If multiplex Bollywood were a Persian rug in a rich, powerful person's home, Raj Kumar Santoshi would be the guy pissing on it. If you think this is an odd (or crude) way to begin a film review, you evidently aren't familiar with Santoshi's oeuvre, and you certainly haven't seen Halla Bol, a nearly three hour long birdie flipped by Santoshi to over a decade and a half of Hindi film history. No songless films for Santoshi, no sequences in New York or Sydney or Switzerland, no low-key dialogues either. There's no chance of unobtrusive background music, and as for de-mythologized, "naturalistic" characters? !@#$%?! 'em. By the way (in case you haven't been reading my blog for long), in my book those are all potentially good things, and I thus went to see Halla Bol with great expectation. For Santoshi has over the course of his career been determined not to throw out the baby of Indian modes of storytelling and characterization along with the bathwater of cinematic mediocrity; nowhere is this attitude more apparent than in the uncompromising Khakee, at once a damning indictment of our political cynicism and an old fashioned, unabashed actioner. Sadly, this attitude is only intermittently evident in Santoshi's latest offering, which left this viewer ruing the weak script and clunky treatment. The end result is an uneven nostalgia trip, featuring a few scenes of awesome power and resonance, and ending up as a film that is considerably less than the sum of its parts.
Ashfaque (Ajay Devgan) is an actor in the street theater troupe of one-time dacoit, now social activist, Sidhu (Pankaj Kapoor), with dreams of making it big in Bollywood, so much so that Ashfaque has no qualms about admitting to his lady love Sneha (Vidya Balan) that if pressed to choose between his lover and his acting career, he would opt for the latter. [Incidentally, the parents of Muslim Ashfaque and Hindu Sneha seem utterly indifferent to the religious identity of their child's lover; in the typical masala film this would hardly be an issue, but in a film so self-consciously political, the blitheness of the protagonists' parents makes them seem not so much from a small town as from another planet.] Ashfaque -- reborn in Bollywood as Sameer Khan -- does find fame and fortune, losing his soul in the process and becoming the archetype of the narcissistic celebrity who thinks the most important thing in the world is his career, his position, and his gratification.
The above is presented to us by way of flashback; Halla Bol begins with the "fallen" Sameer Khan, and while the creative choice probably makes the film's length seem more manageable (by mildly interrupting the linear narrative the film so badly wants to be), it robs the flashback of any dramatic tension. That is, we already know what Sameer Khan became, and while that in itself is not a meaningful criticism, Ashfaque's journey is hardly presented in any new or resonant light. This failure is symptomatic of the wider failure that is Halla Bol: a stale air hangs over the film, which seems to have been cobbled together from bits and pieces of films we have seen earlier. The film works as an exercise in nostalgia, particularly for those of us who have watched with dismay as contemporary Hindi filmmakers have begun marching to the rhythm of Hollywood films as if there were no other path to cinematic "progress". But at its worst one is reminded of Khakee, and not in a good way: Halla Bol is less bold, less pungent, and less fun than that Santoshi masala masterpiece. No doubt masala may be enjoyable without breaking any new ground (look no further, given that Vikram's Bheema has just hit the screens, than Saamy), but not when the film carries as much baggage, and takes itself as seriously, as Halla Bol does.
Nevertheless, once Sameer Khan's life is thrown into crisis by a cold blooded murder committed before his eyes, there are enough flashes of the sort of drama Santoshi is capable of to keep the viewer's attention engaged. The sons of two very powerful men murder a woman who has spurned their advances -- in the middle of a party, no less. Sameer Khan and dozens of high society's brightest and best are witnesses, yet no-one does anything to prevent the killers coolly walking out and, as is all too depressingly familiar from the newspapers, no-one is subsequently willing to step forward to testify against the criminals. No-one, that is, until Sameer Khan wakes up to his calling in life, and decides to speak truth to power, destroying his career and public standing in the process (and winning back the respect of his estranged wife and former guru). By film's end, the good guys have won, somewhat hearteningly not just because some judge rules in their favor but because Sameer's and Sidhu's courage sparks a popular movement determined to bring the killers to justice. The film's conclusion, that is, does not so much focus on the judicial outcome -- the wrongdoers' conviction -- so much as on the prerequisite to a healthy justice system: a vigorous and concerned citizenry. For Santoshi, the real culprits are not the villains but our own apathy. The director's clarity (so welcome in the wake of the Madhur Bhandarkars of the world, who seek to assuage the audience's collective conscience by pointing to a fantastically corrupt and decadent "other") is laudable, but sadly Halla Bol works better as a concept than as a movie. It's just not engaging enough to be a good film.
