AGNEEPATH. Director: Karan Malhotra. Players: Hrithik Roshan, Sanjay Dutt, Rishi Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, Om Puri, Zarina Wahab. Music: Ajay-Atul. Theatrical release: Dharma Productions.

Mukul Anand’s  Agneepath (1990) was one of the very last successful forays Bachchan made into the so-called Angry Young Man persona, about the same time that he briefly waded into politics. Anand’s movie featured a neo-feudal archetypal central character forced to balance a thirst for revenge while maintaining fidelity to his familial origins. For this time-tested formula to be successful in 2012—in a country that has taken a giant leap forward—a remake would have to be special indeed. With this remake, however, director Malhotra delivers a cinematic masterstroke that carves up its own new archetype that resonates with contemporary hooks.films_agneepath

Brooding and brawny Vijay (Roshan) whiles his time away as a Good Samaritan in a Mumbai slum even though he is haunted by the childhood memory of his father being brutally murdered by the crime lord Kancha (Dutt). Struggling to make good in a drugs-and-gangs infested wasteland, and estranged from his mother (Wahab), Vijay patiently waits, as if for the clock to strike a certain hour. Grabbing the opportunity to strike an alliance with Rauf Lala (Kapoor), another underworld chieftain, Vijay embarks on a tumultuous path that alters his destiny.

The setting is often dark and sways between a dreaded island where Kancha rules with impunity and the Mumbai slums where Vijay lives. Malhotra, with insight from producer Karan Johar, no doubt, carves up a starkly desolate world where just about every dream imagined has at best a slim chance of succeeding. The overbearing sense that no proverbial good deed will go unpunished makes the plotline unique for a mainstream Hindi movie and the story’s fine execution is equally striking.

Malhotra, who previously assisted on My Name is Khan (2010) and Jodhaa Akbar (2008), and cinematographer Kiran Deohans construct two extreme worlds. The slum that Vijay inhabits brings together celebratory Hindu festivals that relive Krishna’s adventures in stealing butter from high-hanging pots and a tight-knit down-market community. At the other extreme, Kancha’s torrid remote island enclave forcibly tears apart a sea-battered barren rock that Kancha has transformed into a living hell.

Roshan’s Vijay suffers silently—almost too silently—seldom betraying the inferno raging inside him. While outwardly hewing to a revenge theme, the unintended consequence of this modern treatment is that Agneepath emerges as a big screen deconstruction on the nature of evil. More precisely, Agneepath(“path of fire”) graphically illustrates the slippery slope leading to the delivery of a no-win endgame. Through this prism, Rauf Lala is only slightly less evil than Kancha, in that Lala has intensely strong family roots, even as he traffics drugs and girls. Kancha is clearly the greater baddie in that his brutality won’t allow even his own father to get in the way.

In addition to Vijay being overtly retrained, the only other distraction—and a significant one, at that—is the short exposure that women have in the narrative. Wahab is terrific in the truncated role of Vijay’s estranged mother and, as Vijay’s love interest, Chopra’s Kalli also holds her own. Perhaps what most sums up the lack of a strong female presence is that in Vijay’s world, Katrina Kaif has be brought in for an “item” song. Surely the female characters have more to say.

Barring an occasional mention of Dawood Ibrahim, apolitical Hindi movies shy away from characters that overtly tap into any contemporary anti-heroes. Kancha’s brand of evil is so protracted in its purpose, so void of any humanity, and so obsessed with bomb explosions that he brings to mind a certain arch-terrorist neutralized at a posh villa in Abbottabad last year.

Dutt, who always appeared somewhat ill at ease in leading male roles, gorges on Kancha’s supporting role character. His Kancha is a black-robed post-apocalyptic incubus on self-imposed exile at a remote island, deviously plotting a “homecoming” to Mumbai where subdued masses would be forced to welcome him with open arms as he claims his fiefdom.

Tora Bora caves, anyone?

With Agneepath’s $5 million gross in the international market, Roshan is already proving to be the second biggest Hindi lead outside India, behind only Shah Rukh Khan. With a particularly strong opening weekend and continued muscular box office returns, Agneepath has been certified a super hit for Karan Johar. In the handful of recent entries that have balanced brains and brawn of various stripes (Singham, The Dirty Picture), Agneepath finds great company.

EQ: A-

Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.

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