I can always talk about Don! Always always always! It’s just such a brilliant movie in so many ways. Shahrukh’s performance, of course, but also the script, and how it uses our knowledge of the original to support its underlying trickery. Oh, and if you haven’t seen Shahrukh’s Don yet, DO NOT READ ON!!!!! Just watch the movie instead. Normally I don’t care about Spoilers, but oh my gosh, if you go into Don unspoiled, it is so awesome!
Okay, now I am going to spoil SRK’s Don. And also Amitabh’s original Don. You ready? Here it comes…
In the original, street performer Vijay is set up by the honest cop D’Souza to take the place of his lookalike, master criminal Don. But, then the real Don dies, and D’Souza is out of action (can’t remember if he dies or not), and the cops are after Vijay thinking he is Don while his gang is after him thinking he is Vijay, and there are two wildcards in the mix, an honest man and an honest woman who’s lives were destroyed by Don and want vengeance. In the end, everything gets sorted out, the criminals are defeated, and Vijay and the honest woman fall in love, and he becomes best friends and allies with the honest man.
In the Shahrukh remake, everything starts out the same, and the audience thinks we are just watching the same movie over again, but more stylized. But then! TWIST! At the end, we learn that Don had killed Vijay and takes his place, and the whole second half of the film when we think we are watching Vijay-as-Don, it’s actually just Don, pretending to still be Vijay when it is convenient.
What makes this extra good is how all the main plot points seem to be unspooling just as they did in the original. Vijay is pretending to be Don with the assistance of the noble cop. But then the noble cop is out of action, the only ones who believe Vijay is really Vijay are Don’s gang, he has to go on the run from the cops who want to arrest Don and the criminals who want to kill Vijay. And, worse than that, from the noble man who’s life Don has destroyed, who should be Vijay’s greatest ally, but instead is his enemy (hot Arjun).
The only slightly off note to me when I was watching it the first time is how Shahrukh is playing Vijay-as-Don. He seems to have kind of lost the plot a little, sometimes it’s like he forgets to layer the Vijay under the Don. There are a few moments in the fight scenes when he gets so excited about being in an action movie, that he fights like a gangster, instead of a street performer struggling to survive. I tried to explain it with “well, you know, he was a performer before, so now he is just giving a really good performance!” But it really almost ruined the movie for me, made Vijay much less lovable to see him being so brutal with people. There were two moments in particular, in the middle of the fight with Priyanka and with Arjun, when he just looked feral and wild all of a sudden. Come on, Shahrukh! You should be better than that! Vijay wouldn’t be feral, he would be sweet and innocent!
(00:20 to 00:40 above, such a miss-step! It’s almost like that’s not sweet Vijay in the fight, it’s Don!)
And then you get to the end, and TWIST, and suddenly it’s jaw-dropping “oh my God, SRK, that was the performance of your career!” It’s not just that he was Don-as Vijay-as Don, it’s that he changed it depending on the scene. With Priyanka and Boman Irani, he was Don-as Vijay-as Don. When he was with others, he was Don-with-a-massive-head-injury. When he was with his superiors, he was Don-the-humble. But when he was alone, he was a whole other animal. Don-the-mastermind, Don-the-little-bit-psycho, Don-the-not-quite-right-in-the-head. The first time I watched it, when I was still struggling to get my head around the whole thing, I thought the “Khaike Paan Banareswala” song was a huge huge mistake. Clearly, they just threw it in as nostalgia for when Amitabh did the same song in the original. But it doesn’t make sense for this character at all, because it’s not Vijay the humble paan addict and song-and-dance man, it’s Don. Big scary Don who likes the big parties and the pretty women. It still didn’t work for me on watch 2. But on watch 3-4-5-6-7-to infinity, I think it is actually one of the best parts of the film.
The thing is, Shahrukh as Don is playing a part, but it is Don pretending to be Don. If you pay attention to the long boring bit where the police explain the history of the gang war (not saying you should pay attention necessarily, it’s pretty boring), you can see the long game Don has been playing all along. See, Don is actually pretty low on the crime pyramid, but he also does all the work and makes all the plans while everyone else lives off his efforts. There’s one moment that tells you everything, when Don-as-Vijay-as-Don has his hair tousled by his gangster boss (played by Shahid Kapoor’s stepfather, by the way). Don fixes his hair, and watches him walk away with a look of pure hatred. In the moment, on the first watch, I thought it was Shahrukh over-playing the “honest man disgusted by criminals” card, but on subsequent watches, it is just a quick glimpse of the real Don, the one who has been used and abused by his criminal superiors for years, putting up with the head pats and shoulder punches, and secretly burning with resentment.
He is pretending, all along, to respect his superiors, to not want anything more for himself, to be a loyal lieutenant, to efface himself and hide his light under a bushel. Pretending to be Vijay for Priyanka lets him finally, in a way, be himself. The “Khaike Paan Banaraswala” song is not Don-as-Vijay, it is Don-as-the-Real Don.
Which brings me to my hopes for Fan! I would love if we get that kind of layered performance here. From a few moments of the trailer, it looks like we may have Shahrukh-as-Fan pretending to be Shahrukh-as-Star at some point. Which would be great, to see how he plays one pretending to be the other. But I would also love it if we got the same kind of layers in his performance of the Star character, if we got to see how he is hiding his emotions and pretending to be one person in public, but all the time is someone else on the inside. Which, actually, is I think how Shahrukh is in real life. I mean, he’s said that, that with his family and close friends he is actually really different and kind of boring, it’s only when he goes out in the world that he becomes “Shahrukh Khan-STAR!”