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Siraj Syed


Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 

 

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Laal Singh Chaddha, Review: A run for your money, in branded underwear

Laal Singh Chaddha, Review: A run for your money, in branded underwear

It’s been fifteen years after Aamir Khan acted in and directed Taare Zameen Par, about a dyslexic child, and 28 years after Tom Hanks captivated our hearts as Forrest Gump, who had an IQ of 75 and needed braces to correct what was believed to be a curved spine. In 2022, here comes a film that is the official remake of Forrest Gump. It could be among the warmest, heart-tugging tales you’ve heard being told, or it could be an amazingly creative yarn spun by a train passenger, to engage his fellow travellers, and to kill time. There is just a feather separating the two premises, and the feather has an important role to play in the film. There are many departures from the original - the film being completely and understandably Indianised - and they have all been okayed by Paramount Pictures, who had the rights to Forrest Gump and who have their logo in the opening credit tiles, so it is pointless listing them and discussing them. What is worth stressing is that good, old-fashioned narrative, with childhood, family and flashbacks, is still alive, and its torch-bearer, Laal Singh Chaddha is thoroughly watchable and a run nfor your money.

In the present day, a Sardar is travelling in the second class compartment of a train. He has a longish beard and is clutching a box of what could be Indian sweets/candy, but turns out to be a box of gol gappey/bhel puri (thin, globular Indian savoury, eaten with a liquid filling). He strikes-up a conversation with the woman sitting opposite him, and the other passengers soon turn attentive listeners. It is his autobiography that he is narrating. Born around the advent of the 1980s (true to Forrest Gump), Laal Singh Chaddha comes from a (maternal side) succession of folks who enlisted in the army and died in the battlefield. His mother wishes that he should join the army too. But that is not easy, considering his low intelligence, and feet braces. On account of both these factors, he is either shunned by children of his age or bullied and beaten, with stones being pelted very often.

At school, nobody wants him to sit next to them, until a girl named Rupa D’Sousa offers him the second seat on her bench. This delights him no end, and he starts falling in love with Rupa, even as a child. One day, he is chased by ruffians, who first throw stones at him and then want to chase him down in a car. Rupa yells out to him to run, and run he does, the braces break and he runs faster than the car! Finding him on a track field, a coach suggests that he join their running team, which he gladly does, and wins medal upon medal. Meanwhile, he passes his school exams. From there on, it is only a matter of time that he lands up in the army. There, Laal misses his mother and Rupa a lot, but makes friends with a fellow Naik (soldier) named Bala. Bala’s family has been in the underwear business for many years, and he hopes to get back to his village and start his own unit, manufacturing banians (vests/singlets) and underwear. Posted at Kargil, where there was a real-life fierce face-off between Indian and Pakistani forces/Pakistan-backed militia, he is hit by a bullet on his buttock, but manages to drag Bala and several others out of the line of fire. Unfortunately, Bala dies, and one of the men he has rescued is from the enemy’s side.

How many screenplay writers would have spent ten years working on their project? The adaptation of Forrest Gump, underwent a series of changes over a period of two decades, with much lauded actor-writer Atul Kulkarni spending the first ten years adapting the script, and another ten years purchasing the remake rights (he is now 56). Aamir Khan (guess how old he is) bought the rights of the film in early 2018, and the film was shot during 2019-2021. No wonder the adaptation is so complete, so detailed. I wonder whether the floating feather was Atul’s idea or director Advait Chandan’s, but it adds a delicate touch to the whole story, appearing both in the beginning and the end. One can’t interpret the use of this feather literally, say as in Mughal-e-Azam. It must mean different things to different individuals. To me it symbolised the candle that is placed before a poet in a mushaira (poets’ gathering), meaning that it is now his turn to read his compositions. Likewise, it can be seen in the film as a tool to suggest that it is now Laal’s turn to tell his tale.

There can be some issues about the story and screenplay. A girl named Rupa D’Sousa is hardly likely to be studying in a school located in the deep interiors of Punjab. Nothing is known about Laal’s father, though a lot is made of his maternal grand/great grandfather(s). How was it that the Indian forces did not find out about Mohammed’s antecedents while he was in hospital, and, how he, now a bilateral amputee (without both legs), escaped from the hospital, only to get a sophisticated wheel-chair and live a normal life.

National and religious integration to the fore, Laal respects all religions but follows none. Sikhism and Hinduism are the religions practiced in the village where he lives. He falls in love with a girl who is half Christian, his best friend in the army is Bala, a Malayali (or Tamilian of Telugu-speaking; I could not be sure) Mohammed, whom he befriends too, is, obviously, a Muslim from Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir (POK), all the baddies with whom Rupa gets involved are Muslim. Two of his most lasting bonds are formed in exactly the identical way: the other person offering him a seat. Obviously, better creativity was called for. His mother warns him not to venture out when there is religious rioting, because there is ‘malaria’ in the air. This is used once too often, and insults his limited intellect, an intellect that his mother keeps boosting all the time.

