“[Pitaji] kaha karte thhe ki manushya ko apne aadarshon aur moochhon ka uchit aadar karna chahiye,” (Father used to say that a man must respect his principles and his moustaches), went Amol Palekar’s brilliant faux-soulful paean to the moustache in the original Golmaal. “Moustache is the mirror of human soul and mind, moochh toh mann ka darpan hai.”
In a cleverer, kinder universe, Rowdy Rathore might have been a 21st century comic tribute to the power of the moochh. After all, like the old Golmaal, it features a double role where the hero’s two avatars are distinguishable only by a moustache (though both Akshays have a moustache here: one turned up, the other down), and much crucial dialogue that turns on moochhes.
Unfortunately, though, Prabhudeva’s Hindi remake of 2006’s Telugu hit Vikramarkudu has neither the wit nor the charm needed to craft a real send-up. In fact, it’s not at all clear whether we’re meant to be able to laugh at the ridiculous, over-the-top masculinity of SSP Rathore’s oft-repeated desire to die with a smile on his face, twirling his moustaches. I have the terrible feeling that this stuff is deadly earnest. Our hero takes his moochh even more seriously than Utpal Dutt did.
The plot is fairly convoluted. SSP Vikram Rathore – the man who wants his moustache cut off if he dies in a fight – is a fiery police inspector with a track record for incorruptibility and bravado. His arrival in the village of Devgarh puts him into immediate confrontation with a family of South Indians-playing-Bihari villains, headed by the gross tongue-rolling Nasser. Rathore temporarily breaks the reign of terror under which the villagers have been labouring for years. He is nearly killed in retaliation, but while the villains think he’s dead, he secretly recuperates and moves undercover to Mumbai.
Meanwhile, Rathore’s cherubic little daughter, pining for her lost father, stumbles upon his lookalike, a child-hating conman called Shiva. After the kind of heart-tugging that would convert even King-Kong, Shiva finally discovers his paternal side. But the fetching Bihari girl he’s just wooed – Sonakshi Sinha – isn’t too happy to discover that her new boyfriend comes with a pint-sized attachment who keeps plaintively calling him Papa. Cue grand misunderstanding, convenient disappearance of heroine, and shift to pure action.
The rest of Rowdy Rathore is a remarkably trashy hotchpotch of a million things you’ve seen before. Singham-style action sprinkled with ridiculous macho dialogue, tick. Don-style replacement of deadly serious hero by comic double, tick. Brain pe pressure that gets worse when the sun is hot (think back to Amitabh Bachchan’s brain tumour in Majboor) and magically disappears when rained on, tick. Imaginary village that some have been calling Sholay-style but that really feels like Agneepath – tick. The echo of Agneepath feels particularly strong: Devgarh is set around a rocky outcrop; the terrified villagers scrape and bow before an evil 80s-style villain; crowds of villagers assemble to be passive witnesses to the violent death of their sole possible saviour – the stringing up of SSP Rathore is highly evocative of the tableaux of Deenanath Chauhan’s death.
But the 2012 Agneepath, while every inch a mass entertainer, actually made the effort to create an identifiable character for its heroine – Priyanka Chopra’s excitable Kali had both a believable backstory and aspirations for the future: a beauty parlour in Dongri, marriage to her childhood love Vijay. Rowdy Rathore, on the other hand, is the sort of film where the “masala” label is an excuse to justify a hero who calls his girlfriend “mera maal” and where the heroine’s declared “special talent” is her gleaming gori waistline, with the camera zooming in grossly on the love handles our thieving hero can’t keep his hands off. Deprived of even the couple of “feisty” lines that made her Dabanng debut so bizarrely feted, Sonakshi’s character reaches its depressing nadir when she actually puts into words her vision of this ‘romance’: “Shaadi ke baad har hafte shopping le jaoge ki nahi?” If this is what the ‘common man’ thinks women want, they probably get the hellish marriages they deserve.
Rowdy Rathore does get one woman – the repeatedly raped wife of a policeman (Yashpal Sharma) – to finally turn avenging Draupadi. But her angry pummelling of Nasser is probably the only moment in the whole film when the spotlight is not monopolised by Akshay Kumar. From stealing cellphones out of people’s hands mid-conversation to wiping out whole armies of goondas, Krishna-like, with a Sudarshana chakra-esque weapon, there’s no doubt that Akshay is what makes this film somewhat watchable. He may look indubitably older – particularly in some of the gross tummy-displaying choreography that Prabhudeva thinks is seductive or something – but he still jumps off buildings with aplomb, and remains winsome enough to make you smile. But in an industry that swears by him, can’t Akshay Kumar get himself a star vehicle that’s not a half-baked rehash of a zillion other films? Is it too much to ask for plot twists that you can’t see coming a mile away, villains who might actually scare us, and perhaps an actual female lead rather than a waist-in-attendance? One lives in hope.