Agneepath’s boldness a victory for Bollywood

Let’s get this out of the way– yes, Agneepath is yet another remake of an Amitabh Bachchan film. It is a film that didn’t receive the mainstream success many of Amitabh Bachchan’s films were famous for. Instead, it reached a status more familiar with Amol Palekar’s films– it became a cult classic.

Karan Johar, whose father produced the original Agneepath in 1990, said that his goal was to remake this film and give the story the limelight it deserved. Meaning—he didn’t want a cult classic, he wanted a box office hit. I am not against remakes, but when I heard of Johar’s hand in the film, I got a bit nervous. The filmmaker usually represents the Bollywood that I think audiences have, or should, outgrow– the glossy over-the-top melodramas. Aside from Johar’s few attempts at supporting fresh, innovative film like Wake up Sid, I didn’t have much faith in the filmmaker—I didn’t believe he would be able to capture the darkness that a film like Agneepath demanded. In this case, I am glad I was wrong.

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Tanu Weds Manu Returns Agneepath worked for me. Yes, it was an all-out Bollywood film. It had the drama, the love story, the songs, the villains, the very attractive actor and actress. And yes, it is impossible for the film to live up to one of Amitabh’s greatest performances as Vijay Chauhan. But the film worked, and here is why.

The creators of this film took a really bold step in avoiding copying the movie frame by frame. They also avoided doing what Farhan Akthar did with another Bachchan remake, Don, where the classic film was taken and made modern and slick. Agneepath was actually the opposite– the film was more authentic, more grim, and more real than the original– even more than most Bollywood films.

The 1990 Agneepath did break a lot of barriers, and it may have been the reason the movie failed at that time. It was a time in Bollywood where Madhuri Dixit was on the rise, where feel-good family dramas like Maine Pyar Kiya and Mr. India were attracting mass audiences. But it still remained within the industry’s parameters—the film didn’t try to get too dark, too real.

The strength of the original Agneepath was the dialogue story, and more than that, the delivery. Few can match the style, mannerisms and acting of Bachchan’s Vijay Chauhan. There also wasn’t a ridiculously awesome scene where Bachchan randomly splashes out of the ocean. Hrithik Roshan and the filmmakers were smart in avoiding any attempts of replicating that. They put their energy in the script– and that was the smartest thing they did.

The film plays out like a Shakespearean tragedy– a son watches his self-respecting idealist father, who wanted to open a salt factory and make the community more educated and self-sufficient, murdered by the people from that village for a crime he did not commit. He was framed by a man, Kancha, who also wanted to open a factory, but wanted to produce cocaine.

This son grows up to be Vijay Chauhan. From an early age, Vijay embarks on a path to regain the village he and his family were forced to leave. His goal wasn’t to get rid of the evil around him (which there was plenty of– he actually works for an evil underwold gangster, Rauf Lala). Vijay had a less-than-noble desire to get his village back, a village that was ripe with his father’s memories.  Vijay’s mother saw the dangerous road her son had chosen, and she leaves with her young daughter and asks Vijay to keep his distance.

Today’s Agneepath has something to offer that the original didn’t. The movie wasn’t afraid to go places Bollywood has avoided. Rishi Kapoor’s commanding performance as Rauf Lala, an underworld don, showed his character in the business of selling young girls– a concept rarely shown in Bollywood, yet one that is a reality in India. The original rape scene in which the protagonist’s father is seen with a prostitute is changed to a young girl with a leg brace, who is raped and killed. The film freely showed prostitutes, transvestites, and both in a positive light.

Then, there is Kancha. The 2012 chief antagonist was much creepier, deranged, and more psychotic than the original.  The contrast from the 1990 Danny Denzongpa’s Kancha was wonderful—Sanjay Dutt’s Kancha wasn’t an aviator-clad white suit-wearing villian, but rather a scary hairless man who couldn’t stand the sight of himself. He wasn’t suave, he wasn’t handsome– he was pure evil.

My favorite aspect of the script is the nuances of Vijay’s character. Is he good? Or not? On the one hand, he kills ruthlessly to gain his village back. He does anything in the name of gaining Mandwa– even takes part in an underworld lord’s evil doings for several years. On the other, he risks everything for a cop, a cop who would arrest him if he had the proof. But Vijay choose to protect him—the policeman’s self-respecting and moral ways remind him of his own father.

In Bollywood, films are usually black and white– there isn’t much room for a gray area. That is probably the reason why the original Agneepath failed at the box office, but nevertheless gained cult status. In the remake, the filmmakers didn’t shy away from exploring territory that is more or less uncharted in the Hindi film industry.   Bollywood has often been criticized of avoiding the “other” India. In Agneepath, here it was, in a high-budget star-studded motion picture.

The performances were noteworthy, the songs were authentic (created by local Marathi musicians), but there were still some over-the-top moments, too many unnecessary subplots, and the film could have been about an hour shorter. Nevertheless– it went where few mainstream Bollywood films go. It had a protagonist who was angry, lost, maybe mistaken– not your typical  Bollywood golden boy. It was a film that challenged the Hindi film industry’s precious image of India, and it still provided entertaining, yet intense cinema.

If the filmmakers made the film with a lower budget, less drama, fewer songs, no Katrina Kaif item number—it would have made for great cinema. But this is Bollywood, and this is also still a film produced by Karan Johar. With all that in mind, I commend the filmmakers for avoiding the fluffy, safe route and taking a risk. And for that, Agneepath is a good step for Bollywood.