Although the above might suggest that the script has little merit, far from it. It is a near true account of the history of India from the early 80s till 2019. This, in fact, would be the common memory of Atul and Aamir, the latter now running 57. Incidentally, Tom Hanks played Forrest Gump when he was 28! Laal is a hero in more senses then one, but there is no chest thumping and hullaballoo about it. His lady love (who begins as his childhood crush) is a flirt and gold-digger, rather than someone who showers her affection on him.

His branded underwear manufacturing business fails to take off until Mohammed gives him a revolutionary idea, after watching something on TV, and then the runner becomes an underwear brand leader. Worth mentioning that (male?) underwear in Hindi is called chaddi, which, kind of, goes with Chaddha. Being the owner of an industrial empire, he travels second class. When there is a desperate need to cut his hair short, to save him from certain death at the hands of a rioting mob, his mother finds a piece of broken glass, with which she cuts off his top-the-head bun, a sign of belonging to the Sikh religion. Co-incidence? Yes, but imagination too.

After working for ten years as an assistant, including assisting Aamir Khan in Taare Zameen Par, Advait Chandan got his break in Khan’s Secret Superstar, a superhit film about feminism, gender equality and domestic violence. Not much later, he began working on his second film, Laal Singh Chaddha. Forrest Gump was a long film by American standards, at 142 minutes, while Chandan clocks in a whopping 165. He includes several songs, when none were needed. It was a good idea to cast a new (to Hindustani audiences) face as Bala. Maybe he needed a better actress as Laal’s mother, but more of that later. Chandan gives Aamir just the right amount of mannerism, which is less than slapstick and suitably more than deadpan.

Focussing on the underworld-films nexus, which was a reality, though not at the time shown in the film, he picturises it in a stock, stereo-typical manner. Whenever the film starts slipping into the Madras tear-jerking formulæ of 195011970, he brings in a little humour, like the ShahRukh Khan cameo. Yet, it cannot be denied that a lump surface in your throat while watching the film, recurrently, and the film is more melancholic than frivolous. There are failings in the screenplay and direction, but the film has its heart in the right place and leaves an impact, largely due to Aamir’s performance.

Aamir Khan needed some guts to remake a classic, and to cast himself in it at, an age that was twice that of the original actor. But never one to shy away from challenges, he takes it head on. Digital de-aging notwithstanding, he rarely strikes a false note. Clean shaven, with a short beard, with a long beard, with a moustache, with a turban, without a turban, in army fatigues, with an almost bare bottom, not once does he look a misfit. Kareena Kapoor, likewise, will be Kareena Kapoor. You might want to die to have a figure her size, at the same time, do remember that she is a full 16 years younger than Aamir. Her track towards Aamir’s unrequited love is ambivalent at best, and could have been better written. Mona Singh as Laal’s mother could not have asked for a better role. She is seen raising Laal from the age of about five, till her own death. Though she has poured her all into it, it, perhaps, needed a more consummate artiste. Naga Chaitanya of Telugu cinema in his Hindustani debut, as Bala does his job well. Unfortunately, his fixation with underwear leads to some uncalled for hilarity.

Manav Vij speaks Hindi, rather than Urdu, which he should be speaking, I wonder who is to blame. This is the second time he is named ‘Mohammed’ in succession, having played Mohammed Ghori in the recent debacle called Prithviraj Chauhan. Physically, he suits the part. Performance-wise, he does not have too much to do. The two children playing young Laal and young Rosy have done a good job. In a film that leans towards the sad, the cameo of ShahRukh Khan come in as mad, mad as in hilarious. I won’t spoil the fun by telling you what he does on screen and how is he presented. Actors cast as the underworld-cinema nexus ought to have been chosen more carefully.

Cinematography by Satyajit Pande (Setu), editing by Hemanti Sarkar, music score by Tanuj Tiku and song tunes by Pritam, are of a high standard, and the lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya truly lofty and inspired, but the era of 165 minutes long is probably passé, unless the makers can pack in either a thrill a minute or a laugh a second. Moreover, the film does not end on a high. Interestingly, it begins with the longest disclaimer, both visually and read out, that I have ever seen on the Indian film screen. And let us not forget a certain Eric Roth, who wrote the original. 

In summary, “Life is a tale life told by a dimwit, full of sound and images, signifying a lot.” (With apologies to Shakespeare. If the makers of this film can adapt Forrest Gump, surely, I can adapt one of the most memorable lines from Macbeth).

Rating: ***

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Tg5BLRmTcg

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.


Bandra West, Mumbai

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