For film lovers who consider Bollywood cinema to be a blind spot in their cinephilia and wish to change that, there’s a curious entry from Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions that rolled out last week: a purported remake of their own 1990 production Agneepath. The curiosity, I think, arises from the tug-of-war between Dharma’s current reputation as makers of an “international” brand of Bollywood cinema targeted specifically at expatriates and nascent Indophiles and the highly indigenous, culturally and historically rooted nature of the movie they have chosen to remake. The result is exciting, to say almost nothing, and should serve as a good takeoff point for the adventurous.
A crucial detail about the original Agneepath, starring Amitabh Bachchan and directed by Mukul Anand: It’s insane. Made during the limbo between Amitabh Bachchan’s infamous career in politics and his equally unsuccessful foray into film production, the film is located at the fag end of that vague set of films that academicians have milked to death—the so-called Angry Young Man pictures, all featuring a generally tormented Bachchan trudging through the narrative. The film works on archetypal material redolent of classic Westerns, and fleshes it out into three hours with scenes both startling and superfluous (for a measure, imagine the Ranown cycle developed as a TV series): The righteous schoolmaster of Mandwa, an island village to the west of Mumbai, Dinanath Chauhan is cudgeled to death in front of his son Vijay by his villagers after having been misled by the scheming Kancha, who plans to appropriate the village for growing opium. Forced to bury his father by himself and move to Mumbai for a living, Vijay plans to reclaim his village and avenge his father. Anand cares little about redaction, tonal consistency or pacing and primarily works around self-styled iconic images which in turn have no scruples about their literariness and in-your-face symbolism. (The continuity between father Chauhan and son is illustrated by what the film takes to be as its central image: blood dripping from battered father’s face onto his son’s. I kid you not.)
Considering multiplex-bred audiences today have a little less patience for three hours of such excesses, it is not surprising that Karan Malhotra’s Agneepath (2012) is less a remake of Mukul Anand’s film and more a respin of it for a new generation of film goers from a new nation, half of whose populace is younger than Anand’s film. Nowhere is this more apparent than the scene in which we are introduced to the adult Vijay, 15 years after his father was lynched by the mindless mob of Mandwa. We see Hrithik Roshan, with his perfectly-chiseled body and Greek God features, sprinting forward like a stallion, climbing on to the top of the Dahi Handi pyramid, and seizing the jackpot at the top. Vijay is now 27, about a decade younger than his predecessor (who is, exactly, 36 years, 9 months, 8 days and 16 hours old when we see him for the first time) and as just as old as most of his audience. Anand’s 1990 film is an Amitabh Bachchan vehicle in more ways than one. It is the Bachchan persona struggling against an emaciating physique, the Angry Young Man trapped in a body that couldn’t be called so—an empty container in which his voice ricochets endlessly. Roshan’s unkempt yet obviously resplendent countenance is the direct opposite of Bachchan’s drooping, mascara-wearing face. “He looks normal, but he’s the one most disturbed,”Inspector Gaitonde (Om Puri) correctly characterizes. The glacial surface of Roshan’s face reveals nothing, not even the simmering wrath that is supposedly driving him, and isn’t helped by his barely visible blue pupils that vanish when he cries.
Malhotra’s film, perhaps as homage of which there is no shortage within and outside of the film, including its publicity, retains much of the original’s shamelessly literal approach to images and impressive use of long lenses, shallow fields and racking focus for dramatic impact. (In an adeptly realized and shot encounter early on between Vijay’s father and Kancha, Vijay and mother are frighteningly visible and out of focus, as seen from Kancha’s POV.) Equally discerning is the fine-tuned attention to landscapes that sets up a visceral contrast between the metallic-blue, horizontal wastelands of Mandwa and the radiant saffron-tinged, vertical settlements of Mumbai. Malhotra’s film finds itself constantly in dialogue with the older Agneepath, resolving a few of the latter’s contradictions (and adding a few), deftly pruning out its circuitous narrative threads and making prominent some of the latent themes and equivalences. If Anand’s film unabashedly works towards a near-surreal, graceful finale recalling The Searchers (“Let’s go home, mother”), the reboot keeps underscoring the parallel between Vijay and Kancha, much like what Ford’s film does with Ethan and Scar. For one, both Sanjay Dutt, who plays Kancha, and Hrithik Roshan have imposing statures and that stand in contrast with other portly figures in the film. Vijay uses the same means as Kancha to reclaim his hometown, including an ignoble murder of a man in front of his son. The seemingly ageless, Kurtz-like Kancha might be something of an essence that Vijay is reducing himself to: an asexual, amoral nihilist with no other function than to induct people like Vijay. This sustained emphasis, illustrated through blocking and editing, is why the deliciously classical scene of confrontation between the two is also the best one in the film.
But labeling Malhotra’s film as an ironic, movie-bratish throwback to the past, conscious of its own workings, is perhaps too lenient. The older film was made when the country was on the brink of opening up its markets and this was the time when satellite television and discos were becoming commonplace. While left-leaning filmmakers like Girish Kasaravalli were probing into the flipside of this proclaimed boon, Agneepath was making an argument for the right-wingers in the mainstream. Mukul Anand’s Vijay Dinanath Chauhan is a raving reactionary railing against all foreign intrusion and taking it upon himself to protect the sanctity of institutions like family, religion and community. Bachchan’s racist patriarch, who can not see women as anything other than his mother or bearers of children, is a far bolder, far more politically-incorrect and far more rounded character than Roshan’s generally unmarked, comparatively genteel, secular hero. What enrages the new Vijay is not alcohol and prostitution, which are but indulgences according to current moral standards of Bollywood, but more scandalizing taboos of today such as human trafficking and child molestation. The villain, too, is not some suave, tuxedo-wearing, sunglass-sporting non-resident, but a Hindu madman who, like Pulp Fiction's Jules Winnfield, misquotes the Gita to suit his own needs. Even the welcome elimination of the stereotyped South Indian character, portrayed by Mithun Chakraborty in the original, seems first a necessity of the times and only then an indicator of refined taste. The thematic stress in the new film is solely on revenge, instead of the salvage of Mandwa and its residents. Vijay’s agenda, as it were, is reduced to the purely familial, unlike his predecessor, for whom the familial becomes inextricably political. Between the two Agneepath films, we witness an India that has taken an abrupt about turn. Bachchan’s Vijay Chauhan is now an outcast in his own country.