The Don of a New Era
Farhan Akhtar updates a Big B hit with loads of style, but his classy instincts are at odds with the massy material.
OCT, 2006 – Farhan Akhtar’s Don is a reworking of a thriller about an innocent man who’s asked by the police to infiltrate a crime ring whose boss happens to look just like him (and is now out of action) – and I know you’re thinking Amitabh Bachchan’s Don, but I’m talking about China Town, the Shammi Kapoor starrer where he played brothers with matching names (Shekhar, Shankar) and matching faces in a story about, well, an innocent man who’s asked by the police to infiltrate a crime ring whose boss happens to look just like him. No one remembers the latter movie today. (Ask them about China Town, and they’ll probably hum Baar baar dekho – that’s about it.) But the earlier Don – ah, now that everyone remembers, everyone loves. It’s filled with memorable highlights. Helen – who was in China Town too – shaking her aging booty to the rocking Yeh mera dil. Zeenat Aman cutting the rope that Amitabh is using to climb a tall building, after which he falls into… a swimming pool. Amitabh in that polka-dotted waistcoat and a mouth full of paan in… you know the song. Pran doing a tightrope walk while carrying two kids, one of whom was that boy who used to appear in the Horlicks print ads. And the entire cast playing catch-the-diary at a cemetery.
But the most memorable highlight of the earlier Don was seeing Bachchan play an all-out baddie. In the Shammi Kapoor movie, for instance, the two were twins; both are really good-little-mama’s-boys at heart, but one of them was kidnapped by a bad man, and that’s why he ended up bad. So by the end, we had to suffer lots of bhai–bhai melodrama, a definite downer in a so-called thriller. But there was no such backstory in the case of Bachchan. He was just baaaad. It’s not that Bachchan hadn’t played bad earlier – Parwana comes to mind – but in Don, he was bad and cool, and this badness and this coolness were amplified by deliriously campy (and eminently quotable) lines like, “Don ko pakadna mushkil hi nahin, namumkin hai.” See, he wasn’t just any gangster; he was the kind of gangster around whom legends were built, sort of like the Phantom gone evil. (Can’t you imagine a comic book interpretation of Don, with that same line being translated? “It’s not just difficult to catch Don; it’s impossible – Old Underworld Saying.”)
The reason for all this blather about the old film when I should really be talking about the new one is that the new one doesn’t exist by itself – at least for me it doesn’t. It exists only as an extension of our memories of the earlier Don. You can’t watch it without going, “Oh look how they’ve done this scene; oh look, how they’ve done that one.” We may not always remember the good-for-you classics – What does Guru Dutt say when he first runs into Waheeda Rehman in Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam? Eggjactly! – but these trashy, pulpy entertainers are everyone’s favourites, and even today, it’s easy to see why a gen-next director like Farhan Akhtar would be drawn to the material, though with reservations. You can imagine the story discussion going like this: “It’s got a great plot and it’s got great songs, but let’s lose the butterfly bow-ties and the green-checked suits with lapels that stretch all the way to the sleeves. And let’s set the whole thing in Kuala Lumpur with kick-*** special effects. Let’s add layers to the Iftikhar character with a more intense Boman Irani, because that guy can play practically anything. And let’s also lose the oldies like Helen and Pran and bring in buff good-lookers like Kareena Kapoor and Arjun Rampal.”
And yes, when seen from a technical perspective, the old Don is dated. It could use updating. But as with most films written by Salim-Javed, that’s not all that there’s to it. Like many writers before them – writers who wrote for our mainstream cinema – Salim and Javed were masters of archetypal storytelling. Whether it was about iconic, long-suffering mothers or blood brothers who were opposites or people who made the leap from the proverbial rags to riches, their stories drew on age-old threads and knotted them into new tales. Even Don is nothing but a riff on The Prince and the Pauper and The Man In the Iron Mask, with a dash of **** Whittington thrown in. (Remember what follows Ee hai Bambai nagariya tu dekh babua? Sone chandi ki dagariya…, which is a literal translation of the “streets paved with gold” that small-town Whittington came to London in search of.) I’m not suggesting that Salim and Javed used these legends specifically; just that these classic constructs have been in the air for so long that appropriating from them comes as easily as breathing. And that’s why Salim-Javed’s movies were so popular and cut across audiences so effortlessly, because these themes are practically part of our subconscious and hence the recognition is instant. That makes them ideal for masala cinema, where the point is all about spinning entertaining variations on existing tropes for easy consumption.
But the young directors who came to prominence in the multiplex age are more ambitious, more edgy. I wouldn’t say they dispense with archetypes altogether, but they do seem embarrassed about being seen as clichéd – which is just another way of saying that they don’t want to be seen as being associated with these musty archetypes. That’s why Farhan Akhtar has tried to give his father’s Don – a fairly straightforward masala movie – a more sophisticated spin. He’s made it much darker, much more realistically violent – it’s not the cartoony dishoom–dishoom here, with crimson paint for blood; it’s all very disconcertingly authentic – and he’s piled on twists and turns and musings about the nature of identity. (It’s no longer just about the two characters played by Shah Rukh; there’s also the dual nature of someone else, and there’s a lot of shooting-against-reflecting-surfaces that emphasises these mirror-image contradictions). It’s as if Akhtar was a bit shamefaced about the prospect of merely, you know, entertaining us with a now-familiar story, and he felt compelled to do more. So he’s over-spiced an already-bubbling cauldron with a helping of psychological depth, a dash of tech-heavy gizmos, and he’s beefed up the parts quite a bit. (This Don isn’t just any villain; he’s a villain created by the fall of the USSR, and so on).
