Sunday, September 20, 2009
WANTED (Hindi; 2009)
[Image courtesy NDTV]
The passage of time does strange things, but not even Marcel Proust could have dreamed it would have this effect. I've spent most of the last two decades disliking Salman Khan. I mean, really disliking him, and everything about him: from his wannabe vibe, his faux-Bambi eyes, his breathless dialog-delivery, his weird English accent, and his non-existent acting skills. Needless to say, I wasn't much convinced by his occasional half-assed attempts to do masala actioners; he was -- and there's no polite way to put this -- just too puny for the likes of Garv, especially given that he was playing it straight, as opposed to using the sort of explanatory gimmick Aamir Khan deployed (namely, that he was a raving lunatic) in Ghajini.
But then, a funny thing happened on the way to 2009: masala cinema went the way of the dodo, leaving adherents like me to whatever slim pickings remained (mostly by way of remakes of Southern superhits, such as the unsuccessful-but-enjoyable Run (2004), and the ultra-successful Ghajini (2008) (both remakes of Tamil films of the same names, from 2002 and 2005, respectively; and both directed by filmmakers from that industry)); and Salman Khan, after an indifferent run at the box-office, began hosting a TV game-show called Dus Ka Dum. The Salman of the latter was a revelation, funny and irreverent, and most interestingly, possessed of a new persona that almost seemed to parody "Bollywood." Certainly, there were occasional glimpses of this in Salman's oeuvre, such as in the brilliant opening scene of Jaan-e-man (2006), or in David Dhawan's underrated Trishul-spoof of sorts, Yeh Hai Jalwa (2002), but something as sustained as Salman's Dus ka Dum avatar is rare in an industry where far too many take themselves far too seriously (and with far too little justification). Wouldn't it be fun, I mused, if someone managed to cast this Salman Khan in a film, preferably a masala movie?
Had I known God was listening, I would have wished for the winning lottery ticket.
Wanted is, consistent with the trend of Bollywood's seeming inability to come up with a decent masala actioner, a remake of Pokiri (2006), reportedly Telugu cinema's then-biggest grosser -- or is it Pokkiri (2007), Prabhudeva's Tamil remake of Puri Jagannath's Telugu original? No matter: Prabhudeva apparently likes the script so much he's decided to re-re-make it, this time with Salman Khan standing in Mahesh Babu's can't-be-bettered shoes, or in Vijay's less impressive Tamil running gear.
He's not getting better at this: while Wanted is an almost-exact ersatz of Pokiri, it is a markedly lesser film. Some of this is attributable to Puri Jagannath, who managed to infuse the original with a certain fluidity that lent itself to repeat viewing (the far clunkier Wanted does not). But most can be laid at the door of Mahesh Babu,in his prime and capable of powering along the rather patchy narrative -- and make no mistake, this is the kind of film that rises or falls with its male lead.
Mercifully for Prabhudeva, his male lead -- Salman Khan -- is in possibly the best form of his life. Now well into his forties, age has begun to show as much as it has with his peers Aamir and Shah Rukh (and, for all three, to a greater extent than with Akshay Kumar), and Salman's dance and action-movements betray a marked stiffness at points in Wanted -- but, with the exception of his dignified and iconographic cameo in Saawariya (2007), Salman Khan has never looked better or more charismatic (when dressed normally, that is; Prabhudeva all too often clothes him in outlandish wear befitting an actor half his age -- it doesn't help that the female lead, Ayesha Takia, probably is half Salman's age). He certainly has never looked more convincing in action sequences (the most intense of these, the climactic one, betters the analogous sequence in Pokiri). And, given that this is the story of ruthless thug Radhe (Salman), his love interest Jhanvi (Ayesha Takia, whose effervescent persona is utterly wasted in a role that ought to be beneath her), the sleazy inspector who lusts after her (Mahesh Manjrekar), and who, like Radhe, ultimately works for underworld don Ghani Bhai (Prakashraj), himself pursued by a ruthless new assistant commissioner of police (Govind Namdeo), there are plenty of opportunities for action sequences (indeed, Wanted is markedly gorier than Pokiri). Salman handles these with gusto, if not quite aplomb. More importantly, his hyper-stylized screen persona fits right in where this film is concerned; and Salman deploys it in a bemused manner that borders on self-parody, to the point where one could be forgiven for imagining a twinkle in his eye. And Prabhudeva gives him the works, from seeti-taali inducing dialogs to fisticuffs to gunplay to smoldering face-time with Takia; heck, by film's end, he even has his shirt off. No Salman fan could possibly complain about this outing.
The above is a longwinded way of saying that the failure of this film cannot be laid at Salman's door. If one had been hoping for Prabhudeva to improve on Pokkiri's script, one would be disappointed. The original was not powered by a classic script, and although the Hindi version lops off much of the unwelcome comedy track, it feels no tighter. Nor does it have adequate substitutes for the zing of Pokkiri's one-liners, attempting to make do with more double entendres and crudity than the Telugu film had (when Jhanvi is backed into Radhe in a stalled elevator, she is jolted, and timidly asks what has happened; Radhe informs her that's his cellphone on vibrate-mode, and Jhanvi obligingly moves her ass to confirm for the audience this is indeed the case). Far from diluting the sexism that marred Pokiri, Wanted might even have ramped it up. In the context of the ultra-girlish Takia, paired with a man who looks old enough to be her father, some of these dialogs can seem positively creepy. (Not to mention the fact that just about every woman in both films is associated with some instance of sexual coercion.) I can't say I regretted seeing the film -- I'm too starved of masala cinema for that -- but it does give me pause before any recommendations are handed out. And I won't be seeing it again -- not as long as I can access the DVD of Puri Jagannath's film...