Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag. Director: Ramgopal Varma. Players: Amitabh Bachchan, Mohanlal, Ajay Devgan, Prashant Sachdev, Sushmita Sen, Nisha Kothari. Theatrical release (K Sera Sera)
So here’s the skinny. Yes, the box office and film punditry have thumbed their noses down at this film. Yes, Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag (RGVKA) pales in comparison to the film Varma wanted to remake, none other than Sholay, Ramesh Sippy’s 1975 mega-hit which is by most counts the Indian sub-continent’s all time box office champ. And yet, there are many, many reasons why RGVKA is actually worse than it needed to be. Here are four things that should have been considered in order for this colossal disaster to have been salvaged:
1) If you remake a desi Western, for Krishnasakes, the three most important things are location, location, and location. In Sholay, a hapless village buttressed against a barren hillock in the middle of nowhere served as the perfect setting for a parable about the drift experienced by India’s middle class under Indira Gandhi’s austere economics. No such luck here. Every attempt to give this crime-infested urban hood an isolated feel ends up giving it a suburban stamp—the Mumbai skyline clearly shows in the background. The viewer can’t shake the feeling that help is only a cell phone call away.
2) Gay “humor” for humor’s sake loses froth unless the “gay” character has something more to chew on then just his gaiety. In Sholay, Bachchan and Dharmendra cozied up to a deliciously understated—and yet effeminate—gay prison comrade in a jail yard scene that raises heckles even today. How could not one but two such manly men be forced to consort with a “girly” prisoner to extract dirt on the comically-Hitleresque jailor’s schemes? What was then a vital prison informer who happened to be gay is transformed here into a two-bit, gossipy gangster who addresses everyone as “darling” and serves no apparent purpose.
3) If you remake Sholay, do not—I repeat—do not forget R.D. Burman. TheSholay juggernaut was a triumphant triumvirate of powerful acting from Bachchan, magnificent captaincy from Sippy, and the musical genius of R.D. Burman. Burman’s scorching “Mehbooba,” filmed on Helen and Jalal Agha, was perhaps the most popular song of the 1970s. The re-packaged “Mehbooba” number (with Sunidhi and Sukhwinder holding their vocal ground surprisingly well), filmed on Urmila Matondkar, actually does justice to Burman’s original, and the instrumentation proves that Burman was a genius decades ahead of his time. The rest of the ho-hum score, however, is a whitewash of neo-glitz, overly orchestrated half-tunes that lack the Burman stamp.
4) The one redeeming grace to Varma’s debacle is a playful Bachchan as the arch-villain Babban Singh, a half-decent recouping of Amjad Khan’s legendary scoundrel, Gabbar Singh. Bachchan bites, no, dives, into the role of Babban and offers Varma the faintest ray of redemption. Babban is pitted against the brooding, retired Inspector Narsimha (Mohanlal), who enlists two ruffians, Raj (Sachdev) and Heero (Devgan), to settle a score with Babban. Sen, as a grieving widow, and Kothari, as the tomboy rickshaw-driver, offer little solace. While diehard sidekicks dog Babban’s every move, alas, Bachchan has no one to back him up.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.