Film Review: Himmatwala

Ajay Devgn in Sajid Khan’s reimagining of Himmatwala is not much different from Ajay Devgn in Son of Sardaar, or, for that matter, much different from Ajay Devgn in Singham. He’s got the same invincibility, the annoying catchphrases, the same puerile attempts at humour. That is not to say that Ajay Devgn is a one-dimensional actor (you occasionally meet the second dimension at parties; the third and higher dimensions are reportedly recluses in a cabin somewhere in the woods), it’s just that he fits the mould Bollywood has created for the traditional male hero. A mould that the bakers perfected in that most loathsome of decades: the 1980s.
Again, that is not to say that the mould created to cash in on the star appeal of Amitabh Bachchan and Jeetendra back then is the same as the one created to cash in on the star appeal of Salman Khan and Devgn now. It has evolved — it had to, to come back from the lows of the ’90s — to include the multiplex crowd, who essentially bailed out the industry by paying inflated ticket sums and munching on overpriced popcorn. But the obsession with the übermensch as lead has continued, and as the industry has become a corporate one, the übermensch has become corporatised as well.
So when a child of the Establishment makes a film that celebrates the nadir of creativity in the industry, it does induce anger. Jeetendra and Sridevi’s Himmatwala was the top-grossing film of 1983, one of three — Mawaali and Justice Chowdhury being the others — starring the pair that made it to the list of 10 highest grossing films that year. This was also the year of Mandi, of Ardh Satya, of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. None of these films made it to the top 10, as Bollywood was reminded that quality has little to do with box office success. This realisation would eventually mean the death of Parallel Cinema by the ’90s, when low attendances overall meant that producers looked more for guaranteed hits than experiments in actually improving the quality of the cesspool of celluloid in which audiences could wade. Unlike his sister’s Om Shanti Om, Sajid Khan’s Himmatwala is more tribute than parody, a celebration of all that’s wrong with Bollywood. It’s like a One Republic cover band thirty years from now. It’s exactly the kind of thing Justice Katju would hate if he were ever forced to watch it.
The film, in a word, is annoying. The 150 minutes runtime feels more like 300; the tiresome clichés that are self-indulgently left in are too many to enumerate, yet not enough to make you laugh at the silliness of it all. The tiger fight is cool — a nod to Bachchan in Mr Natwarlal — but the action is fairly subpar (you know a film isn’t going to be the greatest when they give away the climactic scene in the trailer). The many attempts at comedy largely centre around Paresh Rawal making a case for himself to be bound and gagged, a case he has never so vociferously made before, and “Ooh look, it’s 1983, but we know what happens thirty years from now” humour. There’s even a sanctimonious declaration that one day, the rape of a woman will raise Himmatwalas who will defend their women’s honour, because, you know, honour and life can only be lost once. Logic dies a million painful deaths, as it did throughout the ’80s.
But I suppose Sajid had fun making the film, and that’s what matters. Audiences, mercifully, have shown that they have evolved somewhat, voting with their feet for common sense and better cinema. The ’80s were bad enough the first time. Leave them be.