Saturday, October 28, 2006

"Don" - Paan + Tae Kwon = Long

Actually, the new Shah Rukh Khan movie Don isn't as bad as you might expect, given all the negative reviews (for instance). It's also shaping up to be a box office success.

Farhan Akhtar is probably the most hyped director in the new wave of Bollywood film directors. Though he comes from an old B-wood family (his father Javed co-wrote the script of the original Don), Farhan's first film, Dil Chahta Hai was considered a stylistic breakthrough, an anthem for the post-liberalization generation. That sense of clarity or mission is missing here: in his remake of Don, Farhan seems put most of his energy into matching western action flicks, fight-for-fight, and stunt for stunt. On this he succeeds: I liked the first car chase, and I think the skydiving fight scene is probably a first for Bollywood. There is also a certain amount of Kill Bill theatrical viciousness here that's novel in the Bollywood hero-villain iconography.

What most of the film's critics have missed, I think, is the basic problem of identity this film symbolizes, a problem which is I think broader than just this film. Farhan Akhtar seems to be torn between two approaches: either he could do a slightly tweaked version of an outdated version of India, from a "disco" gangster movie that wasn't all that great to begin with. (Yes, I said it.) The upside is you get the warm-and-fuzzy nostalgia atmosphere, but the danger is the mindless perpetuation of the myth of the "glory days" of Bollywood and Amitabh Bachchan, as if we need any more of that. Or: you can make a slick, essentially imported style of action movie, with a few "traditional" songs added to appeal to the folks in UP (the "Maurya Re" and "Khaike Paan Banaraswala" numbers). This film flirts with both but doesn't fully commit, which shows it fundamentally doesn't know what it wants to be.

It may be a false choice, but the question continues to nag one: will the real, contemporary Indian film aesthetic please stand up?

Incidentally, Priyanka Chopra is good here -- it's really the first film where I've liked her. For one thing she gets to actually do some serious martial arts fighting, which is usually off-limits for Bollywood actresses.

The remixes of old songs are so-so, and most of the new music is pretty bad (the exception being the Ganapati song, "Maurya Re," and the track by the Midival Punditz). In terms of how the songs are filmed, I have to say I slightly prefer the current style of cheesecake exploitation (Kareena Kapoor) to the old version (Zeenat Aman) -- though both are pretty much ridiculous.

But the music for this remake was going to be impossible. How could anyone top the original disco-funk opening to Don 1978? (Maybe if you brought in The Neptunes or Dr. Dre you could top that, but otherwise I don't see how it could be done.) I also thought Boman Irani, as DCP DeSilva, and Arjun Rampal, as a man who's got a grudge against the Boman Irani character, are also strong.

More Youtube bits: Khaike Paan Banaras (new) vs. the original Khaike (Amitabh Bachchan wins this song, hands down)

Amitabh's entry in the original Don

A fight sequence from the original Don


ana beynaam said...

okay, so I'm glad you think that Don 2006 isn't as bad as we might expect, and actually I had already decided not to watch it. Reading what you have to say isn't going to change my mind either. I've seen the 1978 version twice, and no it wasn't really all that great. Zeenat Aman could act, but not in that movie, and Amitabh's role wasn't all that impressive either (Yes, I said it)

I watched the two versions of "Khaike paan banaraswala" and what I think makes the first one so much more memorable and better is not so much Amitabh's performance, as it was how Kishore Kumar sings the song. A case of the "playback singer" outdoing the actor perhaps?

3:02 PM  
vk said...

Playback singer outdoing the actor-absolutely. And I dont think this was that uncommon in those days.

4:53 PM  
Ruchira Paul said...

The old "cheesecake" you've linked to is Helen, not Zeenat Aman. While I agree with you that most of the c.c. exploitation in Hindi movies is rather ridiculous, Helen, Bollywood's original c.c. was special. She had
the kind of oomph mixed with innocence that was at times quite "sublime" (until she opened her mouth and started to "act"). I don't know how to put my finger on her special charm. But no matter how provocative she appeared to be, Helen never looked "dirty."

As for Ana's observation about the singer outdoing the actor, I agree completely with her and VK. Some of the so called sex-appeal of the otherwise vapid actors of old was owed wholly to the magic of Lata, Asha, Rafi, Kishore and Manna Dey.

6:22 PM  
Panini Pothoharvi said...

In your somewhat effusive review of Don, you pose the following question:

"will the real, contemporary Indian film aesthetic please stand up?"

I would like you to elaborate this "Indian film aesthetic" bit a little more. I find this question – posed quite clearly in a non-interrogative spirit – replete with possibilities.

You have mentioned Midival Punditz in connection with a certain track of the film, I have gone up and down searching for their contribution on the original site but have sadly not come across their names mentioned anywhere. Could you kindly give more details as I am always a bit intrigued by complimentary references to the Punditz duo.

