Sanju-love makes one do strange things: in my case it made me pass on the well-reviewed, by all accounts fresh and intelligent Cheeni Kum, by a promising director, in favor of a film by a director with a reliably awful track record, studded with the likes of Mumbai Se Aaya Mera Dost and Ek Ajnabee. It made me abandon the comfort of a Manhattan cinema for the rundown and rank Eagle theater in Jackson Heights, and heck the music of Ilaiyaraja for a pastiche of a soundtrack that feels like it's been cobbled together from the leftover bits of other, better, albums. Yet Sanju Baba's fans are a hardy lot, and if I wasn't dissuaded by Nehle Pe Dehlaa earlier this year (yes folks, I saw that too), I wasn't going to start now.
It's only right that I begin with Sanju, for he is the Alpha and the Omega of Shootout at Lokhandwala, towering above the proceedings in this thoroughly pedestrian film, and leaving the viewer satisfied with an authoritative performance. This isn't one of those awardwinning acting roles -- he isn't retarded, nor does he wear his hair long, and looks exactly like Sanju is supposed to look. Instead, this is vintage Hindi film bigtime hero, the sort who, when he gets riled up enough, decides to saunter into a firefight, contemptuously waving away an offered bulletproof jacket. The sort who calmly lights up a cigarette after he has just impaled his deadliest foe. The sort of guy, in short, whom you know is going to make it to film's end alive and unharmed, whether by bullets or self-doubt. And Sanju hits all the masala notes just right.
But there's a bit more here too: while Dutt's character isn't always etched consistently, his Khan displays flashes of genuine ruthlessness. My favorite such moment occurs toward the end, when Maya's mother pleads with Khan for one last chance to get her son to surrender to the cops. The typical Hindi film hero would have given her that chance, or at least would have had a kind word for the mother opposite him. Dutt's Khan spurns her with shocking cruelty, threatening her with an encounter of her own if she doesn't shut up. It's this kind of scene that reminds one that the raw wounds of Naam, Kabzaa, and Vaastav, and the genial lovability of the two Munnabhais, notwithstanding, Dutt can play a mean sonofabitch damn effectively.
Which leads me to the problem: Shootout at Lokhandwala is self-consciously designed as one of these "new Bollywood" films, more realistic and gritty, more "true", than the Bollywood of yore, and it speaks volumes for what is wrong with contemporary Hindi cinema that almost everything that works about it -- Sanju, Sanju, and Sanju -- is a throwback to the old Bollywood. And this is a real pity, for make no mistake this film had an interesting premise, and in the hands of even a Sanjay Gupta would have made for a riproaring ride of pure, unalloyed, machismo. Unfortunately the helmsman here is the unfailingly crude Lakhia, who seems to believe a director's two best friends are the slow motion shot and a background score blaring at full volume -- for over two hours straight. These "stylistic" elements drown out what should have been an engaging story: of a true-life encounter, one of the most storied in Mumbai history, when an army of policemen from the Anti-Terrorism Squad -- led by ACP Khan (here with a different first name, played by Sanjay Dutt), and assisted by his trusty lieutenants Inspectors Kaviraj Patil (Suniel Shetty) and Javed Khan (Arbaaz Khan) -- shoot up a Lokhandwala apartment complex with enough rounds to make it look like Swiss cheese in order to kill the gang holed up inside, led by former D-Company thug Maya bhai (Vivek Oberoi), and backed up by, among others, sharpshooter Bhua (the unlikely Tushar Kapoor). The film opens amidst what appears to be a human rights outcry, the result of which is retired Justice Dingra (Amitabh Bachchan) grilling ACP Khan and Inspectors Patil and Khan. Their brazen justification of their triggerhappy ways provides us with the flashback that is most of the movie.
Now pause for a moment, because I want to let this sink in: Dutt and Amitabh, going head-to-head with some classic dialoguebaazi, is the stuff masala wet dreams are made of. But that sort of thing doesn't have a hope in hell here: the "interrogation" sequences are incredibly flat and rushed, and leave virtually no impact whatsoever (it doesn't help that Bachchan appears to be sleepwalking through this role, which is utterly unworthy of the great artiste's talents). In a word, the very definition of cinematic "filler", and one finds oneself eagerly awaiting the return of the flashback -- at least that's violent. And one might say that of some of the other sequences too: for instance, the introduction and subsequent demise of Abhishek Mhatre (Abhishek Bachchan) all happens so quickly, and is so transparently designed to draw some tears from the audience for a vardi-clad Bachchan dying, that it leaves virtually no impact -- and it doesn't help that Abhishek's getup is farcical, replete with Jhoom Barabar Jhoom stubble and overly well-heeled shades (the only saving grace is getting to hear Abhishek mouth some Marathi-laced Hindi).
Now, it's not as if Lakhia didn't have help: he did, in the form of Vivek Oberoi, who offers a textbook lesson in overacting. It got to the point that had I seen one more collar pull, one more grimace, one more strut, I would have been tempted to gouge my eyes out. Tushar Kapoor isn't so much bad in his part as he is irredeemably incongruous (more than a few snickered in my theater when his character threatens Suniel Shetty's Patil with words like "mein ye bench tere andar ghusaa doonga"). In your dreams pal, in your dreams. By contrast, I actually enjoyed seeing the Suniel Shetty/Arbaaz Khan portions: they were reliably solid, and didn't mess things up with a "role of a lifetime" air cluttering up a no-nonsense part. It was like Bollywood circa 1994: kicking ass and taking names, fancier notions be damned (for the most part).
The above notwithstanding, this is Lakhia's best film, and by quite a margin. In particular, the second half is much better than the first (although one of the scenes of the film occurs at the interval, with Dutt and Oberoi facing off sans guns over a restaurant table), and Lakhia and the set designers deserve a lot of credit for capturing the feel of the Lokhandwala apartment complex as well as they have here. That complex is the setting for the forty-minute orgy of bullets and bloodshed that ends the flashback, and is by far the film's most compelling portion (maybe I'm just antisocial); indeed, I would go as far as to say that it is the most memorable Hindi film action sequence in recent times. One never gets the feeling that one is watching cartoon violence, shorn of consequences. In Shootout at Lokhandwala, the overarching effect is of deafening sound, and remorseless, pitiless violence that just feels real. At the end of which five gangsters (and one hostage) are very dead indeed. No other gangster film that I can remember dwells on corpses quite like this one does, so devoid of life one can barely imagine them (especially Tushar) ever having been alive. I was reminded of Ted Hughes' View of a Pig, and was glad: that one cinematic gesture did more to drive home the seriousness of the film's subject matter than the entire preceding two hours (that seriousness is greatly compromised by a horrendously unreflective political vision, but really, I find it hard to take the film's prescription for what ails India seriously enough to even maul it).
I got out of the film, and went to Kabab King to have some authentic, masala chai. Now that was awesome.