Sunday, October 22, 2006

DON (Hindi; 2006)

A wry sense of humor is essential when attempting a remake, one that combines love and affection for a childhood favorite with the ability to look a bit askance at one's own fixation.  And if I may point to any one overarching failure where Farhan Akhtar's Don is concerned, it would be that in its humorless earnestness it drains the fun out of one of the most engaging Bollyscripts ever, resulting in a film that is plodding, and while good looking, let down by a pervading flatness.  That being said Don is really two films: the first half is an earnest remake that nevertheless held my attention throughout, and is easily the cleverer portion; the second half is a cross between a remake and a sequel, and takes the film to unexpected (though mostly unfortunate) places.  Disappointingly, the second half is about as Hollywoodized a product as one can imagine, and while one appreciates Farhan Akhtar's need to put his own stamp on the tale, it doesn't gel with the first half, and is by the end too farcical to stand on its own terms.  In a nutshell: the film seems less and less of a remake as it progresses, but it doesn't end up as a creditable independent effort.

Akhtar has moved very far from his Bollywood roots (as I had suspected from the very first stills and posters of the film), which in itself wouldn't be a fatal issue were he giving us a strong Hollywoodized Hindi film.  But Don, to an even greater extent than Lakshya, falls between two stools, and often seems derivative of a certain sort of American film (indeed several action sequences are lifted directly from more than one Bond film, Swordfish, etc.).  As I had written prior to the film's release, a remake fails if it is no better than "mere" tribute to the original, and needs a raison d'etre beyond the desire to honor the creative father (in art as in the Old Testament, the ultimate Father is a rather angry and demanding Deity).

The plot?  Well, if you need to ask you're reading the wrong review, my friend.  Don't get me wrong, Farhan Akhtar's Don adds a number of plot changes, but I can't really discuss those without spoiling it for those of you who haven't seen the film yet.  Suffice it to say that the new Don is clearly the work of a man who bought into the Don mythos to such an extent that he could never stomach the early point at which the Don character was written out of the 1978 classic.

No discussion of Don (whether the 1978 or the 2006 version) can be entirely separate from the performance of the actor in the lead role: Bachchan's 1978 stunner is justly famous, and I see it as one of the peaks of Bombay masala cinema: as Don and as U.P. bhaiyya, Bachchan presents us with the definitive embodiment of both uber-cool and rustic chic, respectively.  In a word, to say that Shah Rukh Khan has a tough act to follow would be putting it mildly, though given his ambition it is only fitting that he be judged by the loftiest standards.  Khan is clever enough to try and appropriate the Don character as his own by transforming the unflappable diamond hard cool of Bachchan's gangster into the sort of flamboyant, sneering showboat that used to be a Shah Rukh Khan speciality.  Unfortunately for Khan, his cause isn't helped by Akhtar's creative choices, which hew so closely to the original in the first half of the film as to raise the specter of Bachchan again and again.  Perhaps that is unavoidable in a remake situation, but if so, then greater talent and charisma than Khan's is required to make the ride convincing. [Aside: the one exception is Khan's brilliant "Romantic baaten mujhe bahut bore karti hain Sonia," not only a line from the 1978 Don but also wonderfully evocative given Khan's own career playing one romantic hero after another].

All in all, however, it is not Khan as Don who is unacceptable (though I certainly found him quite uncompelling), but Khan in his (mercifully brief) stint as Vijay.  Akhtar's decision to have his hero essay the role of a U.P. bhaiyya is surely unfortunate, and shows muddled thinking on his part: in order to make the film and the role Khan's own, what was needed was a Vijay who would not be a chora Ganga kinaare waala but instead would be the archetypal Shah Rukh Khan persona: an urbane Raj/Rahul type thrown into the life of another.  And although I am not a fan of Khan's performances in general, I submit that such a creative choice would have been more in keeping with Khan's image and strengths as a star.

The rest of the cast was variable: Priyanka Chopra as Roma suggested much, but her role was shorn of the needed fireworks for the most part, with one honorable exception, a rollicking action sequence with Shah Rukh Khan after the interval, simply the best action sequence involving a female I have ever seen in a Hindi film.  Om Puri was wasted as Malik, making this the second time in two films Akhtar has wasted a brilliant actor (it is hard to forgive either him or Amitabh Bachchan the triviality of the latter's role in Lakshya), but Boman Irani as D.C.P. DeSilva was superb throughout, except for in his final scene of the film, where not even Irani could elevate the idiotic material he was given. A special mention must be made of Pawan Malhotra, who shone as Narang, and elevated every scene he was in.  Isha Koppikar as Anita and Kareena Kapoor as Kamini didn't have much to do, but were pretty ok in what they did do.  Arjun Rampal as Jasjit, and the actor who played Mac, illustrate the problem that many of Bollywood's "hipper" contemporary directors seem to have, namely an addiction to buff, young bodies irrespective of the demands of the script: to have Mac be played by a young studly sort makes as much sense as. . . except it doesn't make any sense at all.