I'm not quite sure but painting the screen in such saturated hures of saffron... even if it is about Ganapati Bappa Maureya… is to me always a bit discomforting. I had earlier raised this question with Javed Akhtar about Dil Chahta Hai as to how a film with a Muslim director (Farhan), lyricist(Javed Akhtar), composer (Ehsaan), actors (Aamir and Saif) could forget to give space to the yuppie, cosmopolitan Muslim youth in their fictional world!

That Chandra Barot Don was nothing much to write home about, I accept. But there was something very unusual happening at the level of its hermeneutic code. The idea of keeping a wounded gangster alive and replacing him with a double was within the nascent Bollywood cinema was quite unique. In fact, much later, a director like John Woo was to dramatically play with the same idea in Face-off until it was trivialised by David Dhawan in Aankhen. The reverse had been tried out in a Navin Nischol film Mein Who Nahin. I wonder if there was a hint of the foetal (pun intended) cyborg!

Writing about the moving digital image, Jean-Pierre Geuens mentions how within the newly emergent visual order “the scene itself is no longer the primary focus; what matters most is the visual mesh that shapes what is going on. Moviemaking has now become a question of looks.” I wonder if in your comments on Don you are not conflating style with looks. Lev Manovich goes a step further and makes the following observation:

While previously the great text of culture from which the artist created her or his own unique ‘tissue of quotations’ was bubbling and shimmering somewhere below the consciousness, now [the entire creative process] has become externalized (and greatly reduced in the process).

11:44 PM  
Panini Pothoharvi said...

Ms Ruchira Paul's list of singers from yesteryears is interesting but I find Manna Dey"’s inclusion in this group a bit too subjective. In fact unwarranted! He didn't quite have the iconic magic or stature to create the aura that Lata Asha Rafi and Kishore did. In fact Mukesh would have been a better choice than Manna Dey even though, despite the soz in his voice, he was not always able to hold onto his sur.

I also find her comment: Some of the so called sex-appeal of the otherwise vapid actors of old was owed wholly to the magic of… made in dismissive haste. She is, I make bold to assume, referring to the days of excessive orality – the All India Radio, Vividh Bharti, Amin Sayaani, the transistor explosion. In short her childhood in Delhi which, as per the scholarly accounts available to us, did not go visually beyond Chitrahaars. Things have changed drastically. The visual culture has grown ominously in the last decade and a half and aligned itself (if not stolen a march over) with the auretic sounds in a decisive, counter-hegemonic move. For instance, the film music scene today is enormously vibrant with singers like Sonu Nigam, Sukhwinder, Shankar, Mahalaxmi Iyer, Sunidhi Chauhan, Shreya Ghoshal and composers like AR Rehman, Shankar, Ehsan, Loy, Harris Jayaraj (not Midival Punditz by a long shot). Within the newly emergent visual culture, these people have to strive much harder to hold onto their positions.

Secondly, Kishore began to succeed as a playback singer only with the emergence of Rajesh Khanna. He needed an SD and RD Burman; a Laxmikant-Pyarelal; a Shakti Samanta; a Hrishikesh Mukherjee; a Vijay Anand; a Dev Anand; a Rajesh Khanna; an Amitabh Bachchan to succeed.

Even songs like Chhayya chhayya from Dil Se survived on their own despite the stunning train-top dance involving the iconic SRK and a sizzling Malaika. The film failed but the song survived. One can go on giving examples.

1:32 AM  
ana beynaam said...

Actually Panini, Manna Dey did have enough magic, and classical training to create an aura. He sings wonderfully in Anand as well as the hilarious Padosan where Kishore actually beats him in that famous song contest. As for Ruchira's (or even mine) pick being subjective, of course it is! And why shouldn't it be? I do agree with you on Mukesh, and I meant to tease Ruchira about how she could forget him, but you've beat me to it, rather seriously! We can't always be "objective" critics here, and this isn't a class on film and music.

As for Kishoreda needing all of the people you've mentioned, true, but they needed him as well. According to one story, Amitabh's popularity decreased when Kishore decided after a misunderstanding not to sing for him anymore. Whether that is true or not, I don't think it is fair to reduce his role to nothing without these people. Pancham and his father, and Laximikant Pyarelal and Kalyanji Anandji sought him out because he had something to offer, and he did succeed in "outdoing" Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna. Because it is Kishoreda's voice that stays with us and the songs more so than some of the roles these actors played.

DJ Randolph and Midival Punditz do guest tracks on Don. I actually bought a CD of Midival Punditz which has that song with their mix from Monsoon Wedding and it is really good. They're not so much a part of the film scene as they are the Delhi underground music scene, so I'm not entirely certain what the comparison to the other artists is about. MP has their place in the varied music scene in India as well (and thank you for explaining "Bombay's a grid, Delhi swings, Amardeep!)

