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Santoshi's back with Halla Bol
Raja Sen | January 11, 2008 18:12 IST
Bollywood is suddenly discovering self-awareness, turning inwardly for inspiration as our scriptwriters come up with films about films. Rajkumar Santoshi's latest starts off like yet another of this lot, a film about a spoilt superstar endorsing vests, acting in cliched movies and pretending to fight off the starlets dying to clamber over him.
Ajay Devgan [Images] plays Sameer Khan, his character living nicely up to the ubiquitous Bollywood power-surname. Santoshi's experience is evident right from the first frame, his Bollywood caricaturing -- even when obvious -- feels always authentic. Khan is a ruthlessly ambitious egomaniac, a driven and single minded actor who has always kept his priorities straight: despite this clarity in goal making him decidedly mercenary.
Things chug along at this pleasantly watchable, quite unremarkable manner until there is a celebrity-filled party, where Khan meets an old fan, a pretty girl he advises to enter the business. The weary star retreats from the party, goes to the restroom where he believably postures cockily in front of the mirror, trying his hero-poses on for size.
Swaggering out of the loo, he almost runs into the same girl, her nose hemorrhaging fatally as she cries to him for help. He hesitates, jumping defensively back a second before she's shot dead.
Yeah, it's Jessica Lal [Images], no question. Except here every single witness clams up. The celebrities and businessmen present at the party collectively do a Shayan Munshi and merrily shut their traps, despite all having seen two kids of powermongers kill her, clear as day.
Khan, too, is content in his comfortable cowardice. He has everything to lose, he feels. Too much would be squandered on nothing, he explains to the dead girl's sister when she comes to him for help on the sets of a film. Fittingly, he's dressed like Ming The Merciless.
And despite the constantly loathsome behaviour Khan shows, he too is troubled and brooding. Alright, so this is largely expressed by him looking out the house or car windows while nursing a glass of scotch, yet it at least attempts to segue his damn-it-all mindset with his past. This past is shown in the form of a lengthy flashback detailing his young love with Vidya Balan (now his wife), and his streetplay-time acting guru taking hands-on action to combat parental opposition to young Ashfaque (The Sameer came from his first producers) becoming an actor.
It is this flashback -- an overlong monster of a memory -- that haunts him even more than the horrific visions of the bleeding girl screaming for help. This is a sequence that needs to be impactful, and this is where the film's hero enters. Pankaj Kapur plays the dynamic Sidhu, a dacoit turned theatre-director as adept at frying pakodas as tossing up one-liners. He is the film's point of integrity, the steadfast larger-than-life invincible character -- the inevitable raw nerve that beats through the best of Santoshi's cinema.
Ajay's performance works quite perfectly when he's Khanning it up for the cameras within the film, and not as brilliantly when he's dealing with trouble on his own. Vidya Balan [Images] does very well as his wife -- it's so refreshing to see her act again -- but the performance of the film unsurprisingly comes from Kapur. Admitted we all cringe a little when a movie like this descends into a filmi swordfight, but it's great to see the talwaar out of the hand of a burly jat and given to the finest actor in the country. Pankaj even makes trite believable, and when he barks out an immensely loaded line, you stiffen even if in spite of yourself.
However, nobody else in the film acts at all, which hurts Halla Bol considerably.
The film unfolds, with the flawed protagonist struggling for redemption. The background score is as pita as ghisa gets, and there is much filminess as the characters trade punchlines. Yet as a film it stays immensely watchable, and even if predictable as a whole, you hardly see the next moment coming.
The rise of the nation happens in one quick montage, almost dismissively. Then again perhaps the movie wants to be a mere reminder, not a documentary, which is fair enough. In the midst of all the action and the Jessica-like unfolding, this unabashedly commercial film does make a valid enough point, and even if it isn't the kind of film that'll inspire individuals a la Rang De Basanti [Images] a couple of Januarys ago, it is an interesting look at the backlash that makes our overpaid actors shut up, to begin with.
Santoshi has always been a strong director with characters who spout lines harder than knuckles and break necks with glee. This is a film that could really have benefited from a more modern, edgier treatment, the flashback cut into smaller, more edible slices peppered through the narrative. But it isn't. And while watching Pankaj Kapur brilliantly mollycoddle a man trying to bribe him, you realise that there is a time and place for subtlety and that this isn't it -- despite the great moments with the carpet, or the nurse reading a movie magazine.
Enjoy the broadstrokes, the cliches, and, above all, the film's honesty.
This is, after quite a hiatus, vintage Santoshi, for which we should be glad. To paraphrase Kapur's Sidhu, 'voh director hi kaun jo badal jaaye?' ('What director is he who ends up changing?')
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