All in all, the film disappoints, the more so because it seems to me Farhan Akhtar is, on the evidence of this film, frittering away his talent trying to be multiplex India's answer to Mission Impossible or Face-Off, instead of the stylish chronicler of yuppie India's lives, loves, and conformities that we saw in Dil Chahta Hai.  There are flashes of Akhtar's cerebrality in Don (though nothing matches the opera sequence in Dil Chahta Hai), most notably in the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that Don is behind the pilfering of Edward Munch's The Scream, which we see propped against a wall of Don's vault (and surely that legendary painting -- one of the most recognizable artistic expressions of twentieth century existential angst -- is an appropriate subject for a tongue-in-cheek joke in a film where identity is nothing if not mutable), and in Akhtar's good-natured fun at the expense of Bollywood's atrocious "disco" 1980s by means of the Aaj ki Raat video, specifically Isha Koppikar's frilly black dress and Priyanka Chopra's sleek shimmer: damn, the 1980s never looked so good.  There are some arresting visuals too: the flickering club lights by which Khan first sees Kareena Kapoor highlight her pale face and kohl-rimmed eyes, which have rarely looked more bewitching; and the overhead shot that introduces Priyanka Chopra, highlighting the contrast between her ebony hair and training clothes and her bronzed arms, is beautifully compressed, Chopra's tensed form immediately shading her as both warrior and lover.  Alas such moments are few and far between, and ultimately little of the interesting Farhan Akhtar's personality shines through in this film, which could well have been the product of a major American film studio.  That is a pity: because Don (1978) deserved better; and so did Farhan Akhtar.


Sikandar said...

A great review, Q. As I commented on NG, although I agree with you that Boman Irani did a good job, I still preferred the guy who played that part in the old DON.

Also, the song Khaike pan was very insipid after you have heard Kishore Dada.

thalassa_mikra said...

Are you from Bombay? I've only ever heard people from Bombay refer to people from UP as "bhaiyya".

Shahrukh is terribly unconvincing as a gangster, always has been. Remember Raam Jaane? This is just poor casting by Farhan.

Qalandar said...

thalassa_mikra: No, I am not from Bombay; actually I have heard people from U.P. also refer to themselves/others (affectionately) as "bhaiyya/bhaiyye"...actually I've never even visited Bombay, sadly...

Yes, I do remember Ramjaane -- alas! :-)

sikandar: when I praised Boman I never meant to suggest anything about Iftikhar, who essayed the DeSilva character in the original. 1970s Bombay cinema is unimaginable without Iftikhar!!!

bhaijanQureshi said...

A crappy movie.

bhaijanQureshi said...

What else can you expect from a big Bachchan fan!!!

lalita said...

hello. I live in France,so my english is very bad, but I read sometimes what u write on Naachgaana and I appreciate your points of view (most of the times lol) on hindi cinema. I'm not an expert myself, and this is the occasion for me to learn more about Bollywood (oops the forbidden word).

On Don, I have to say that I quite enjoyed the movie. I saw it with my sister who doesn't like anything in Indian cinema except crazy comedies with Salman Khan... and she said it was funny (bollywood is not taken seriously in France anyway lol).

The movie is too long, but the rythm is good and all the logic, twists, the way the new Don is portrayed work for me. I've seen the old version, and I enjoyed seing Big B in this role but when I saw Aktar's movie, I've tried at least to give him a chance.

Yes the whole social thing with Vijay and Vijay himself desappeare. But in the context of today, I think people are more interested in discovering the dark side of our heros. Batman is darker than before, Spiderman is going to be a bad guy in the third episode... and even Superman tone down the colors of his red underwear !

In fact, he should have done a movie about the beginning of this gangster, of the legend... before his death in the 70's version because at the end "Spoiler", Don becomes the King of Asia. It would have worked better, and allowed him to do a totally original flick (what he has done in the second part) "Spoiler"

It's clear that Masala is missing, but I can't reproach to Farhan to try to make this movie his own. Can we say the same of the director of Dhoom 2 for example ?

The movie is not perfect, but not as bad as I expected to be when I read all the criticism on Internet.

Just my humble opinion...

sorry for my bad english

Qalandar said...

Lalita: no need to apologize for writing such a fantastic comment, which sort is always welcome on this blog.

Glad you liked Don -- not my kind of film, but nice to come across other viewpoints...

Qalandar said...

PS: D2 was quite disappointing; certainly not up to Don's technical or visual finesse.

babasko said...

hi qalandar,
you´re right I seem to have liked this Don more than you did LOL.
But my being an avid lurking reader of naachgaana and reading lots of other mostly not that favorable reviews before I saw it myself, I think my expectations were not that high :-)

my main overall complaint about Don would be that its "cold", so overstylised that it lost almost all of the humor and warmth of the old one. But watching it prepared for that I adjusted pretty fast and could enjoy the ride.

I very much like your idea of making the SRK Vijay a Rahul type character. Never thought of that. But you´re right that would have worked much better.

Thanx for stopping by my blog and your kind words. And I actually feel honored for being featured on naachgaana :-D

Qalandar said...

babasko: thanks for stopping by, I think your blog is fantastic, and you have a really wide-ranging interest in Indian film if the reviews on your site are any indication!

Agree with you on Farhan's Don being "cold"; it would be one thing if that were a reflection of his own aesthetic, but I can't help shake the feeling that this cold sleek chic was simply a rather reflexive regurgitation of some recent Hollywood trends more than anything else.

On why it would have been better if "Vijay" had been a "Rahul": thanks, although credit is due to a member called StreetPharmacist, who was the first to suggest this idea; ever since I first heard it I have been quite persuaded of its wisdom.

Qalandar said...

Akshat: I've posted your comments at:

Anonymous said...

Which is cold? The icy solid face of Bachchan or vicious face of SRK. Its a matter of perspective.

This is no review. But, a desparate attempt to justify excessive love for Amitabh Bachchan.

I think Don 2 is technically brilliant, its well conceived and its been enacted better (I mean every character and not just SRK). The old one was a spoofy masala. The new one is slick and is every sense cool.

And thats the truth.

Qalandar said...

Re: "Which is cold? The icy solid face of Bachchan or vicious face of SRK. Its a matter of perspective."

Agree completely. And my perspective is: what is cold in the context of my review is, as I've made very clear, not about any actor but about the director's vision. Which is cold and left me cold.

Re: "This is no review. But, a desparate attempt to justify excessive love for Amitabh Bachchan."

My heart bleeds.