2:24 AM  
Panini Pothoharvi said...

There is a slight misunderstanding here - I didn't mean to say that he wasn't a musician grounded in classical music. All that I wished to say that he lacked iconicity attached to Lata Asha Rafi and Kishore. He simply didn't have it in him to be a culturally as phenomenal as the others. But that does not mean he was a singer of negligible talent. He wasn't. That is where your and Ms Paul's subjectivity becomes problematic.

Kishore was nearly a marginal singer for well over 15 years before he emerged as a big playback star. Did he need a particular musical or cultural configuration to happen to finally realize and solidify his status as an iconic phenomenon? It is not a phenomenon that can be explained away as simply as you and possibly Ms Paul seem to suggest.

My opinion about the Midival Punditz is that of a trained musician. Their music sucks!

4:51 AM  
Amardeep said...

Ruchira, thanks for the correction. I had already been corrected on the Helen/Zeenat problem on the Sepia Mutiny version of this post, and I should have gone back and fixed it here.

Panini, as Ana says, the Punditz song is on the soundtrack to the film. I don't think it's fair to compare them against melodic filmi music -- it's dance music. I mentioned them partly because I thought it was interesting to see them involved with a big commercial project like this.

On the absence of Muslim characters given the number of artists and actors involved in the production of the film from Muslim backgrounds, it's true. But this is nothing new in Bollywood.

I'm unfamiliar with the film theorists you're quoting. I do think there's a certain homogenization of fight scenes & car chases happening -- where high-end Bollywood looks like Hollywood looks like Hong Kong. But that's as much choreography and physical training as it is digital effects.

I do think some of the violence in the new "Don" -- if you compare it to the 1978 film -- reaches a level of visceral intensity that's new for Bollywood (think of the violence in "Bourne Supremacy" or "Kill Bill"). At one point, in a scene where Boman Irani is getting knocked unconscious by Arjun Rampal, one of the children in the theater actually started crying!

(My own child -- who was with us in his car seat -- happily slept through the film, except for a couple of the bad, loud songs. Those mad him squirm)

10:21 AM  
Panini Pothoharvi said...

Your child is an absolute delight! Your reference to him "completes" all arguments. So no more debates!

1:40 PM  
Ruchira Paul said...

In your infinite wisdom, you are as usual mostly right. Particularly about my lack of knowledge of current Bollywood movies (I am frozen in amber around the time Rajesh Khanna was dethroned by Amitabh Bachchan as "king" of Bollywood). For sentimental reasons, I have watched a handful of newer movies over the years and found nothing to sustain either my interest or feed my nostalgia. I am therefore not very familiar with the current crop of actors and musicians. Could you recommend some titles I should sample?

Since you have declared an end to all debate in honor of Baby Puran Singh, I will tread softly here.

Manna Dey may not have been an iconic singer of the caliber of Rafi or Kishore Kumar, but quite a few of his songs were - the list on another day.

Mukesh was not an "inadvertent" omission on my list. Although I love many of his songs, I feel that in his case, the flow of sex appeal was reversed - from the actor to the singer. Raj Kapoor was a far more iconic figure than Mukesh. Again, my subjective opinion.

True, Kishore Kumar became a mega-star only after Rajesh Khanna captured the hearts of Indian moviegoers. But he did quite a bit for Dev Anand's charm in his heydey (Munimji, Taxi Driver, Paying Guest and many more).

I noticed that you raised no objection to my characterization of Helen. Does that mean you agree? :-)

12:55 AM  
Panini Pothoharvi said...


I'm in the fullest agreement with you vis-a-vis Helen. As for the rest, "my lips are sealed"!

8:48 AM  
Qalandar said...

The original Don not that great? Yeesh! I beg to differ...I think Farhan Akhtar really messed this one up, but I can't say I'm surprised, as the Hollywoodized and somewhat humorless turn he took with Lakshya led me to believe that he'd be a better remaker of Mission Impossible or the Bourne Identity than Don.

I also disagree with Amardeep's comment about the "myth" of Bachchan's glory days: those films were often politically charged, and raised serious questions (they aren't very accessible to the uninitiated because the cinematic "language" was rather culturally specific); many of the new lot of films are merely consumerist...

Check these two fun reviews of the original Don out:

My own review of the new Don:

1:12 AM  
Chandra said...

Your kid is 4 weeks old and you get to watch movies already? Man, you are lucky :)

I haven't seen the new Don but I am not sure how you can even attempt to compare Bachan with the little guy (I have yet to like one of SRK's movies vs pretty much all of Amir's).

I agree with Ruchira about Helen (sexy is the word)!!

5:05 PM  

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