It would be too much to say I had a good time watching Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag (the unintended humour was restricted to a few scenes; the film was mostly bad-bad rather than funny-bad), but there was an all-round camaraderie in the hall that I’ve rarely seen before at a crowded multiplex screening. Because the original Sholay features so heavily in our shared cultural consciousness, almost everyone in the audience was reacting to Varma’s besmirching of the scenes we know and love. Strangers exchanged looks and guffawed, jokes were generously shared, and when someone shouted a smart-aleck remark at the screen no one hushed him or made clucking sounds, they just chuckled in empathy. There was a splendid moment when everyone - everyone - in the hall burst into spontaneous laughter during a scene that wasn’t intrinsically funny: the first appearance of the young Muslim boy Ahmed. This character, whose fate makes for one of the most poignant scenes in the original film, is played here by the goofy-faced Gaurav Kapoor (formerly known as DJ Gaurav), who spends his early scenes tickling Nisha Kothari in the bosom region. (Later, after he dies, his blind abba rants incomprehensibly for five minutes and then sinks his face gratefully into Kothari’s blouse.)
For me, the most honest scene in this execrable vanity project is the one where the villainous Babban Singh (Amitabh Bachchan) swears revenge against the film’s heroes after they have taken out some of his men. “Sholay barsenge,” snarls the ganglord, using the word that had to be removed from this film’s title after the makers of the original, the Sippys, threatened a lawsuit – and then Amitabh’s voice drops to a whisper. “Sholay...Sholay...Sholay...” he intones, a tear rolling out of one eye. No doubt the intended meaning of this scene is that Babban is crying crocodile tears at the thought of his enemies’ fate, but I prefer my own interpretation: this is Amitabh privately repenting for helping to desecrate the memory of one of his – and our – most beloved films.
Varma’s “remake” has acquired cult status among Hindi-film enthusiasts ever since the earliest rumours, which had Abhishek Bachchan and Bobby Deol in the lead roles, but as news regularly came in of one or other cast member dropping out it become a source of mirth. Until the film’s release date was announced a couple of weeks ago, there were those of us who were convinced that the whole thing was an elaborate inside joke; that it would never actually get made but would remain an urban legend, like the supposed epic version of the Mahabharata (with a cast that includes everyone in Bollywood – Amitabh as Bheeshma, Shah Rukh as Arjuna, Aamir as Karna etc etc) that you can still sometimes find “information” about on IMDB.com.
But Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag (destined to be translated on DVD covers around the world as “The Fire from Ram Gopal Varma’s Hubristic Loins”) was made alright, and what an eye-poppingly bad film it is. Before walking into the hall, I chanted to myself: “Be open-minded, don’t compare, try to appreciate this movie for what it is.” But the mantra didn’t work, because RGV never lets us forget how good the original Sholay was. He takes all the famous setpieces, including the comic ones (Veeru’s “suicide” threat and his playing God at the temple, Jai’s intercession with Basanti’s mausi), and systematically “reworks” them, siphoning away every last drop of charm and integrity. Each time Ajay Devgan (a more than competent actor in certain contexts) appeared on screen as “Heero”, my soul cried paeans to Dharmendra.
The plot has small-time hoods Heero and Raj (newcomer Prashant Raj) being recruited by Inspector Narsimha (Mohanlal) in his personal battle against the dreaded Babban. From the station, auto-walli Ghungroo (Kothari, whose inability to enunciate a sentence without pausing at least twice suggests that she was raised by wolves before RGV discovered her while shooting Jungle) takes them to Kaliganj, the Mumbai suburb where Narsimha lives. In the house are his widowed sister Durga Devi (Sushmita Sen) and a grim-faced servant who tersely snaps, “Babban ne sab to maar diya” when asked what became of the rest of the household. No gradual exposition here, this film wants to get a move on.
Late at night, as the two mercenaries plot to take Narsimha’s money and run, they are startled to find that Durga is listening in. The viewer is equally startled to realise that Durga, with her intense faraway gaze and black cowl, closely resembles Anakin Skywalker just after he crosses over to the Dark Side. (Incidentally, we are often given the sinister information that she “works in a clinic”, but never told what sort of clinic this is; keeping her general demeanor in mind, I propose it’s the kind of place where Jedi heads are transplanted onto Sith bodies.)
And so it goes. Character names are changed from Saamba to Taambhe and from Kaalia to Dhania. Amitabh plays a harmonica in one scene (nudge-nudge, wink-wink) and later, in a moment of startling tastelessness, begins a sentence with “Kabhi kabhie mere dil mein khayaal aata hai”. The film is shrill, often vulgar, with painfully loud and uninvolving action sequences, and its tone lurches wildly: at times I wondered if RGV (perhaps miffed by the Sippys’ legal-action threat) had deliberately set out to parody the original, but most of it is shot dead straight – especially the scenes involving Mohanlal, who seems to have taken this project very seriously. The camera lurches wildly too – the shooting technique probably involved filling the cinematographer with hooch-liquor and making him stagger around the set with the equipment tied to his waist. (The only times it stays still is when RGV focuses it on Kothari’s bottom, which he does often.)
Bachchan as Gabbar/Babban? Some irony here. Sholay was a rare Hindi film that was much greater than the sum of its parts – Amitabh was just another member of the cast at the time, and the film would probably never have been so satisfying as a whole if it had been made during his superstar phase. Similarly, Gabbar Singh was brought to life by an actor (Amjad Khan) viewers barely knew anything about, and the surprise element added immeasurably to the effect. But RGV’s film is constructed around the gimmicky casting of Amitabh-the-Superstar as Gabbar-the-Iconic-Villain, and how can the result be anything but contrived and overblown? Especially given how over-exposed Amitabh has been in the last few years.
In the original, Gabbar exuded malevolence without seeming to try; there was a sense of unknowable currents flowing beneath his surface. Bachchan’s Babban, on the other hand, is all surface, there’s nothing at all underneath – so much so that he has to tell us that he is evil personified. Sneering, glaze-eyed, things dripping from his nose, he relates how a bully once smacked his little brother when they were kids and he retaliated by divesting him of his tongue: See, that’s how much of a bad-ass I am! (As if to reassure us that his own tongue is intact, Babban occasionally sticks it out and wiggles it around, in a poor imitation of the staple “bad boy” character type in a boy-band music video.) The Ultimate Villain charade doesn’t last long anyway, because AB can’t resist doing a cute little jig with AB Junior in the “Mehbooba” song – another one for the family video collection. (At least Junior preserved his integrity by restricting his involvement with this film to a cameo appearance. No such luck for the old man.)
Reviewers are often asked, frustratingly, to sum up a film in a line or two. I can do no better than to quote one spoken by Narsimha’s luckless wife in a flashback, as her husband sets out on another gangster-hunt: “Yeh Babban-Vabban nonsense kya hai, waste of time!” It’s the smartest line in the film.
P.S. Love this description of Durga Devi on the official website: “Stoic, dignified, silent, her demeanor hid an inner strength that at times raised itself beyond what one would expect from a woman.” And for Ghungroo: “She’d like you to believe she is a man. But deep inside, she is all woman.” Wonder who wrote these.
P.P.S. The ticket didn’t have space for the full title, so they abridged it to “Ramgopal ki Aag”. Homely.