Really, First Review. I did a combined thing of Don 1 and Don 2 and a little bit Don Original, but I never did a review specifically of the Don 1 film.
Let’s talk Farhan Akhtar! This was his third film, and his first commercial success. His first movie, Dil Chahta Hai, was a massive cult hit, forever changed Hindi cinema, but didn’t make a ton of money. His next movie, Lakshya, is a film I myself quite like and probably would do very well today (patriotic, but in a multiplex friendly overeducated kind of way with a sensitive young hero), but was a bit ahead of it’s time. Too patriotic for the early 2000s, too cool for the loyal action/patriotism kind of audience. And then with Don, he hit it just right. Cool, action, in a way that was both retro and old-fashioned.
That “retro and old-fashioned” is the real genius. This is a movie you can enjoy ironically and sincerely both at the same time. Admire the subtle 70s style fashion, the clever little meta-statements on action films, and of course the conversation with the 70s original. Or, just like it because HE KICKED THAT GUY IN THE FACE!!! LOOK AT THAT!!! RIGHT IN THE FACE!!!
Everything about the film dances on that line. The songs are mostly remixes (both in visuals and sound) of the 70s original soundtrack. But they are also really good songs! You don’t have to know they are clever updates of 70s stuff to like them. The performances too, you don’t have to know that Priyanka is playing an old Zeenat Aman role, you can just enjoy the way she mixes glamour and action. And the plot of course, although in that case I think it is ever so slightly more entertaining, or at least more surprising, if you see how to slightly changes the original. But even without knowing the original plot, this script can more than stand on its own.
There are two performances at the center that, the more I watch the film, really stand out. The first is Shahrukh’s of course. Once again playing a double role. But playing it a double-way too. It’s partly slightly Masala, slightly silly. And partly serious and scary. And the two halves fit, just as his fun 70s paisley shirts with large lapels also somehow look early 2000s high fashion.
The other performance, which you don’t notice as much at the time, is Boman Irani’s. He has to project solid stable reliable intelligence, but give you just a hit of someone more interesting in the background at the same time. It’s Boman who sets the plot in motion, and Shahrukh who takes it over, and both actors need to play characters who keep their cards close to the chest but still keep us watching.
And then back to the script. I have seen this film I don’t even know how many times, and by golly it holds up! Every time you think you have found a flaw, you can work it out in your mind and see the logic behind it. This script is just a clockwork marvel, perfection from every angle. Oh, and you should admire it with fresh eyes, so DO NOT READ ON IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE MOVIE!!!! REALLY REALLY REALLY!!!! GO WATCH IT RIGHT NOW AND THEN COME BACK AND READ THE REST!!! NOT KIDDING!!!!
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I’m gonna do this chronologically and logically, not as the film lays it out. There are 2 rival gangsters both mentored by the same King Gangster. One (Boman) went into hiding years ago, the other rose to the top of the gang and then cheerfully left all the day to day work to his lieutenant Shahrukh/Don. Boman has now risen up in the police force, and is dedicated to taking down his rival and his gang in order to get revenge and doesn’t care how he does it. He sees an opening with Shahrukh, if he can get in with Shahrukh, he can find out where the other gangster is. Meanwhile, Shahrukh is also looking for an opening. He is tired of doing all the work and having none of the power, he wants his boss taken care of. He is captured by the police and then overhears Boman explain to Shahrukh 2 that he plans to replace Shahrukh 1 with him. Shahrukh 1 kills Shahrukh 2 and makes Boman think he is him so that he can hear what the police are planning and generally sew chaos. He learns one of his new gang members, Priyanka, is out to kill him in revenge for him killing her brother and convinces her that he is Shahrukh 2. He plans to have Boman and the police arrest his boss and the rest of the gang, and then escape by being Shahrukh 2. But it goes wrong because he doesn’t know Boman actually plans to finally kill his rival and frame Shahrukh (1 or 2, he doesn’t care). Shahrukh flees but takes with him the data that Boman would need to retake control of the gang. He keeps Priyanka, and their new ally Arjun, thinking that he is innocent Shahrukh 2 so they will help him. He finally defeats Boman and makes sure the police will blame everything on him. And then he disappears.
The film makes this mysterious by a neat trick of misdirection, getting the audience and most of the characters seemingly focused on taking down Don (Shahrukh 1). But in reality, it’s about control of the gang itself, not any one person. Shahrukh 1 wants control, Boman wants to take back control, the current leader wants to keep control. Both Shahrukh and Boman are focused on taking out the current leader, and then learn that there is a new player in the game and focus on each other. Shahrukh wins, Boman goes to jail.
There are so many small smart touches to this movie. For instance, the first time I watched it, I was really irritated by the way Shahrukh 2 was able to pretend to be Don so easily. In the 1970s original film, there is a whole section showing Amitabh learning to be Other Amitabh. But in this film, it came easily. And then I learned in the final twist that Shahrukh was always Don all along, no wonder he didn’t need lessons. But, hang on a second, Boman didn’t know that. Why did he send someone in who would be unmasked shortly. Because he didn’t care. If Shahrukh made the disguise work, great, he had a man on the inside. If he didn’t make it work, still good, Shahrukh’s death/defection/whatever would be enough of a mess to bring he Top Boss to town which is all Boman really wanted. If he were actually a cop, he would want evidence and things. But he wasn’t a cop at all, he just wanted confusion and death.
You can see the same kind of thing over and over again. Like, in the Shahrukh- Priyanka relationship. Shahrukh conveniently “falls in love” after she has been told he is in disguise. It keeps her in control. Before that, just seconds before, he was preparing to kill her before she could kill him.
Oh, and the fight scenes! Brilliantly acted. Good fight choreography which is also in character choreography and which is acted in character, that’s really remarkable. When Shahrukh is fighting, he starts out slow, kind of figuring out who he is dealing with. And then he turns increasingly vicious, not big proud punches, but short powerful ones, and ruthless use of weapons. It’s the one time that even when he is pretending to be sweet Shahrukh 2, you can see the ruthless Shahrukh 1 peak through.
Ultimately, it’s the title character, Don, Shahrukh 1, that makes the whole thing work. Without him, it would be a fun action movie with a really cool look to it and decent plot twists. But Don is something unique. He is complete amorality, an animal but a thinking animal. He will kill without thought if he feels it is reasonable, but he will take a different route if it seems optimal at the moment. A bad guy who doesn’t mind appearing weak if it gives him a position of strength, and a gang boss who has out thought the police, and the folks above him in the gang.
You watch the movie for the enjoyable ride and then get to the final twist that it was Don all along, just playing with people by pretending to be someone else pretending to be him. And then you go back and watch again and see it in the performance, the little moments of twisted darkness in hidden expressions, the vicious fighting, the slight sense of superiority over lessor humans. Then you watch it a third time and put together the whole thing, see how Don all along was using whatever came to hand in order to defeat others and climb to the top. Such a dark and twisted person with such a dark and twisted plot, in such a light movie.
That’s the final dance between two extremes. You can watch this film for fun, or ironically. And you can also watch this film for the light bits of the songs and costumes and fun, or the dark bits of the Don character who cares for no one and will always win.