Playing with fire? The new Agneepath versus the old

by Trisha Gupta

The Agneepath of 2012 – producer Karan Johar’s suitably filmi, emotional tribute to his father Yash Johar – risks a million departures in terms of characters, narrative and tenor, while clinging tightly to the emotional core of the 1990 Agneepath produced by Johar Senior: a boy whose life path is defined by the murder of his father. And like the 1990 film which earned a then visibly ageing Amitabh Bachchan his first National Award even as it sank at the box office, the 2012 film is unapologetically grand.

But then Karan Malhotra’s Agneepath – and the debutante director has definitively made the film his own – is not just a tribute to Mukul Anand’s 1990 cult classic, but to the tradition of the Hindi film epic itself. The structure of Hindi cinema owes much to the 19th century Parsi-Urdu theatre, popular social melodramas filled with flamboyant romance, ill-fated passions and most crucially, family sagas. As Javed Akhtar said on a panel at the recently-concluded Jaipur Literature Festival, some Western cinematic cultures may thrive on the artistic economy of the short story, but we Indians have sagas in our blood: “Jab tak do-teen peedhiyon ki baat na ho, hamein mazaa nahi aata”.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the contemporary Hindi film – and I speak not just of the small sleeper hits and adventures-in-newness like Delhi Belly or LSD, but also of the blockbusters, the Ra-Ones and Don 2s and Bodyguards – seems to have begun to abandon the family saga. When was the last time you saw on screen that staple constituent of most Hindi films until the 1990s, the hero’s childhood? The last one I can think of is Dabangg, and before that, Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky Lucky Oye. And if you think carefully about both those films, you’ll agree that even if the whole childhood thing is being done self-consciously – within quotation marks, so to speak – the hero’s travails acquire that much more emotional heft because we know what life was like for him, growing up. The movie becomes that much more Hindi movie.

 Playing with fire? The new Agneepath versus the old

Priyanka Chopra plays Kaali, the irrepressibly chatty Dongri girl Vijay grows up with. Pic: agneepaththefilm.com

So it was with pleasure that I found that 2012’s Agneepath opens, like its 1990 predecessor, with the 12-year-old Vijay receiving his first life-lesson from his father. It is a magnificent beginning: a child being guided away from the temptation to hit back (“Sawaal shakti ka nahi, shakti ke istemaal ka hai”), in a scene that resounds with Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s famously stirring call to the uncompromised – and uncompromising – path:

“Vriksh ho bhale khade,

Ho ghane, ho bade,

Ek patra chaanh bhi maang mat, maang mat, maang mat!

Agnipath, agnipath, agnipath!”

("Trees there may be,

Massive, dense,

But ask not, ask not for the shade of a single leaf:

Walk the path of fire.”)

The year is 1977. The place is Mandwa, a small village off the coast of Bombay where electricity has not yet arrived. Vijay’s father, Master Deenanath Chavan (the school teacher, as in so many stories that have come out of the modernising of this subcontinent, standing in for the possibility of progress) urges the villagers not to give up their land, thus becoming the sole obstacle in the path of the man who wants to make cocaine in the guise of a salt factory: Kancha Cheena.

Here is where the new film makes its first major departure from the old one. It transforms Kancha Cheena from Danny Denzongpa’s efficient, cold-blooded, almost refined outsider into a “sarvashaktishaali, sarvashaktimaan” insider personifed by the gleaming, fleshy excess of a bald Sanjay Dutt. By turning Kancha into the local zamindar’s son and an ex-gangster returned from the city, the film combines in his single fearsome persona a terrifyingly intimate view of the rural masses (“jeevan pilpila raha hai, jeevan gidgida raha hai”) and an absolute lack of humanity, a ruthlessness couched as the ascetic disavowal of moh-maya.

Kancha’s manipulation of the villagers into lynching the one man who stands between them and hell is of a piece with his view of them as sub-human creatures. But this sense of the villagers as a helpless, indistinguishable mass remains a deeply unsettling note: the crowd that aids the killing of Deenanath never actually comes together again, neither to confront its oppressors, nor to support its heroes.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, because Agneepath is the ultimate hero versus villain battle, a moral battle about the meaning of masculinity that pits truth against power. The new film makes the villain and his location both elemental and epic, actually referring to him as Ravana in his Lanka. Kiran Deohans and Ravi K Chandran’s cinematography does wonders, creating a truly mythic landscape of craggy grey cliffs and huge banyan trees.

Kancha Cheena is played by the gleaming, fleshy and bald Sanjay Dutt. Pic: agneepaththefilm.com

But Mandwa is only one among the locales that the film brings pulsatingly to life, and the transformation of Kancha only one part of its reimagining of the original. Between the tragic beginning and the final heroic encounter, the film presents a veritable parade of memorable scenes, dense with imagery and staged with impeccable attention to detail. The many chhitput bad guys of the older film are replaced by the concentrated villainy of a new character, the cheerfully lethal Rauf Lala. Rishi Kapoor, cast against a lifetime of stereotyping as the cherubic love-machine, steps lithely and brilliantly into the shoes of this kasai with the kajjalkor eyes. From the almost over-the-top Oriental fantasy of Rauf Lala’s introductory scene where he auctions off whimpering girl children as slaves, Kapoor completely inhabits the skin of the Muslim patriarch, the drugs and trafficking king who adopts the Hindu Vijay as his own.

Malhotra extracts wonderful performances from his other actors, too: from Priyanka Chopra as Vijay’s love interest, the Madhavi character who served merely as mute receptacle for Amitabh’s woes in the original thankfully replaced here by Kaali, the irrepressibly chatty Dongri girl he grows up with; from Zareena Wahab as the mother who cannot understand her son’s turn to violence, beautifully underplaying the original Rohini Hattangady performance; from Kanika Tiwari  as Vijay’s sister Shiksha, Neelam’s disco-dancing character replaced by a fresh-faced teenager whose innocence makes the film’s good-and-evil conflicts that much more powerful.

Of course, what everyone’s waiting to see is whether Hrithik can fill the impossibly large shoes of the industry’s greatest ever star. What he does is fascinating. Instead of trying to play Vijay Chavan in the almost garrulous dialoguebaaz style that had come to define Amitabh’s star persona in the 80s, Hrithik plays him as a quiet, intense figure, his grief so tightly wound up inside him that he cannot even bring himself to voice it. Hrithik is not Amitabh, and he knows it, but it is a performance that draws ever so slightly, perhaps unknowingly, on the younger Amitabh of Zanjeer and Deewar.

If you’re a diehard fan of the old Agneepath, you may find it hard to accept the new one, as deliberately different as it is. But Karan Malhotra’s rich reimagining is a true homage, one that keeps alive the spirit of the old but doesn’t flinch from creating a fresh world for that spirit to inhabit.

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Updated Date: Jan 27, 2012 17:08:21 IST