RACE. Director: Abbas-Mustan. Players: Anil Kapoor, Saif Ali Khan, Anil Kapoor, Akshaye Khanna, Bipasa Basu, Katrina Kaif, Sameera Reddy. Music: Pritam. Theatrical release (UTV).

When director brothers Abbas and Mustan Burmawalla successfully cross style with substance, they are unstoppable (Baazigar, 2002’s Hamraaz). Injected in the same vein as their previous hit formulas, Race combines high-speed chases, skullduggery, loose men, fast women, and sibling rivalry against the backdrop of horseracing. For all its outwardly excesses, however, Race feels strangely hollow at the core.

Race is produced by Kumar and Ramesh Taurani, tycoon brothers who own the highly successful Tips music label. Under their tutelage, Shiraz Ahmed’s script appears transparently subservient to the producer’s desire to plug as many mostly-English, high “nrg” songs into the plot as possible. In a storyline that is an extension of both the massively popular Dhoom franchise as well as Don(2006) and set in South Africa, two playboy brothers vie for control of a family fortune linked to a $200 million insurance policy.

The older, corporate-minded sibling, Ranvir (Khan, sneering, often shirt-less), is immediately attracted to supermodel Sonia (Basu, skimpily dressed, badly wigged; ditto Kaif), who also attracts Rajiv (Khanna, heftier, often shirt-less), Ranvir’s under-achieving younger brother. Ranvir’s corporate assistant Sophia (Kaif) secretly loves her boss Ranvir but is too shy to admit her feelings. When the quarrel between the siblings gets nasty, it’s up to Inspector D’Costa (Kapoor, fully-shirted) and his IQ-challenged assistant Mini (Reddy, leggy and nicely ditzy) to sort out the mess.

Unlike the Dhoom movies, in which high-tech gadgetry took the backseat to appealing central players with plausible chemistry, Race has no particularly likeable characters. That is heresy considering we are talking about the likes of Anil Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan. These characters will lie, cheat, forge, attempt murder (including fratricide), double- (and triple) cross, and flaunt sexual peccadillos that border on incest. What propels the narrative, for the most part, is one break-neck stunt after another all the way to the finish line.

Musically, maestro Pritam appears victimized by overwork. Of the 20-some soundtracks in Pritam’s repertoire over the last year, only Dus Kahaniyaan andLife in a … Metro truly shined. Pritam’s Race resembles filler thumpa-thumpa that DJs use to transition the dance crowd from one mood to another. Like A. R. Rahman, who has waded into international waters and returned home to ignite fireworks of a magnificent Jodhaa Akbar score, perhaps Pritam now needs to rediscover his Indian musical roots.

None of this has distracted Race-goers. Released in 1300 theaters in India (with an additional 130 in the U.S.), Race nailed the second highest Hindi opening weekend ever, collecting an astonishing $14 million in one week. The soundtrack has sold close to one million copies.

Lesson learned: the two biggest Hindi movie hits of 2008 so far—Race andJodhaa Akbar—couldn’t be more different from each other. Each offers a radically divergent take as to how Hindi movies are successfully designed and marketed. Buckle up; it’s going to be a bumpy year.

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

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