To enjoy Abbas-Mastan’s Race, you have to quickly make peace with the rules of the film’s very particular universe. Among the most important of these is that no time need be wasted on subtle characterisations. Everyone comes with convenient identification tags: in the opening voiceover we’re told that Durban-based stud-farm owner Ranvir (Saif Ali Khan) lives life on the edge, and to drive home the point there’s a shot of him skirting his car dangerously close to the edge (get it?) of a cliff. Ranvir’s brother Rajiv (Akshaye Khanna) is a down-on-his-luck alcoholic and we know this because he carries a flask all the time and because a steward brings him a glass of beer instead of bedside tea in the morning. (The steward wears a cowboy hat to remind us that the brothers live on a ranch, with all the space in the world to drive their fancy cars in and to generally behave like spoiled brats. Akshaye’s jacket is borrowed from a 1950s B-western.) When femme fatale Sonia (Bipasha Basu) enters the picture, we know she belongs; she passes the film's Coolness Quotient test by saying “anyways” instead of “anyway”.
Ranvir and Rajiv lead privileged lives but they don’t seem to realise it, because they spend most of their time taking sibling rivalry to hitherto unplumbed depths. The driving force for this is an insurance policy where, if one of the boys dies in an accident, the other stands to gain double. An endless spiral of double-crossing (and triple- and quadruple-crossing) follows.
If you’re silly enough to believe in family values like brotherly love (at one point someone compares our heroes to Rama and Bharata, though this only ends up making the point that they are half-brothers), this film can be mistaken for a lengthy anti-insurance advertisement – an effective counterpoint to all those jeevan bima spots where a moist-eyed, greying lady mulls how much more difficult her life might have been after her husband’s untimely death. Watch Race and you’ll agree that all families would be a whole lot better off if insurance had never been invented. (At a stretch, the film could also have been a good ad for birth control, with Amitabh Bachchan making a cameo appearance at the end as Saif and Akshaye’s dad, shaking his head at all the tomfoolery and telling us in his baritone that he should have used condoms all those years ago.) Or maybe the policy is a Macguffin and these boys are really just bored of their regular activities, which include earning vast sums of money at racecourses, cavorting in nightclubs, blowing up cars containing disloyal jockeys and ignoring the lovelorn advances of mini-skirted secretaries who happen to look like Katrina Kaif. These things must get tedious after some time.
With its half-baked script and goggle-eyed attempts to depict the lives of the rich and decadent, Race is a film that’s easy to dismiss once you exit the hall and allow cold logic to override reflex feelings – so let me admit that I enjoyed a lot of it. (In full disclosure: I didn’t spend my own money; my expectations were very low going in; and I’d had a terrible day leading up to the screening and almost anything would have been an improvement.) It’s well-paced, good to look at and, unlike many other recent “paisa-vasool entertainments”, it doesn’t require you to take more than one toilet break. I thought Saif did the oily intensity well (there’s something unsettling about the way his effete voice offsets his brawny appearance), making Ranvir a genuinely menacing guy whom you wouldn’t want to meet in a stable late at night. The ladies look good enough in their high hemlines and much of the music is hummable, though the lyrics include eloquent implorings like “Zara zara touch me touch me touch me/Oh zara zara kiss me kiss me kiss me” and thoughtful admissions such as “Race is on my mind/Race is in my soul/My heart is racing on”. (The one song with full-fledged Hindi sentences – the soulful “Pehli Nazar Mein” – is incongruously picturised: a goofy Akshaye sings it to Bipasha as they cruise around in a red racecar and the sequence ends with one of those familiar moments where a group of watching foreigners burst into spontaneous applause, because they’re so pleased that these dramebaaz Indians have come all the way to their land to sing and dance.)
Sensitive eardrums are advised to stay away, for this is a very loud film, full of jarring background noises (“Aage bhi wahi shor, peeche bhi wahi shor” goes another song aptly). Also, I didn’t like the shrill, often vulgar comedy track that emerges in the second half, with Anil Kapoor as fruit-munching detective RD and Sameera Reddy as his dim-wit secretary, whom he tells to “chooso” his gana at one point. (Note: the rule of majority suggests that my sense of humour isn’t evolved enough – most people in the hall guffawed each time there was a fruity joke.) But thankfully these are marginal characters.
The cliché has it that we should leave our brains at home (to keep the sensitive eardrums company) when we go to watch movies like Race. I've never fallen for that one: it's so much more fun to take your brains along for the ride, to contemplate the many questions that pop up now and again. For example, what’s with that inexplicable split-second shot of a little white boy catching a half-eaten apple that RD has chucked away? (Does it symbolize the Loss of Innocence, the Man passing the corrupt fruit of Eden to the Child?) Why does a downcast Rajiv ask his brother, “Sonia jaisi ladki meri zindagi mein kaise aa sakti hai?” when just a few seconds earlier he had been engaging Sonia’s scantily clad form in an MTV Grind-style dance (an integral component of the mating ritual for any self-respecting young lad and lass in this movie). Weren’t the jokes in that tedious scene with Johnny Lever as a marriage bureau registrar lifted directly from an email forward about the differences between wives and cellphones? Speaking of marriage, given the determinedly debauched universe of this film, what’s with the peculiar morality that insists on a relationship being complete only when the guy “proposes” to the girl? (As the narrator coyly puts it in one scene, “Yeh ek doosre ke bahut kareeb aa gaye the. Bas, sirf propose karna baaki tha”. Or do they mean “propose” in the vague sense that college lovebirds in Delhi use the word, i.e. “will you ‘go around’ with me”?)
Also: what’s the point of the carefully provided explanations, like the one involving Ranvir’s supposed fall from a skyscraper, and a morgue scene, when these explanations only raise more questions than they answer? Most puzzling of all, why would a film where everyone is essentially indestructible - repeatedly surviving perilous situations for the sake of a new twist – feel the need to actually kill off two of the main characters at the end? It can’t have anything to do with moral comeuppance – that’s irrelevant here, the people who do survive are just as bad, and in the Race universe the only thing that justifies your continued existence is how good you look in leather jackets or minis.
But happily, they all come back to life in the end-credits dance sequence, reminding us yet again that in a movie like this no one can ever really come to harm as long as they know how to walk towards the camera stylishly or make hip boy-band gestures at us, the rapt audience.
[A much shorter version of this review is in this week’s Tehelka]