Agneepath: Bachchan’s brooding, bloody revenge!

Often when I think of an actor or a specific movie, an iconic visual — poster or pose — pops up in front of my eyes.

Not in the case of Amitabh Bachchan though. The mere mention of Indian cinema’s greatest entertainer conjures up too many movies, too many memories; it’s like a giant montage of overlapping images.

Amidst a flurry of Jai, Anthony and Sukumars, there’s an entire row of his best-known Vijays.

The taxonomy doesn’t end here. Even among the latter, while not as distinguished as the Vijays of Zanjeer, Deewar or Trishul, is Agneepath‘s Vijay Dinanath Chavan. (It’s Chavan, not Chauhan. There’s much confusion over the spelling since it’s pronounced as Chauhan throughout the film. Agneepath‘s end credits, I note, leave no room for speculation.)

The name brings back the image of Big B plopped awkwardly on a chair, a dispassionate gesture of the hand and the cocky introduction: ‘Vijay Dinanath Chauhan, poora naam; baap ka naam Dinanath Chauhan; maa ka naam Suhasini Chauhan, gaon Mandwa, umar chhattis saal, nau mahina, aath din, yeh solvaa ghanta chal rahela hai… haain?’

If nothing else, it certainly ranks among Bachchan’s most-quoted introductions after Shahenshah

Although in the same territory as Yash Chopra’s Deewar — wronged son taking to the path of crime resulting in a morality-driven rift between him and his righteous mother — Agneepath is decidedly more brutal, with no attempt to sugarcoat the unpleasant reality.

And Big B’s portrayal of the angst of an avenging son, complete with a gruff baritone and kohl-lined eyes, blends seamlessly into the visceral, exaggerated tone of Agneepath‘s mostly bloodstained content. 

Perhaps this very aggression and AB’s brand new gruff baritone worked against the 1990 release, created by producer Yash Johar and director Mukul S Anand (two filmmakers who Bollywood has lost).

How else does one explain the success of the decidedly inferior and trite K C Bokadia potboiler, Aaj Ka Arjun, which came out in the same year?

I watched Agneepath as a school kid and found it too intense for my liking. Truth is I could never quite revere any movie that culminated with Big B dying on screen. It didn’t matter then if he won a National Award for the same.

When I saw it again some years later, I had developed an appetite for the unsavory and noted a lot more favourable aspects to it. Like how Agneepath, which draws its title and purpose from Big B’s father Dr Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s compelling poem, is recited at the most strategic junctures of the story, its sleek camerawork (during the Mandwa and Mumbai slum sequences) and how spectacularly every scene unfolds.

Be it Sultanat, Hum, Khuda Gawah or this, Anand was incapable of thinking modest. His ideas demanded a grand, dramatic canvas, stirring the viewer into submission.

Agneepath, despite its amplified sentimentality, strong language and violence works on account of this very dynamism.

And while it seeks obvious inspiration from Brian De Palma’s Scarface — the restaurant scene, the dinner table discussion, the shoot-out within the police station — Agneepath has an unmistakable desi soul.

Set in rural Maharashtra, it begins with a schoolmaster Dinanath Chavan’s (Alok Nath) earnest efforts to reform the wayward villagers into model citizens. But his efforts to set up electricity in the rundown community evoke the wrath of drug lord Kancha Cheena (Danny Denzongpa) and he becomes a victim of a plotted sex scandal, leading to his disgrace and horrific murder.

The memories of his idealist father’s blood streaming down the young Vijay’s (Master Manjunath) face, his last words (Agneepath, Agneepath, Agneepath), a home set afire, a stunned mother (Rohini Hattangadi), a sobbing sister (Baby Tabassum) and a raging mob with scorn on their faces, leave an indelible mark on the young boy’s psyche and he sails off to Mumbai, vowing to return and settle scores. 

In Mumbai, Vijay cannot grow quickly enough.

