What an interesting masala of movies (that tracks, right? I was going to use “melange”, but that’s just French for “mix”, so why not “masala” instead?)! My Netflix envelope claimed it was a remake of some American movie called Assassins. But that’s just one of many many films that went into creating this one.
Firstly, Bombai Ka Baboo! Dev Anand and Suchitra Sen in one of her rare Hindi film appearances. NOT the terrible Kajol movie with the same name from back when Atul Agnihotri was going to be A Thing and Saif wasn’t yet a star.
(Here’s the whole terrible thing! If you manage to watch it straight through, I’ll give you a dollar)
Wait, not first! First, an O’Henry story, “A Double-Dyed Deceiver”. Then Angel and the Badman. Then Bombai Ka Baboo. Then The Killer. Then Assassins. And maybe Zameer and Keemat a little too.
The point is, this is an old old story. And I am fairly sure that the director of this movie (Trivikram Srinivas, he also made Attarintiki Daredi) sat down and watched some, if not all, of these previous versions before he came up with his own. And that’s a good thing!
The end result is John Wayne talking with Dev Anand and Amitabh Bachchan and Saif Ali Khan popping his head up every once in a while to give his version, plus O’Henry from on high saying “well, back in MY day, it was all about the parental relationships!” And then John Woo poking his head in to say “More Guns! More Doves! More Churches!”
Hmm, how can I deal with this without SPOILERS? I guess start with the big thematic stuff. This is about how a person can be completely reformed and changed by being put into a different situation in which he feels accepted and loved. Dev Anand and O’Henry and Amitabh and Mahesh Babu all agree on that part. And John Wayne does too, a little bit.
(You can also watch this entire movie! It is a lot shorter, and a lot better, than the one above)
Secondly, this is a crime drama. But that is very very secondary. At least, as I saw the movie, it was more about the question of reform and love and acceptance, and the crime bits were just there to keep the relationships moving forward. And the crime bits were ruthlessly stolen from Assassins (an American action movie) and the finale to The Killer.
Back when Airlift came out and people were talking about how similar it was to Argo, I wrote a whole long post that basically boiled down to “it’s not plagiarism unless it is”. What I meant was, artists can be inspired by art created by someone else. The broad strokes, the emotional sensations, can send them off on their own artistic journey. And this is very different from when you take something already written down and copy it in the hopes of “tricking” the public into purchasing your version rather than the original.
In the case of this movie, the theme of a person being reformed by being put in a different circumstance, that is the thing that I feel like the writer saw somewhere or remembered hearing about and it sent them off on a track that eventually lead to this film, which is in many ways very different from all the previous versions of the story.
But the details of how the crime plot plays out, yeah, that seems kind of similar in some specific ways to Assassins. And since Assassins is a fairly obscure American action movie, not a stone-cold classic like Bombai Ka Baboo, they probably were kind of hoping to “trick” the audience into thinking this was the best possible version of this plot twist. I would say the same about John Woo and the ending of The Killer, but at this point that scene has been ripped off so many times, it would be like complaining about someone stealing from Shakespeare by using two lovers from feuding families.
I really want to get into the plot specifics for the big thematic things, but I’m not ready for SPOILERS yet, so I’m going to talk about performances first and then come back to it. Prakash Raj was predictably brilliant. How does he make every Police Inspector character he plays feel different? I’m impressed not just be his ability to do that, but by his hard work in even bothering! Who would notice (or care) if he used a similar line delivery and affect for the police inspector in every random Telugu action movie he is cast in? And yet, Prakash always finds a way to make them a little different!
Mahesh Babu, on the other hand, primarily plays Mahesh Babu. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Star images are reassuring and good thought experiments for filmmakers to use as a jumping off point. And this is an excellent role for him, since it is supposed to be kind of a tortured secretive strong silent type.
Trisha is excellent, as always. Similar to Prakash Raj, she seems to make an effort to differentiate her “simple young love interest” roles from each other. This role in particular is a bit of a challenge, her “village belle” is a tad on the obnoxious side. But that’s not Trisha’s fault, it’s due to the script which puts some pretty odd words in her mouth.
But the romance in general is kind of delightful, one of those “sharing the same house” romances, with lots of teasing and fights and practical jokes while they both try to hide their feelings. Or maybe it’s not so much that they are “hiding” them as that they can’t understand the manner in which the other is showing their feelings?
Okay, NOW I am ready for SPOILERS! SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILER SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
I’m gonna start with the plot of Bombai Ka Baboo, because I am pretty sure that is the most influential influence on this film (that didn’t sound right, is that right?). In Bombai Ka Baboo, Dev Anand is a criminal in Bombay who has a lot of redeeming features. For instance, his childhood friend is now a high up police official who admits that, back when they were boys, if he had fought more to give Dev a sense of security and support instead of bowing to society, now Dev could be a good and noble man instead of what he has become. Plus, Dev is kind to all the lowly servants and maids in their criminal den. And he’s not a violent criminal, just a thief.
But then one day he gets into a fight with his partner, who is drunk and a little crazy, and accidentally hits him hard enough to kill him. Dev goes on the run and ends up at a little village, where a tricky old man that he knows through his criminal contacts suggests that he go to the big mansion on the hill, pretend to be their son who was lost years ago at a fair when he was just a boy, ingratiate himself with the family, and then steal the keys to their jewelry cabinet and take everything.
Dev starts out with this plan, but then the old woman and man are so incredibly kind to him, he pretty immediately gets focused on making them feel like their son really has come home. So far, this is all pretty predictable, right?
