Sampath G

I’ve seen ‘Himmatwala’ twice—can you?

In Bollywood, Cinema, Humour, Popular Culture, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:42 pm

I saw Himmatwala twice. Ma Sherawali ki kasam—I’m not lying. I surrendered 300 minutes of my life toHimmatwala. Does this mean my life is empty and bereft of meaning and I have nothing to look forward to? No. Then I must surely be a friend of Sajid Khan or Vashu Bhagnani or the local multiplex owner? No, I’m not.

Ah, then I must certainly be a Ajay Devgn fan! Well, if anything, I’m the opposite of a Devgn fan. I once got lynched online by Devgn acolytes when I did a piece for a national newspaper comparing his nipples to bonsai cherries.
But I saw Himmatwala twice. Why? Because I enjoyed it. There you are—it’s out in the open now. Think what you will of me and my cinematic discernment.
I’ll admit one thing though: if I had read any of the reviews first, I would not have had the himmat to go for it the first time.
I am not a film critic, and don’t claim to know more about films than practicing critics. But speaking purely as a film lover, I would say Himmatwala has got a raw deal from the reviewing community. One reviewer, calling it “a seizure-inducing montage of everything that was wrong with our movies from the ‘80s,” warned, “if you have to sit through this movie for reasons best left unexplained, know that you, sir/madam, are the real himmatwala”. Another critic wrote, “When Himmatwala ended, I felt like I had aged a few years. Honestly, you need real courage to brave this one.” And a third one dismissed it as a “yawnfest”.
I’ll confess that I did have a moment of self-doubt on reading all this. Was it possible that I liked the film only because I was a Himmatwala—gifted not only with extraordinary courage but also extraordinary insomnia because I didn’t feel sleepy even for a second of the 18-hour-long film (one critic insists it has a run time of 18 hours because it “felt like” 18 hours)? I think not.
So why did the critics hate the film?
It’s one thing to pan a bad film. But it’s another to pan a film for wanting to be bad, and succeeding. The first is fair, the second is not. Himmatwala belongs to the second category. A film review ought to judge a film on what it sets out to do, and see how well it keeps its promise. Just as you cannot criticise an apple for being a poor orange, you cannot criticise a film that’s neither serious nor spoofy, for not being either serious or spoofy (which basically seems to be the grouse of the reviews I happened to read).
Khan’s Himmatwala is a remake—not just any remake but the “official” remake—of the 1983 film of the same name starring Jeetendra and Sridevi. It has no story—it has a formula. Its characters, already reduced to caricatures in 1983, are stand-ins for stand-ins in the 2013 version. The dialogues were already over-the-top in the original—that was their appeal. In this remake, they are over-the-over-the-top. Himmatwala has everything that a typical, mediocre 1980s potboiler had, but in industrial quantities.
Why would a presumably sane man invest so much of his time and resources to make a film like this? There can only be one reason: he loves such films. And that is the reason Khan has been giving to a sceptical media: he loves the idiotic 1980s entertainer so much that he decided to make one.
Back in 1964, before Khan was even born, in her Notes on “Camp”, Susan Sontag made a revealing observation about a culture that’s like a snake eating its own tail—which is what Bollywood (or at least influential sections of it) is today, given its ongoing love affair with retro. She wrote, “The traditional means for going beyond straight seriousness—irony, satire—seem feeble today, inadequate to the culturally oversaturated medium in which contemporary sensibility is schooled. Camp introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal, theatricality.”
Himmatwala is not camp—you cannot ‘try’ to be campy. But it is made from a campy sensibility, and seeks to appeal to the campy sensibility. Its only miscalculation lay in assuming that, in 2013, audiences and critics (or enough of them) who claim to love 1980s Hindi cinema would treat it as ‘camp’ and watch it with an ironic, playful distance—as a game. But the reality is that the “worst of the 1980s” is too close for many viewers. And without distance, you cannot enter the camp sensibility a film like Himmatwala resides in.
So when the vengeful Ravi (Devgn) tells the villainous Sher Singh (Mahesh Manjrekar), “Kasam hai mujhe apni maa aur apni behen ki, teri zindagi ki maa behen kar dunga,” or when Narayan Das (Paresh Rawal) tells his jijaji (Manjrekar), “Aap gutter hai to main uska ganda paani hoon” or when Ravi’s mother (Zarina Wahab) says, “Aaj ek maa ek bête ke pair chooyegi”—are they tacky dialogues? Yes, but they are as good as the tacky dialogues of a 1980 film can ever be, and therein lies the appeal ofHimmatwala.
Himmatwala is not a spoof of the 1980s potboiler. Humour is not its objective. Nor is it a straight remake. It is simply a playful remake of a bad movie. It is an act of love (seriously but playfully). It needs to be judged on two counts: its playfulness, and its love for, and faithfulness to, the 1980s cinematic ethos.
Khan takes pains to tick mark every one of the ’80s staple, which is easy if you remain faithful to the original. The orphan-hero with a question mark over his identity, tick. The shrew-turned-demure heroine, tick. Pleading with God in temple scene, tick. Annoying, over-smart animal that helps the hero, tick. Near-gang rape of sister, tick. Cruel landlord, tick. Hero’s dying best friend, tick.
If Khan’s faithfulness to the atrocious original (redeemed in retrospect by our learned reverence for Jeetendra and Sridevi) is not in question, neither is his whimsy. The Psycho scene where Mahesh Manjrekar is attacked in the shower, and the ‘fight scene’ where Devgn speaks in five languages are so supremely nonsensical that mere suspension of disbelief is inadequate—you have to suspend whatever else you have that you haven’t suspended yet.
The ‘homosexual’—either as a taste or as a person—is central to the camp sensibility. And Paresh Rawal’s character, Narayan Das, with his effeminacy, his dandyish curls, and his physical clinginess (he keeps wanting to kiss the male characters, and succeeds in kissing Devgn in the last scene), is the campy mascot of this admirably dreadful film. He is the gutless, himmat-less feminine Other who underscores the ultra-macho himmat of the eponymous Himmatwala played by Devgn.
Not surprisingly, after Devgn, it is Rawal who gets the maximum screen time. I am not sure if homosexuality was a recurring motif in the original Himmatwala, but in this remake, it leaps out at you, gelling neatly with the campy tenor of the film. It reaches its own narrative climax (pun intended) in the spooning scene between Paresh Rawal and Mahesh Manjrekar, where it is hinted that Rawal had his fingers in a certain nether portion of Manjrekar’s anatomy.
So on both these counts—faithfulness to the original, and frivolity—Khan’s effort deserves a 4.9 at the least. One critic got it partly right when he tweeted that this was an “audacious” film. It was audacious in its bid to remake an awful film keeping intact all of the original awfulness. If the film is awful, it is meant to be so. So, watching the one of the best awful films of the 1980s in 2013, and expecting that it would somehow be superior to, if not better than, the original, is to totally miss the point of the film.
The second time I went to see Himmatwala, there were more children than adults in the auditorium—and they laughed at every one of the puerile jokes. Maybe Himmatwala is a film for young adults, for those old enough to see a film but not old enough (physically and also otherwise) for their pleasure-taking to be circumscribed by expectations and cinematic values endorsed by the high priests of low (mass) culture.

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