who lack the deep knowledge to connect the dots as you have :-)

    As far as the claims of HM's daughter are concerned, it does not take away from the allegations, somewhat similar to what has been thrown around for another, more recent, release. In this case too, the film makers have stated all characters are imaginary etc etc. The lack of a family member to make a statement [or conversely, the availability of one] does not take away from the fact that these parallels exist. That said, it still amounts to little more than allegations. In what is otherwise a very well framed and objective analysis, you could have probably resisted the temptation to make that not-so-oblique reference. Or two :-) - but then can the scorpio[n] ever hide its sting?

    1. Haha :-) yes, that sting could probably have been avoided, but the temptation was too much :-) I spoke to a couple of people recently, no film enthusiasts but have, rather surprisingly, ended up seeing both films. Acc. to them, Kaabil was better, "more enjoyable". Since Kaabil is a work of fiction and the other film is effectively a biopic, that 'sting' remains relevant to a good extent because like some other recent films - D (2005), for instance - it does end up glorifying a known criminal, unlike DEEWAAR, which was actually a work of fiction. As for family-members speaking up, I will try to hunt down Haji Mastan's daughter's interview for you: what greater proof than a daughter busting a myth about her own father can there be? She went on to say - and both Salim-Javed agree - that it suited her father to create his aura around the film, and in all likelihood, HM himself spread the news that DEEWAAR was based on his life. The lady says that DEEWAAR being based on her father's life is an urban legend.

      As for SHAAN, I will point out the similarities between that one and SHOLAY iif we ever get to watch it together.

      Regarding the Devdas angle in MKS:
      This is a fact. Circa 1976, Gulzar had started shooting 'Devdas', *-ing Dharmendra-Hema-Sharmila. After a few reels were shot, the producer ran out of funds and the film had to be shelved. Gulzar was lamenting about this to Prakash Mehra one day, and this gave Mehra the idea for his new movie: "A modern Devdas, set in present-day [1976/77] Bombay!" RD Burman had even recorded 6 beautiful songs for Gulzar's film, but the album was never published.