That Halla Bol works at all is due in no small measure to the strength of the mythic paradigm Santoshi taps into, not to mention a film-stealing (albeit uneven) performance by Pankaj Kapoor: he hits only one note, and does it with great panache at times, although he lacks the raw screen presence to pull off the sort of herogiri Santoshi insists on foisting upon him. Devgan's performance is, as is his wont these days, curiously passive, and Santoshi seems to appreciate this given the extent to which the second half of Halla Bol is propelled by Pankaj Kapoor. Devgan is in far better form playing the callous superstar of the film's initial reels: even if the film's satire of shallow celebrities is a bit too heavy handed, both Santoshi and Devgan seem to be having fun doing it. Vidya Balan is utterly wasted in a role virtually anyone could have done, and Sneha's presence in the plot seems wholly instrumental. Darshan Jariwala deserves special mention: his old-school baddie, the minister father of the man who actually fired the shots, is the sort of menace for whom cinematic time stopped in 1987: he's loud, crude, and always engaging, the last a quality the film could certainly have used more of.
Much can be forgiven Santoshi, however, for two contrasting scenes: the second of these occurs when Sameer Khan, fresh from a humbling defeat in court, shows up drunk at the minister's house in the middle of the night. Jariwala gloats with abandon, convinced that Sameer has come to make peace on bent knee, and points out the multi-cultural (and presumably ill gotten) splendors of his palatial home: a chandelier from Belgium, a painting from Holland, a rug from Persia, and whisky from Scotland. Jariwala can do it all, because (as he keeps reminding us) he has "paisa, power, and the public" behind him; while he prepares Sameer's drink, we hear the hiss of urine falling on the horrified minister's Persian rug. "Ye dhaar hai -- pure Indian," Sameer sneers at his enemy, reminding him that for some things one doesn't need paisa, power, or the public, but simply "gurda...jo mere paas hai." Much of the family audience at the sedate Dubai multiplex I saw Halla Bol at seemed horrified; the anti-social riff-raff element (including yours truly), however, were reminded of the thunder of a bygone era, and erupted in cheers, wild hooting, and whistles. As the Mastercard commercial would say: Priceless.
The first scene is the work of a far more subtle sensibility, and is, I suspect, destined to be one of my favorite scenes this decade. Sameer Khan has been named a youth icon; the star, his mind perturbed by the murder he has recently witnessed, arrives onstage and is startled by his outsized image opposite him. In what is to my mind the most perceptive observation on the nature of celebrity ever made in a Hindi film, Sameer Khan acknowledges that he is wholly other than his on-screen persona. "Ye sab kuch kar sakta hai," Sameer says wistfully, rendered impotent by his own success, "aur mein kuch bhi nahin." This scene is uncanny, revealing nothing so much as the impossibility of stardom: Ashfaque has strived for years to be in this position, yet the one in this position is someone other than Ashfaque, one who has rendered Ashfaque an imposter to himself. Nothing else in Halla Bol approaches this pinnacle, but make no mistake: this scene is itself worth the price of admission. While it cannot redeem the film, it offers hope for Santoshi the director, and means that when he next decides to present to the audience a glimpse of his vision, his stubborn adherence to a cinematic idiom out of step with the upwardly mobile consumers at India's ever burgeoning multiplex population, I'll still be in line waiting for a ticket.