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Agneepath (dir. Karan Malhotra, 2012)

This post first appeared on Totally Filmi on February 13, 2012.

It’s no secret that films from Dharma Productions are generally not my cup of tea – and that’s especially true of the films of Karan Johar, producer of this remake of Mukul S. Anand’s 1990 cult version.  My main problem with Karan Johar’s films is their overblown melodrama, and,well, the fact that I often find them emotionally manipulative.

And to be honest, that’s probably my main problem with the Karan Malhotra directed/ Karan Johar produced version of Agneepath.  Although I’m not one of the legion of fans of Anand’s original – partly because revenge drama doesn’t readily appeal to me, partly because of Amitabh Bachchan’s performance (I found him far too old for the role of the twenty-something Vijay, and his attempt to channel Al Pacino’s voice managed to put me off the film almost entirely) – I can see why the original appeals to so many film fans.  Anand was considered a director ahead of his time (his Hum remains a Totally Filmi House Favourite Film), and his Agneepath, despite its weary revenge plot and vocal stylings, contains moments of great brilliance, great style, and intensely beautiful and poetic visuals – the ending in particular is spectacular to behold.

In all fairness, the Malhotra/Johar remake does stand as a fitting tribute to Anand’s original.  I especially appreciated that this was not a completely faithful remake, changing the plot and characters slightly to give a different perspective on the material.  As much as I loved Mithun Chakraborty’s Krishnan Iyer M.A., I did feel the character ended up more as a kind of southern comedy uncle, and his romance with Siksha (Neelam) was not only rather twee, but also more distracting than it was diverting.

So I was not unhappy to see that plot line dropped, and new characters added to the mix.  Priyanka Chopra’s Kaali managed to add that light, fresh touch that Krishnan Iyer brought to the original film, without overwhelming it or taking away from the drama at hand.  The villain Kancha remains, but Sanjay Dutt (who truly has the best evil laugh in the business) turns him into a remorseless, chilling psychopath.  Hrithik Roshan is asked to do little more than scowl or weep, and Roshan delivers admirably.  Probably the best reason to see Agneepath is the newly added Rauf Lala, Kancha’s rival, inhabited so brilliantly by Rishi Kapoor.  For me, the remake is worth it for Rishi Kapoor alone.

That said – Malhotra’s film is loud, brutal, intense – and occasionally overbearing.  What are subtle touches in Anad’s original become sledgehammers in this updated version.  In 1990, Vijay’s ascent is underlined by him having his clothing made by the same tailor as his rival Kancha; in 2012, Vijay rises to, well, literally fill Rauf Lala’s shoes.  If we didn’t get it the first time (when Vijay accidentally puts on Lala’s shoes), it’s a metaphor that will be driven home again, with a heavier hand, as is so much the case with Malhotra’s version. 

One of the problems I had with Anand’s film was a kind of moral mushiness – that we’re expected to root for Vijay even though quite clearly he loses sight of his original goal (revenge for his father’s death) and becomes part of the system of evil he is supposed to be fighting.  Vijay challenges anyone who calls him a goonda, truly oblivious to the fact that he has become one.  And it’s a problem that is carried into Malhotra’s remake:  Hrithik Roshan’s Vijay spends fifteen years working for the truly despicable Rauf Lala.  Lala considers Vijay a son, and Vijay easily steps into his shoes (both physical and metaphorical) when given the opportunity.  That he releases the under-age girls that Lala traffics in doesn’t really make up for all that time spent in Lala’s employ, contributing to his dirty business.

And it’s that very business, the trafficking in under-age girls, that has had me mulling over the film all week.  It’s a plot point that, quite honestly, left me queasy, and it’s taken me a bit of thinking to figure out why.  I recognize that we live in a world where such despicable things happen.  It’s the kind of issue I think deserves to be examined in films, and I wouldn’t shy away just on that alone.  But I have the suspicion that it’s used here just for emotional effect – there’s that emotional manipulation again.  I don’t need that to show me how evil Rauf Lala is – his drug business and his dealings with Kancha, coupled with a powerhouse performance from Rishi Kapoor, are enough to establish that.  This Agneepath just wants to elicit that queasiness just for the sake of my emotional response, and I find that kind of morally questionable.

One thing I will say:  I did like the songs in the updated Agneepath a lot – with one exception, that being the lacklustre item number “Chikni Chameli”.  But I have to ask Dharma Productions:  when are you going to get with the programme and subtitle the songs?  We all know they are important and integral to the story, and they deserve subtitles, too.

All that said:  Agneepath is a compelling look at the nature of evil and the forms it takes.  Pure evil, in the form of Kancha, who never pretends he’s anything else and revels in that fact; evil that hides behind a veneer of respectability, in the form of Rauf Lala.  Between them lies the fiery path that Vijay walks on, a path that, fortunately, finally leads to some kind of redemption.

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