Wearing kohl in his eyes, changing his voice for effect and doing odd jobs to support his family, he soon succumbs to the uncontested Bollywood logic — the only way to beat your enemies is become like them. He begins to work for the Amar Akbar Anthony of the crime world — Shetty (Deepak Shirke), Usman (Avtar Gill) and Terelin (Sharat Saxena) since they share his aspiration to destroy Kancha Cheena.

His misadventures bring him in contact with the mirthful, loquacious nariyal-pani (tender coconut water) seller, Krishnan Iyer M A (Mithun Chakraborty).

Given the gritty circumstances woven around Vijay, the filmmakers felt a need to lighten the scene with Krishnan’s clownish antics. On any other actor, the farce would have fallen flat, but this man is a livewire in his droll, over-the-top delivery underlined in a blown-up South Indian caricature. 

One of its most powerful non-Bachchan moments involves Mithun delivering an angry speech in Tamil, admonishing his community members for being mute bystanders to transgressions.

At the same time, his romance track with Vijay’s sister, Shiksha (Neelam), is most expendable, resulting in little more than dreary, needless songs.

The other romantic track in the film — the relationship between Vijay and his nurse, Mary (Madhavi) — is also one of the most poorly developed sub-plots. It moves at a snail’s pace, with a bland Madhavi playing dumb spectator, uttering not more than five lines in the movie.

Her presence is meant to reveal Vijay’s softer, vulnerable side. This happens exactly three times, but the offshoot is one fabulous scene each: Whether he’s clumsily conveying his desperation to be loved to Mary, imploring a doctor to save his mortally injured brother-in-law’s life in a stuffy hospital or the climax when he convinces his perennially scathing mother how his entire existence has been a struggle to follow his father’s school of thought, underscored by the poem Agneepath.The action soon shifts to Mauritius and we realise the small-time Kancha is now a suave, sinister businessman.

Because he’s played by the charismatic Danny, it’s a character you quietly root for. In fact if it was the 1990s, one would openly suggest Vijay, on a subconscious level, admires Kancha’s unruffled malice. This observation is validated to some extent during the song Ali Baba.

Mud, blood, cops, crooks follow as things begin to wind off hastily after Vijay marries, become a father and re-embraces faith (making way for the famous Ganpati visarjan sequence). Agneepath loses its steam around the last 40 minutes only to resume a high note with its grisly climax wherein Vijay at long last, finds closure.

But Bollywood’s obsession with re-constructing beloved films and characters refuses to leave the angry young man in peace.

Twenty two years ago, Dharma Productions wasn’t the brand it is today and Agneepath didn’t quite get its due at the box office. Why else would the same banner, now helmed by Yash Johar’s son Karan, give it a comeback with Hrithik Roshan and Sanjay Dutt playing the iconic Vijay Dinanath Chavan and Kancha Cheena, respectively.

Will it succeed, or will this be another Don (for some that is a good thing)? Some are curious. Some don’t care. Still others think this might be better than the original.

I, for one, don’t know. What I do know is that Agneepath succeeds in hosting a rare marriage of larger-than-life anti-heroism with graphic aesthetics. Can the new one beat that?

This column was first published on rediff.com.

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Thank you for the laughs, Kundan Shah!

When my father passed away in the late 1970s, my brother was only four and his fledgling understanding of grief took comfort in ‘at least, he watched Sholay.’

There’s so much value attached to certain films, experiencing it can offer a mysterious sense of satisfaction, the kind you want to share with a like-minded loved one.

One of my living regrets is he didn’t live to see Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, which released a few years later. Knowing his socialistic leanings, I am sure my father would have appreciated it just as fervently.

Kundan Shah’s splendid satire is a national treasure that I’ve adored and quoted from for as long as I can remember.

I laughed at its scintillating humour, marvelled over its free-spirited artistry and wowed at its insane behind-the-scenes reality. But the disconcerting reality disguised in Shah’s farce wasn’t lost on me. Although it came out in 1983, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaromirrors the depressing state of affairs like it was shot yesterday.

Except Shah’s humorous touch makes the darkness of unsettling discoveries like ‘Iska matlab hai laash humare peeche hai’ easy to bear.

