You have all been delightfully patient with my incredibly dull history of media series that I’ve been obsessed with for the past few days, but now it is all over and as a reward, I will do an intensive review of two movies that I suspect most of you have seen, and have opinions on.
Let’s start at the beginning, back in the 1970s. Nariman Irani, a cinematographer, was in debt after trying to produce his first film. But he had friends, and they knew he was in trouble, so they suggested he produce another film and they would help him out by appearing in it. He got Salim-Javed, top scriptwriters, to agree to do the story, and Amitabh Bachchan, top everything, to star. And Zeenat Aman to be the heroine, Helen to play the sexy dancer, Iftakhar to play the cop, and Pran to play the friend. Guaranteed hit. Even with a first time director who had never done anything else.
And then Irani died. Which meant the film became that much more difficult to make, and that much more important. His family was still dealing with his debts, and had no hope of further income. So for his widow and children, everyone kept working. With no money or time. Continuity went out the window as everyone worked late night shifts in between other roles, and the script was rewritten to accommodate all the unexpected shifts. And finally, 3 and a half years later, Don was released. It flopped the first week, but word of mouth picked up and by the second week it was a hit. The profits were presented to Irani’s widow.
The film itself is delightfully fun and unpredictable. There is a great spirit of fun to it, of no consequences, of leaving it all on the floor. But all of that fun serves to hide a bit the brilliance of the essential script. An original idea centering on 4 unique characters, allowing for all kinds of thought experiments and audience discussion.
And that’s what brings us to 2006. It’s always a bit tricky when you make a remake of a classic film. There’s the challenge of somehow justifying it’s existence by adding something new, and there’s also the matter of being respectful of the original artists, not implying that you think there is anything wrong with their vision. And neither of these were a concern here! At least, not for Farhan, the writer/director.
Farhan is Javed’s son, clearly he has the permission of the original author and will be respectful. And Farhan also has a unique vision, he revolutionized the Hindi film industry with his very first film. There was no chance he would create merely a retread of his father’s vision.
The overall idea of the film, the concept and image and on and on, no concerns there, Farhan would do something brilliant and yet respectful. It was the cast that ran into problems. How do you cast someone to play a role originated by Amitabh? Or Zeenat Aman? Or Pran? Or, most impossible of all, HELEN!!!!! The early reports were full of pearl clutching and horror as every casting announcement came out, and I did quite a bit of pearl clutching myself. Arjun Rampal as Pran? Kareena as Helen? Shahrukh as Amitabh??? Even for a Shahrukh fan like myself, that was a lot to take.
But, shockingly, it worked! Every actor managed to play both a version of the original, a nod to the fun and funky 70s version, and something new, something modern and 2000s style. And the script as well, kept the fun twists and excitement of the 70s while adding on something new for the 2000s, something a little darker and more bitter, something a little dangerous and exciting.
That’s what made the 2006 Don something really special, that remix effect of the 1970s version with the modern day. And that’s what I personally was missing from the sequel, the 2011 version. I can understand the temptation, Shahrukh had found something special in the character, Farhan had found something special in visuals, and the story practically demanded a sequel, there were so many additional directions it could go. But without the 1970s flavor mixed in, it just wasn’t the same. The romance went from sweet and innocent to sexual, the message went from moral to amoral, the songs went from exciting original remixes to kind of bland modern songs.
If Don 2 didn’t have the shadow of Don 1 hanging over it, it might have seemed like a much better movie. Shahrukh and Priyanka’s chemistry is electric, and the plot is the kind of twisted heist that Hindi film hardly ever does. Plus the production quality is amazing, car chases and shoot outs and everything at the same level as a Hollywood film. But because it is a follow-up to Don 2006, and also to Don 1978, it feels just a little bit empty. A little bit less than what had come before.
(I know I always put a SPOILER bar, but this time I REALLY REALLY MEAN IT!!! The films, especially 2006 Don, deserve to be watched with fresh eyes and letting the plot surprise you)
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The essential idea is simple. There are 4 characters. First, the noble cop played by Iftakhar in the original and Boman Irani in the remake. Next, the traumatized and vengeful young woman (Zeenat Aman in the original and Priyanka in the remake) whose brother was killed by the mobster he worked for, and then her sister-in-law killed as well when she tried to have him arrested. Then, there is the decent street performer just trying to get by and take care of the two kids he has adopted (Amitabh in the original and Shahrukh in the remake. And finally there is the struggling ex-con trying to put his life back together (Pran in the original and Arjun in the remake). And all of these characters revolve around the central problem, the titular “Don” who has ruined all their lives in a different way. But the trick of it is, he ruins their lives even while he isn’t there. Don disappears and Iftakar/Boman bring in Shahrukh/Amitabh who happens to look exactly like him to take his place and infiltrate the gang. The challenge is, how to convince the fellow “good” people that he isn’t Don after all, he is someone good too. How can these 4 people find each other and work together?
Obviously there are endless variations on how this plot can play out. The misunderstandings, the fights, the changing alliances, and so on and so on. That’s what the 1978 version played with, taunting us with the knowledge that both Zeenat and Amitabh were good people, only they didn’t know they could trust the other. And then adding on Pran, the father who thought he was saving his children from a vicious gangster, not realizing it was the humble street performer who had become their foster parent. That’s my favorite scene of the original, when Amitabh surprises Pran in a dark alley with the two children, both men fighting to the death for the sake of the children they love, without realizing they are both just trying to help them.