But there are three twists that are kind of shocking. Okay, REALLY shocking! The less shocking one is that in the end his cop friend tracks him down and tells him to just stay there and be a good son to his “parents”. And the lie has become a truth, by being loved and accepted by this old couple, and by learning to love them in turn, he has in fact given them a son and found his own parents and left behind his tragic and criminal past.
The next most shocking one is the discovery that their real son, the one he is just pretending to be, was his friend/partner who he killed back in Bombay! A bit of a coincidence, but I will allow it for the poetic symmetry of it, he took their son, and now his punishment is to “return” their son by becoming it himself. And there’s also the kind of interesting touch that he is in every way superior to the guy he killed. The other guy wasn’t evil or anything, but he tended to drink, and get angry, and he was just generally less “heroic” than Dev.
The REALLY shocking one is the incest. Which is why staying in this place as their “son” is kind of a punishment as well as a redemption. He falls into being the old couple’s son very easily, but he also falls in love at first sight with his “sister”, Suchitra Sen. The filmmakers are very careful about how they handle this, Dev is very flirty and eager, but never quite crosses the line you wouldn’t want a brother to cross. Although he comes very close.
Most memorably, his mother gives him the family bangles which are always worn by the daughter-in-law of the house. And he immediately goes to find Suchitra and half jokingly asks her to try them on. She recognizes them and objects, because they are supposed to go to his bride, not his sister. And there is a bit of a battle of the wills where Dev drops his facade a little and Suchitra gets a little scared and alarmed, like maybe she is beginning to realize that her brother is in love with her, and maybe she is in love with him a little too.
And therefore his “punishment” at the end. He gets Suchitra married, fulfilling his duty as her brother, watches her palanquin leave the house, and then goes back inside never able to have her, because in the eyes of the world they are brother and sister.
Right, so, in this movie we have the same plot, but with all the shocking bits slightly changed. First, the whole family does find out that Dev is not their son, but decides it doesn’t matter, because he acts like their son, and he deserves to be their son, so that’s how they see him now. And then the cop lets him go again with the same direction to be a good son to his “family”.
Second, he doesn’t murder the son of the household. Isn’t it interesting how moral lines shift depending on the movie? In Bombai Ka Baboo, he was still “good” because he had turned to crime out of desperation and wasn’t a violent criminal. In this one, Mahesh Babu is all kinds of violent, a paid assassin, but the audience can “forgive” him because he didn’t directly kill the man who’s place he is taking. Instead, while they were talking, the police killed him while aiming at Mahesh. So Mahesh feels the moral imperative a little to make up for the death of their son, but the audience can forgive everything he has done in the past so long as he didn’t actually kill their son.
And finally, incest is a-okay! I don’t understand the household relationships entirely, but the beautiful young woman he falls in love with (Trisha) is a cousin or something, not a sibling, so he can feel free to romance her without needing to explain that he’s not “really” her relative. If anything, the relative charade helps him since they are “engaged” from childhood (I think it’s that traditional father’s sister’s daughter thing again?). And I’m glad the relationship is okay, because it is pretty cute. Yes, Trisha is a bit much with her announcements that she is the most beautiful girl in the village and so on. But she kind of manages to sell those lines as youthful exuberance not true vanity.
And the practical joke scenes, in fact the whole song sequence in which they become enemies in the household, is really cute. And does a nice job on Mahesh’s character, showing how this dark assassin who never had anybody is being softened by her childlike enthusiasm. Which is what he says in the very well-written scene when he confesses his emotions, that while she is actively trying to make the door open (a literal door, between their adjoining bedrooms), he is simply standing on the other side waiting.
That’s what makes this romance work well, and also reminded me of a lot of other romances in other Mahesh movies. He is the strong silent type, he has a hard time admitting his feelings. And opposite him, if you put a demonstrative flirty young woman, she will constantly feel rejected. And he will never trust her feelings because they are expressed so differently from his.
Oh right, and then there’s the John Woo bit. Prakash Raj has been hunting down Mahesh this whole time, but has also begun to put it together that Mahesh didn’t actually fire the shot which killed the Prime Minister (the reason he is on the run), and is being set up. In the end, TWIST, Mahesh’s childhood friend who was supposed to be the getaway driver, took a bigger pay out to be the shooter and to set up Mahesh, and then he faked his own death so Mahesh would never suspect it. Which we could have figured out, because he was played by Sonu Sood and obviously his role was going to be more than just “guy who dies in the first five minutes”.
There is something a little interesting here, about how Mahesh from childhood (as we saw in flashback) was working for and with crooks, and all those who were closest to him, turn on him during Prakash’s investigating, until finally he learns of the ultimate betrayal by Sonu. That’s kind of neat, since it plays into the “all you need to reform is people who care about you” message, showing us the flip side, that he went bad because no one in his life really cared about him. And then Mahesh has to go clear his name, so he goes off to meet Sonu Sood in a church and there is a massive shoot-out with doves. Like I said, The Killer.
Something that could have also been stolen from another film, but I can’t think what at the moment, is that Sonu dies finally from trying to use Mahesh’s gun which has been jammed and backfires. And I think this was maybe something the audience was supposed to be waiting for? We saw the kids playing with the gun and dropping a marble down the barrel earlier in the film, I suppose if a viewer were familiar with how guns worked and remembered that, the would have been on the edge of their seat for the whole finale, waiting for when Mahesh finally pulled the trigger to see what happened.
What I really like about this is the cause of the backfire, the child’s marble. There were some interesting parallels through out the film between Mahesh and this particular kid. Mahesh was about that age in the flashback when we saw him start his criminal career. And the kid was one of the first people in the household to welcome him. And then we see the child playing with a gun, not using it like Mahesh was at that age. And his youthful joy and innocence is, in the end, what saves Mahesh.