Hulking Down the Path of Fire!
I guess it's not just Hollywood dipping into its rich archives for story ideas to be remade for the modern day audience. Bollywood's Dharma Productions' cult classic of a revenge thriller Agneepath, starring Amitabh Bachchan back in 1990, now gets produced by Karan Johar, son of Yash Johar who produced the original, so there's a real Generation 2 connection here in creating this update of the highest production values, pulling out all the stops in its desire to equal or triumph over the original on many fronts, and succeeding in doing so.
It's a tale that's timeless with themes that resonate, touching on family and violence, crime and vengeance, that in my opinion is of the scale as operatic as Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. Directed and co-written by Karan Malhotra, the film takes its time to develop the lead character of Vijay Deenanath Chauhan (Hrithik Roshan) that makes us ally to his cause of revenge, even if it means having to support him in a life of crime to rise up amongst the ranks, to gain power in whatever means possible to be of an equal to his mortal enemy Kancha (Sanjay Dutt), while at the same time battling his softer emotions that deal with love and acceptance from a mother (Zarina Wahab) hell bent against her son's chosen path to destruction.
And what makes Vijay so mad stems from the framing and public persecution of his dad Master Deenanath Chauhan (Chetan Pandit), a well respected school teacher and community leader in the village of Mandwa where landlords exploit the poor, who got enticed by Kancha's promise of leasing their land to built factories and create jobs. That he did, but only after enslaving the villagers through his brand of violence and control, and cultivating cocaine on their land to become a drug baron. But before the impending execution of his plan, Kancha has to get rid of naysayers like Master, turning him against the simpleton villages and subsequently hanging him mercilessly from a Banyan tree with public support baying for blood.
This triggers something in Vijay (as a child played by Arish Bhiwandiwala, who did a great job) who had to endure being helpless against the mob mentality, having to bear witness to an atrocious injustice, before taking flight with his mother to Mumbai, where his sister Shiksha (Kanika Tiwari) was born. Now staying alive with only one sole objective in mind, Vijay chances upon Mumbai's underworld led by Rauf Lala the drug lord and woman trafficker (Rishi Kapoor in an excellent support role) and plots to align with the bad hats to gain a reputation before getting back at Kancha. Doing so meant estranging himself from his mother and sister, in a way protecting them as well from his deliberate life of crime, making Kaali Gawde (Priyanka Chopra) perhaps his only childhood friend and lover to know him better than anyone else, although almost always goading that they get married.
What made Agneepath stand out amongst the usual triad and gangster crime flicks, is the path Vijay decided to undertake in his path of vengeance. Choosing to meet violence with violence, and to build an army of his own based on generosity amongst his adopted community of the poor and curiously predominantly female, Vijay schemes at different sides to ensure he's top dog, even if it means stepping on his "father"'s toes in Rauf Lala, and exploring avenues where he can usurp the underworld throne. And the balance of power also involves the cops led by Commissioner Gaitonde (Om Puri) with whom Vijay also strikes a testy relationship with, making Vijay a character with really grey intentions never being black or white and keeping his adversaries on their toes whether he's there to cover their back, or to spring a surprise by playing the opposite side. Talk about keeping your friends close, and enemies closer.
Hrithik Roshan did a fantastic job as the vengeful Vijay, with steely eyes that shoot pure hatred, balancing many negative emotions with more heartfelt ones especially in a scene where he bore his soul to Kaali revealing his yearning for his mother's love and acceptance after spending some 15 years apart in order to seed the opportunities of his planned revenge. Sanjay Dutt looked like he had loads of fun portraying the character of pure evil, a bald man who cannot stand the look of himself in a mirror, exacting control over his crafted empire built on the blood of Mandwa through guns, hired help, and Katrina Kaif as an item girl for the song Chikni Chameli. Priyanka Chopra as the love interest, teaming with Hrithik Roshan since Krrish (in films that I've watched), unfortunately had only a bit role to play here that showcased her broad acting range, being the livewire through her song and dance numbers that in fact made Katrina Kaif's much talked about item number look a little bit pale in comparison.
But besides the casting, the production values were of the highest quality and reminded me why I'm almost always thrilled to watch an Indian film epic anytime. The vibrant colours, customs and culture on display from religious processions to celebration of festivals or moments through song and dance, are elements that make an Indian film unique, and to not have all these ingredients coming together and gelling up well just meant that something's sorely missed. Plus the melodrama that finds a sweet spot in the narrative to become the emotional anchor for characters to allow you to feel, and in this case, empathize with their respective plight, blessed with irony and poetic justice when the time calls for it.
Agneepath befits its path of fire title with its bloody brutality, never gratuitous but necessary to bring out the senselessness, and the eye-for-an-eye treatment that Vijay Dinanath Chauhan is going after. Cinematography was gorgeous especially with Malhotra's many raining scenes as metaphors to try and quench the fiery moods and environments all round in Mumbai and Mandwa to no avail. As a remake, this version of Agneepath soars for its ability to stand on its own two feet and retaining an original flavour of its own, with minor quibbles such as what would be a rush toward its inevitable finale that brought everything to a tearful full circle. It seems like Agneepath has the bandwidth to become a classic of its own, and has indeed fired the first, early salvo in 2012 as being one of the best this year has on offer. A definite recommendation!