The reason Hindi movies are often referred to as Bollywood movies is because Hindi movies have a rep for borrowing plots from Hollywood movies. While that is true in a some cases, Hindi movies of late have borrowed generously from South Indian cinema, that other India-based movie powerhouse that churns out regional movies by the truckloads. Recent Salman Khan Hindi language hits Ready, Wanted, and Tere Naam were all remakes of movies originally made in southern India. Rohit Shetty’s remake of the hit 2010 Tamil entrySingham would have to pass muster as a throwback, retro 1970s-style action flick from a genre presumed to have bit the dust along with bell bottoms and disco. In much the same way as Once Upon A Time In Mumbai managed to do with a well-made retro feel, and despite both cultural and linguistic regional barriers, Shetty’s Singham manages to hold its own.
Taking dress, make-up, uniform, dark sunglasses, shirtless and bare-chested cues directly from Salman Khan’s playbook, Ajay Devgn finds himself as Bajirao Singham, a newly minted cop who lands in a criminal cesspool where Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Goa meet. The geographical vortex is crucial since Singham’s nemesis is the dreaded Jaykant Shikre (Raj), who hails from an upper-crust political family and delights in belittling the provincial cultural identity that Singham represents. In a polished package that resembles Salman Khan’s Dabangg in a nice way, the stage is set for a brute force battle of wits and guts between the stoic, soft-spoken Singham and the always strong-arming Shikre.
Singham is the lion-hearted, one-man army up against Shikre, who is a one-man swarm of locusts nibbling away furiously at the fringes of a fragile, tattered balance between order and anarchy. Singham’s first name Bajirao, in a nod to 18th century Marathi cultural and military hero Bajirao Bhatt who scored major victories over both the Mughals and the Portugese, also readily molds into an iconography that is exploited for a super-regional cultural appeal. The ethnic flair is extended to the use of colloquial Marathi, some Gujarati, and also Tulu, a smaller yet distinct language with proto-Dravidian roots.
As urban legends go, it is a foregone conclusion that Shikre’s unrelenting legions of paid informants, corrupts police officers, ruthless henchmen, and gangsters must eventually blink first against the weight of the far gentler—and, hence, far more weighty—voices that Singham brings to his aid. The chief proponent of Singham’s cause is the grieving widow (Kulkarni) of the last guy who held Singham’s job. In a restrained role, Kulkarni infuses an air of genteel dignity to the widow as she assuredly and patiently bids for Singham to uncover the truth behind her late husband’s mysterious death.
Even though Singham finds time to dilly-dally with gorgeous local lass Kavya (Agarwal, in a decent entry to a Hindi female lead role), the moral compass is always imperceptibly pointed elsewhere on the horizon. For his turn, Devgn’s character, playing so much like a stand-in for Salman Khan’s role fromDabangg, begs the possibility that the rascally, gray-shaded “cop role” may be the new norm for Hindi film protagonists in this decade. This may be the surest proof that the legacy gifted to Indian cinema by Bachchan’s “Angry Young Man” from the 1970s was no mere fluke.
Rohit Shetty’s lessons from his father, the legendary action choreographer Shetty, are brilliantly apparent in how well the mano-a-mano fight sequences blend into the story. Yes, there are a couple of stops when the wires are just barely visible. However, given the rapid pacing, there is hardly any time to notice as Singham neutralizes yet another band of Shikre’s goons. Director Shetty and lead Devgn have had a string of remarkable box-office hits (theGolmaal franchise, Zameen). After Zameen, Singham may be the first effort that scores equally by both critical and mass appeal measures. These kinds of remakes we don’t mind at all!n
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.