A highly popular theme in movies made in southern India is the use of a protagonist who wears a police uniform, flaunts his badge, and muscles his way around town with seemingly little or no accountability—all the while attempting to mend fences on family and romantic fronts. Of late, the hugely popular Salman Khan has begun to borrow this modus. His Wanted was nicely retro-fitted into the vigilante tagline (besides being a remake of a South Indian blockbuster). WithDabangg, Khan, along with his producer brother Arbaaz Khan, returns to the same thematic waterhole and hits the jackpot.
A rustic Utter Pradesh backdrop finds Salman Khan as nebulously principled police officer Chulbul Pandey. Pandey’s distrust of higher authority is largely influenced by his broken family ties. On the trail of a notorious local crime lord (Sood), Pandey soon realizes that his mission may be dangerously intertwined with the fates of his own struggling mother (Kapadia), estranged father (Khanna) and unruly step brother (Arbaaz Khan). These gifted names in character roles provide a sizable boost.
The myth of a lone hero single-handedly wiping out the bad guys can make some rural Indian audiences stand up and cheer loudly even to this day. After subtracting the vigilantism at the core of the story, the rest of Dabangg is an enjoyable mix of Pandey’s attempt to win over the comely pottery-maker’s daughter Rajo (newcomer Sinha), cat and mouse games with the wily criminal kingpin, and high-speed cops-and-robbers foot chases through narrow alleys. Khan, who is extraordinarily popular in many parts of northern India, taps into a north Indian ethnic charm with dead-on comic timing.
Sajid Wajid’s soundtrack—a must-have CD for 2010—provides enough oomph for Khan to match his comic wit with large ensemble dance moves. A couple of dance numbers make it look as if the whole village is foot-tapping along with Khan. If the “Munni Badnaam” dance number, crooned by Mamta Sharma and Aishwarya—which has spread like wildfire, despite very tongue-in-cheek posturing—sounds lyrically juvenile, then try Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s more discriminating “Tere Mast Mast Do Nein” or the Sonu Nigam-Shreya Ghosal duet “Chori Kiya Re Jiya.”
For the records, Dabangg scored an opening weekend even bigger than 3 Idiots, the previous record-holder. Two record-setting box office hits in less than a year is no doubt a milestone—perhaps even an anomaly—for the Hindi film industry and bodes well for pulling the industry out of the last remnants of the theater exhibitors’ strike last year. The hefty $17 million world-wide haul for opening week—keeping in mind that average Indian movie tickets still cost about one U.S. dollar—also shattered previous records. As long as Salman Khan’s country act brings this kind of success, we can expect similar movies from him in the future.