Let’s get this out of the way first. Randeep Hooda is hot.
It is worth the price of a ticket just to see him wandering around in sleeveless vests throughout this film. He also takes off his shirt at one point, letting the camera linger on a really really admirable yet not obviously gym-sculpted, over-muscled back. That is a second ticket taken care of.
As it happens, this man – who we first saw in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding in 2001 – is one of contemporary Indian cinema’s most talented, most under-rated actors. It is a mystery why he is not a bigger star.
Hooda’s talent and looks are very much in evidence in director Syed Ahmad Afzal’s Laal Rang. Question is: does the film add up to more than what he has to offer?
Laal Rang revolves around an extremely important subject: corruption in blood banks. It is set in Karnal, Haryana, where Shankar Malik (Hooda) runs a successful blood donation racket. To make his illegal activities easier by becoming a government insider, he enrols in a Medical Lab Technology course at a government hospital.
There he meets the young and impressionable Rajesh Dhiman (Akshay Oberoi) who is so awe-struck by his charisma, his swagger, his inventive ways of making money under the table and his Yamaha RX100 (which, the film tells us, makes men irresistible to women) that he soon becomes his protégé.
Also in the picture is their straight-laced classmate Poonam Sharma (Pia Bajpai) and a late entrant into the story, Superintendent of Police Gajraj Singh (Rajniesh Duggall), the local Haryanvi boy who made it big.
The film’s supporting actors are a uniformly competent lot, though a special mention must be made of Rajendra Sethi – another excellent yet underrated actor – playing one of Shankar’s cohorts. Bajpai is good for the most part even though she is not entirely convincing with her fake bad English.
In what is one of the film’s nicest touches, the characters in Laal Rang are not built up as menacing repulsive villains, yet they are clearly an amoral bunch who, for instance, celebrate a dengue epidemic because of the gains it brings blood racketeers like them. What the film teaches us about their underhand dealings is terrifying. It is the kind of story that will make you hesitate to ever visit a blood bank again, though of course we do not have a choice in this matter, a realisation that would chill any normal human being to the bone.
The film’s undoing is what seems to be confusion over the tone it wants to achieve. And so, although large parts of the narrative have a very apt, realistic feel to them, Laal Rang never becomes as gritty as it needed to be because of its tendency to intermittently wander off into long, loud songs supplemented by stylised, slow motion shots. The insistent background score is used to underline every single emotion, twist and turn as if for fear that the audience may miss the point.
As standalone scenes and music videos outside a feature film, some of these are pretty impressive. In one passage in the film, for instance, Shankar takes Rajesh for a ride on his mobike and as the music plays and the wind blows through his hair, he seems to ask his young pillion rider to take the handlebars while he himself lets go and reaches into his pocket for a cigarette. Ooh. Neat.
While this scene works because it comes before we discover the horrid reality of the blood underworld that is Laal Rang’s focus, once we settle into that theme, the repeated musical asides become an irritant.
A great subject alone doth not a great film make. Relevant topics translate into good films when they are peopled with human beings that we become completely involved with. That does not happen here. There is a distant feel to Laal Rang, the air of a newspaper reporter recounting a corruption scandal as a detached observer would and should, rather than an insider’s account, which is what this is supposed to be.
There is a memorable moment early in Laal Rang when Shankar hails a cycle rickshaw, and an aerial shot shows us every single rickshawpuller on that street immediately freezing at his summons. They do it out of choice and not for fear of him, as we soon find out.
One of the poor men tells Rajesh that they consider Shankar god (the choice of divine name for the character even comes up for a mention at one point). Later we realise that all the men in that scene were probably professional donors (PDs) whose impoverished existence was greatly improved by the extra money Shankar’s business brings in.
The film needed more of that kind of material minus the overdone music. Laal Rang tells us a lot about the fraudulent operations of the country’s blood banks. Wish it had got us to feel invested in the lives of the men and women who run the fraud, especially the likes of Shankar and Rajesh who have a straight path staring them in the face yet choose a crooked way.
This film has many interesting individual elements but fails to lift off in its entirety. So yes, Randeep Hooda is hot, but Laal Rang is not.