‘For me comedy is when you try to survive through your wit,’ he once said.

What unfolds is a tragicomic circus of useless virtue up against inevitable defeat and impossible progress, which masterfully culminates into a boisterous Mahabharata parody towards the end.

The first time I saw it on Doordarshan, I was only a child but have vivid memories of sitting before my next-door neighbour’s Crown television set on a straw mat along with two other kids my age. At that time, Shah’s scathing commentary on the country’s corrupt socio-politico system went over my head but D’Mello’s ‘Thoda khao thoda pheko’ antics inspired me greatly every time a suspicious looking veggie was served on the plate.

I saw it again and again till I lost count and Vinod, Sudhir, Ahuja, Tarneja, Ashok, D’Mello/Draupadi became an indelible part of my cinephile journey.

During my daily commute to St Xavier’s College, every day I stood on the exact spot as Naseeruddin Shah and Ravi Baswani — the scene where they’re arguing about boarding a local without ticket at Marine Lines station — I would feel like I’ve stepped inside movie history.

Shah’s next directorial effort for silver screen, Kabhi Haan Kabhie Naa, a 1994 rom-com set in Goa, is hands down my favourite Shah Rukh Khan movie. Its feel-good fervour comes alive in underdog SRK’s upbeat, underhanded and unsuccessful efforts to win ‘Anna’ whilst struggling to make his conventional dad see his vocation lies in music.

Shah draws on the actor’s strengths and innocence in such a sublime fashion, it’s a personal blow when his heart breaks and the best feeling ever when he’s rewarded with a prospective sweetheart in Juhi Chawla’s surprise cameo.

There’s an attractive fallibility and moral compass to his protagonists in both the films that compels us to relate with and root for them.

Sadly, no other film he made after it could match up to this magic. Whether it was because of lack of support from the business-driven industry or plain creative exhaustion or both, I rather not say. But his dissatisfaction is pretty obvious in statements like, ‘I love to make small films, but no one gives me the chance’ or ‘There is a kind of restlessness. This is because I know I can do better.’

What I do know is, even though I was bored out of my wits by Hum Toh Mohabbat Karega, thought little of Dil Hai Tumhara and cringed through Kya Kehna, the lacklustre quality of his later work did not reduce my respect for his most loved gems on celluloid.

Or television.

Week after week, a school-going me relished the bubbling wit and spontaneous emotionality of middle-class struggles and everyman conflicts in Doordarshan classics like Nukkad, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi or Wagle Ki Duniya.

Many years have passed and I no longer remember the episodes in detail. But I do remember the smile they brought to my face or the uncomplicated times they represent. A part of me still lingers in those warm, secure memories.

And so it was a rather special moment to see my byline featured alongside Shah (external link) for a special issue released by the Indian Screenwriters Conference, where both of us, besides a bunch of others, contributed an essay. While I discussed the portrayal of common man in cinema, he penned a tribute to the great humourist Sharad Joshi, with whom he collaborated on Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi and I knew as my mom’s editor in Hindi Express.

After I became a journalist, I had the opportunity to watch Shah in action on the sets of Ek Se Badhkar Ek where I was scheduled to meet Suniel Shetty for an interview. His mild-mannered and unassuming disposition stood out in a crowd of make believe as he patiently explained a scene to the heroine Raveena Tandon. It would be another five years before Ek Se Badhkar Ek would see the light of the day.

I bumped into him again during a press conference for Dil Hai Tumhara. He appeared more resigned than relaxed and unlike his chatty cast has little to say.

I am sad he’s no more. I am sad he couldn’t celebrate his 70th birthday. I am sad he couldn’t make the kind of films he wanted.

But I am also grateful.

He made me laugh. He made me cry. He made me believe in Hum Honge Kamyab and the power of a shooting star.

This column was first published on rediff.com.