But all this is just dressing. Underneath the surface, there’s still the skeleton of the poor guy switching places with the rich guy, the pauper becoming the prince, and by not dwelling enough on that, Akhtar has made a movie that feels strangely incomplete. He’s chosen to remake an archetypal story, but he’s not too bothered about the archetype itself. There’s a little of that rich-poor element early on, but it’s dispensed with very quickly. I’m not saying that in the old Don, the wrong-side-of-the-tracks Amitabh wore a lungi and technicolour shirts and had oily hair and kohl in his eyes, while the equivalent character played by Shah Rukh here is merely in jeans, and so the older version is the more authentic telling of this tale. No. But in the earlier Don, when this chhora Ganga kinarewala rediscovered the simple pleasures of paan from his region after days of lounging around in a city slicker’s loafers, the moment carried an electric charge. It was as if he’d come home, as if he’d returned to his roots, even if only for the duration of a rousing song. When the same number plays in the new Don, it’s just… a rousing song. It’s very well choreographed and shot, and Shah Rukh shows traces of the rowdy energy that’s all but disappeared from him ever since he started portraying those ennobled, embalmed romantic heroes, but there’s nothing else at work here. He’s just a guy who’s been transplanted from Mumbai to Malaysia, from one big city to another. That small-town yearning isn’t really what drives the situation here.
Of course, it’s Akhtar’s prerogative to choose the elements he wants from the old Don and leave out the ones that don’t interest him – but the subtextual readings are the things that make these older movies still relevant. Otherwise, we’d dismiss these films as campy hoots. After all, in the Angry Young Man movies, the story may be about one put-upon good guy against one has-it-all villain, but the subtext is what made the good guy iconic to a generation – that this good guy wasn’t just any good guy, he was us, just as the villain wasn’t just any villain but representative of the entire corrupt System. Maybe those who grew up after the early-Bachchan era can find ways to enjoy their generation’s Don without any of this heavy-duty baggage; they could simply choose to surrender to the delicious decadence of the filmmaking. (It doesn’t appear shot on stock so much as silk.) After all, seen without reference points or expectations, there’s still the periodic gag (it may not be entirely coincidental, that wink-wink juxtaposition of the twin peaks of the Petronas towers against a seduction-mode Kareena Kapoor), or the periodic well-shot song sequence (the thumpa-thumpa prelude to the utterly seventies’ Aaj ki raat, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s best number, lays out the buildup to a gang-boss execution with velvety precision).
But after Dil Chahta Hai and after the early portions of Lakshya, I don’t think fans of Farhan Akhtar can do just that and not expect anything else. And I don’t think fans of the earlier Don can see Shah Rukh and do just that – that is, see Shah Rukh and not expect anything else. Here and there, the star pulls off vastly amusing touches – playing on an invisible piano during the title number; striking a faux-ballet pose while passing through a roomful of dancers in tutus (there’s an entire thesis waiting to be written on how these light, fey mannerisms shape a Don completely different from the studly villain created by Amitabh Bachchan) – but the back of your brain is constantly screaming, “That isn’t how Bachchan did this; this isn’t how Bachchan did that,” and I doubt there’s any way for someone who’s seen the earlier film to be objective about what Shah Rukh does here. But even if you’re the kind of superbeing that can forget the earlier Don – and the earlier actor who played Don – I doubt you’ll be able to sit still through the duration of this very long movie. Even the action isn’t terribly diverting. They got permission to shoot on the skybridge that connects the Petronas towers, and all they can do is show circling-camera shots of a man walking on it? Where’s the battling the high winds? Where’s the slipping and nearly plummeting all those floors down but managing to save neck just in time? Why bother to remake a thriller if the thrills are going to be the most functional part of your film?
Akhtar’s addition to the original script has a few too many twists and none of them quite hold up when you replay the movie in your head – but you do remember the stray funny line, or the numerous homages to the cinema of the era, from gadgets-in-shoes to split screens to Bruce Lee T-shirts to disco glitter balls to Kareena Kapoor’s wheels-in-motion dance steps in Yeh mera dil to the slinky, shimmery costumes (good girl Priyanka Chopra colour-coded in silvery-white; bad girl Isha Koppikar in black). Akhtar even throws in a few thematic bridges to the past, like the row of dancers behind Shah Rukh in Morya re being from different communities (one “Madrasi”, one “Punjabi”… it’s all very Desh Premee), or the very theatrical device of the interior monologue that clearly spells out the villain’s machinations to us. And a real thank you to the director for restoring Priyanka Chopra to her sultry glory after Krrish and Aap Ki Khatir; the actress looks spectacularly like a streamlined action figure from a video game, and she makes your heart stop for a second with a slo-mo entrance in a billowing pink creation during the number where Shah Rukh proclaims he is Don.
But maybe it’s time for Akhtar to get a little less fixated about clothes and makeup and hair – a simian buzz-cut for Om Puri, a curly mop for Chunky Pandey – and start thinking more about selecting material that he’s comfortable with and that’s closer to his sensibilities. Don is a movie that Farah Khan could have pulled off with gleeful abandon; she has those relentlessly populist instincts. If the same joke that references Chacha Chaudhary here – the comic character whose “dimaag working phaaster than computer” – had appeared in her version (perhaps titled Main Hoon… Don?), it would have fit right in. But in Akhtar’s universe, it falls flat – not because the joke isn’t funny, but because it tries too hard, like so many other things in the film. When Don walks into his cavernous safe, you see on the walls Balinese dance masks and Bushido blades and a copy of Edvard Munch’s Scream (or maybe it’s the original; hey, maybe it was Don who stole it a couple of years ago). This fussy exotica is meant to make you contrast the world of this Don with that of the paan-chewing, Chacha Chaudhary-spouting simpleton. And you can’t help thinking that all that the older Don needed to achieve the same contrast was Amitabh Bachchan.