The original has a strong central plot, but mostly it feels a bit like a sandbox everyone is playing in. Any idea is good enough to be considered. A comic song, “Khaike Pan Banaraswale”, thrown in last minute. Zeenat Aman’s character learning martial arts in, like, a day-good enough! Put it in! Helen doing an amazing item song that is also plot-relevant, great! 40-something Pran playing an acrobat/cat burglers-sure! Totally logical! Nothing is too silly, nothing is too over the top, everything is allowed.
This isn’t exactly a problem, but it means an opportunity was missed. The central story didn’t get to shine quite as much as it could have, because there was all of that other stuff around the edges. I can imagine Javed telling his kids about how he wished he could have done that script differently, polished it a bit move, added some more twists to the plot instead of more silly songs. And I can imagine Farhan growing up and thinking about all those things that could be added.
And so we get Farhan’s version. Same basic framework, but with a new twist added on. Several actually. First, there is the plan to use Shahrukh’s charade to capture Don’s superiors including a little seen hidden boss. Second, there is the reveal that Boman is in fact that hidden boss! In hiding all this time as a police inspector. This leads to a whole finale act of the film, the team coming together to get evidence on Boman. And then the final twist, the real mindblower, that Shahrukh was, in fact, Don all along!!!! He woke up while drugged, and traded places with the other Shahrukh. He was tricking everyone the whole time, including the audience.
It’s a brilliant trick to play on the audience. Because we think we know the story, we think it is a straight remake. We are waiting for the little changes and we think the we have found them with the Boman reveal. And then the plot goes back on the expected track, Shahrukh and Priyanka and Arjun are working together to take down the big bad. Until, in the last 5 minutes, it all blows up again.
There’s tricks within tricks here. Because once you know the ending, you can go back and watch the rest of the film and see how it was there all along. All the little clues, Don’s favorite cartoons playing the background, the mask slipping just a little bit in fight scenes. This is the kind of careful structure they couldn’t do with the original, they couldn’t even keep the heroine’s hair the same length, let alone sprinkling in subtle clues leading to a big reveal.
And so Farhan justified his remake. He managed to take the essential idea and present it in a different way, a way that highlighted the careful plotting and the build and the twists of it, instead of just the joyous anarchic fun of the original. The two films work together, each serving to highlight what makes the other special.
But then there’s the 2011 film. This is NOT a simple plot, this is an extremely complicated plot with no clear point to it. Shahrukh is on the run, Priyanka is working for interpol trying to catch him. And Boman Irani is in jail and resentful. Shahrukh turns himself in and offers to testify against everyone if he can get immunity in return. They don’t give him the deal, so instead he goes to jail and meets up with Boman and reveals that he has a plan for both of them to escape and he needs Boman to help him break into a safe. Shahrukh and Boman go to Germany and meet up with hacker Kunal Kapoor and mysterious Lara Dutta. They arrange a meeting with a desi German banker and blackmail him into helping them get currency plates out of a hidden safe. However, during the actual heist, Shahrukh is betrayed by Boman who has paid off part of the gang. Shahrukh is arrested by Priyanka but convinces her to let him guide her into the bank to stop the robbery by Boman. Priyanka is shot and Shahrukh goes berserk. He gets her out and gets his promised immunity for helping, and then goes off. Only to reveal that he kept one of the currency plates, and slipped information to the police on all the other gang bosses in Europe, making him now the only one left standing and the king of the European underworld, with immunity for his former crimes, and a currency plate.
See???? Not simple! Not simple at all! Not illogical either, very carefully crafted and it all hangs together. But a whole different feel to it, a kind of grown up version of the 2006 Don where everything is like a children’s game. A sexy children’s game, if that makes sense, but ultimately very simple.
The Shahrukh and Priyanka relationship is where that shows up the most. In the 2006 Don, Shahrukh is eeeeevil and molesty and she is disgusted by him and hates him. And then he is innocent and good, and they flit a little. And then the end twist is that he was evil all along and apparently just amusing himself by tricking her and using her for his plan. But in the 2011 version, it’s a whole different thing. Priyanka hates him for killing her brother, but is also a little obsessed by him, desperate to hunt him down and arrest him so she can stop thinking about him. And Shahrukh, he seems obsessed in his own way, corrupt and selfish, but also sincerely attracted to Priyanka, caring about her even, enough to avenge her when she is shot.
What draws them together is that Shahrukh calls to the darkness inside of Priyanka, after all her brother was a gangster, she grew up in the shadows. And Priyanka calls to the goodness in him, the sense of something a little more that lead him to aspire to take control of the gang, to think outside the box in how he did it (setting up the charade and tricking Priyanka into being his agent). This film really builds on those parts of both of them, Priyanka is offered a nice boring love interest at Interpol, and yet somehow she can’t forget about Shahrukh. Shahrukh sincerely wants a clean slate and really does turn in all the other gangsters in Europe. And he also helps nice Kunal Kapoor with his pregnant wife to make some money.
Maybe that’s why I want a Don 3 so much. Because it feels like the story of Don 2 isn’t quite finished yet. Priyanka and Shahrukh are on a journey and we have to see where it leads. Will Shahrukh turn fully “good” in the end? Or will Priyanka turn bad? The first films, those were closed stories. Good was good and bad was bad, and that was their strength. But this second film, it opened the door to something more without fully going through. There is a finishing that hasn’t happened yet.