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Chef: Saif shows fine form in a bland celebration of the culinary arts

Chef begins in the heart of Delhi’s chaat heaven with the sight of a young lad enjoying a crisp, piping hot aloo tikki. Its tangy, spicy flavour leaves such a deep impression on the Chandni Chowk inhabitant’s taste buds he decides to run away from home and seek the secrets of culinary arts. 

In the next scene, the boy is a disgruntled head chef of a New York Eatery, a position he’s about to lose for socking a customer’s jaw for criticising his cooking. 

Despite the dubious turn of events, it’s essential we believe Roshan Kalra is a burned-out kitchen whiz who has seen better days and Michelin stars. 

Played by Saif Ali Khan — an actor not far from this narrative — Roshan acquires a sympathetic air and touching authenticity in his quiet contemplations of achieving a professional breakthrough. 

To shake off the sudden slump, Roshan makes a trip to India, more specifically Kochi, where his ex-wife (Padmapriya Janakiraman) and pubescent son (Svar Kamble) reside. They aren’t the only ones. His complicated family man status quo extends to his father, still sore about his ‘bawarchi’ aspirations. 

There’s a natural awkwardness to Roshan’s early interactions with his former missus and offspring. It’s as though he’s overcompensating for his long absences by trying too hard.

‘You’re funny,’ his son observes.

‘No, just middle-aged.’ 

Chef uses Saif’s quickness for pithy wit with flair.

Even after the film slips into rom-com space and an irresistible rival in the shape of Milind Soman pops up to threaten his place, Saif goes easy on his boyish imagery, retaining it just enough to look back at his Dil Chahta Hai days with grace and glee. 

There’s a laidback vibe to Raja Krishna Menon’s remake of Jon Favreau’s scrumptious indie fairy tale that lays more focus on the father-son bonding than the adventures of a food truck start-up. 

Devoid of schmaltz and distasteful stereotypes, their affection grows over time as they bond against the backwaters of Kerala, the Golden Temple in Amritsar and Goa’s hotspots discovering an appetite for idiyappams, tomato chutney and poi.What I liked most here is its willingness to allow these characters to gently savour this renewed intimacy.

Saif is an easy fit for the chilled-out dad as is Svar Kamble in his breezy portrayal of an easy-going, regular kid. But the unruly mop of Mowgli hair he’s made to sport doesn’t do justice to his simple charm.

As his mum, Padmapriya Janakiraman, reminiscent of a young Nandita Das, looks more equipped than her well-meaning supporting role allows her to be. Chandan Roy Sanyal’s contribution as Roshan’s cheerful sidekick adds its share of optimism to the cosy picture.

Chef beams in the genial aura of these sweet, grounded people, their earnest interactions and humble successes. The frames capture their gorgeous homes, vivid moods and photogenic travels with the enthusiasm of a fertile Instagram account.

The songs by Raghu Dixit lilt in joie de vivre. 

Yet for all the promise it holds, Chef never really becomes the comfort food for the soul or eyes.

In a premise begging for food porn, there’s a shocking scarcity of sensory pleasure or vision. You’ll see more gastronomic delights in the two-minute trailer of the original Chef than in this entire movie. 

Saif slices onions, shops for pumpkin, douses fettuccine in garlic infused olive oil, dribbles over chhole bhature and insists quesadilla, he calls it rottza, is his invention. But his love for the medium is scarcely and plainly demonstrated in Chef’s frustratingly distant look into the gifts of cooking. 

As if the lacklustre choice of dishes isn’t disappointing enough, the camera won’t even allow me a decent look at the chutney in making.

Thankfully, there’s Milind Soman — short of appearing on a plate, the ridiculously good-looking hunk does everything in his power to make up for its lack of yumminess. 

Chef’s journey is about realising the importance of doing what one wants over what one needs and amusing in the nature of creativity in the age of social media. But in this droopily written scrap-of-life and far-from-faithful recreation, we never get a sense of what’s eating Roshan Kalra.

Grown up angst is a valid and neglected aspect of our storytelling. Except Menon’s digressing exploration of it feels more dull than delicious.

This review is first published on rediff.com.

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