DHOOM 3 (Dir. Vijay Krishna Acharya, 2013, India) – All gloom and no dhoom! [spoilers ahead!]

 

It was Walt Disney with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs who was the first to licence the characters in a feature film, opening a new era in merchandising opportunities. Although it is probably never the sanest of ideas to take a comparative approach to Indian cinema and even more perilous comparing it to Hollywood but the trend for franchises and franchise building is something common to many film industries. The Dhoom 3 marketing campaign, an expensive one, orchestrated by Yash Raj has seen the main leads including Aamir Khan and Katrina Kaif making a point of promoting the merchandising launched specially to tie in with the film’s release. Nothing new here then, just more vertical integration. Films like Dhoom 3 are tentpole films and this is one which has been promoted aggressively as one of the must film events of the year will surely succeed at the box office. The term ‘critic proof’ has become synonymous with franchises in particular and although critics arguably don’t have the sway they once did, they are still a barometer of quality and taste. Although Dhoom 3 has been greeted with mixed reviews, having seen the film, in my opinion, many of the reviews by certainly the mainstream critics could be accused of hyper inflation. Of course, no such accusatory fingerpointing stands any chance of being taken seriously in the face of a saturated screenings, consensual back patting and intensive marketing. I don’t want to be overly cynical about tentpole films since I enjoyed both of the first Dhoom films as mildly diverting. Mainstream big budget films tend to be an easy target for reviewers and critics but when a film is made such with sloppiness and somewhat contempt for the audience then it is a film that needs to be singled out and criticised for its failings. Dhoom 3 is part of a franchise and considering the various revenue streams a film of this commerciality can generate inevitably means a film’s content can be end up a casualty of the creative process. This seems to be the case with Dhoom 3, a film so inept, contemptful and ridiculous that it made me walk out before the end credits started to roll.

The key attraction of Dhoom 3 is star Aamir Khan, one of the highest paid and most respected of actors, who simply looks out of place in this nonsensical universe. None of it is particularly convincing. The story of a son who wants to avenge his father’s death caused by a heartless banker has a Dickensian ring to it but why Chicago and why 1990 as a point of reference for the film’s narrative? Aamir Khan maintains a singular facial expression throughout, which I can only label as thoroughly pissed off, while Katrina’s role as a glorified stripper implies a continuing appropriation of demeaning sexual imagery often found in gangsta rap music videos. In fact, Katrina’s presence is unjustified and cynically related to the marketing of the film. Equally troublesome are the set pieces which border on the ridiculous whereas the dialogue is ladened with enough cliches to put any Bollywood ‘B’ movie to shame. Most embarrassing and problematic is the direction by Vijay Krishna Acharya, the writer of the first Dhoom films. The conflict between cop and criminal lacks any kind of energy or interest to sustain audience interest and many of the on screen encounters are absent of a vitality and chemistry much needed for a film nearing three hours. Even more problematic are the woeful songs by Pritam as none of them are particularly memorable. Perhaps it is too much of Aamir Khan as he really takes over the film, eclipsing the Dhoom brand in many ways. But this is at the expense of Jai and Ali’s characters who hardly seem to matter. Dhoom 3 amounts to nothing more than a ‘spectacular’ mess and I am having trouble recommending anything of cinematic value in the film other than the welcoming presence of Jackie Shroff. Another sore point is the blatant product placement evident throughout, signposting Mountain Dew, Apple and BMW with such vulgarity that it renders any artistic intentions a mute point indeed. The Dhoom franchise is a cash cow for Yash Raj and significant to the commercial framework of the Hindi film industry. However, like all formulas, reinvention and innovation will be key if it is to sustain itself in the future, a point which sadly goes unnoticed in this latest outing.

SKYFALL (Dir. Sam Mendes, 2012, UK/US) – Ruins of an Empire

Silva (Bardem) toys with Bond (Craig).

James Bond exists in his own unreal universe of preposterous dynamism. Such unrealness cannot compete with the recent demands for realness from a spy franchise which for a time looked outdated when going up against its nearest rivals such as The Bourne films. Skyfall is perhaps the Bond film many of us have been anticipating since its the closest that a director has come to elevating formulaic conventions into the realms of capable mainstream cinema. Both Casino Royale and The Quantum of Solace were recognisably bombastic in their over eager attempts to reinvent the Bond formula. What Skyfall does, especially for the first two acts, is replicate the genre tendencies of the thriller and noir film but does so against a prescient socio-political landscape. Whereas previous Bond films have been greatly concerned with sustaining an illusion of Empire and nationhood, Skyfall refuses to repeat such illusionary politics. Instead, we get a more engaged offering and unflattering depiction of the British secret service and James Bond living in what Silva (Bardem) refers to as ‘the ruins of an empire’. The death of Empire is anchored symbolically in the death of M since Judi Dench’s stoicism is modelled on a combination of The Queen and Churchill. In the film, the threat to Western power and capitalism comes unsurprisingly from China and technology. Not only is Bond depicted as a fragile, ineffectual and aging spy, but the first hour tears down the mythology of Bond and substitutes immortality with an unglamourous consolidation of a man who is simply a cog in an unforgiving system. Bardem’s Silva who appears superficially as a revenge filled narrative device is metaphorically Bin Laden; trained by Western intelligence only to resent his expendable status and thus transforming into an invisible agent of ideological chaos. Even more fascinating is that Silva can be viewed as a mirror image of Bond; little separates the two of them and this makes their contest altogether more complicated than the traditional conflicts we expect from a Bond film. 

Silva may want revenge but his transfigurement as a result of M’s betrayal is a costly one for the British establishment as the blowback which they encounter is difficult to defend against without blurring certain moral and political boundaries. Some would say it is sacred territory to venture into the history of James Bond as it invalidates his enigmatic personality. Part of me would agree with such an argument of nostalgia yet by foregrounding his past and by locating the final conflict within a familial context humanises Bond so an ordinariness shines through. It is an ordinariness that is paper thin though and thankfully lasts for only the denouement. Skyfall is certainly the best looking Bond film in a long while and the visually noirish cinematography of Roger Deakins is transparent throughout. In many ways, this is Deakins film. What interested me the most was the contradictory politics at play at the heart of the film. Although it is a progressive Bond film since it critiques Empire, the film’s reflexive ending reclaims a regressiveness that characterised many of the classic Bond films. It is a film that contests an open battle between progressive and regressive ideologies yet at the end by reinstating familiarity, Bond recognises that its endurance as a cultural entity remains with being repetitive and different as a genre. Moody, dynamic and ideological – this is a Bond film with a pulsating heartbeat. It will be a hard act to follow for the next director who signs up for Bond as Mendes may have delivered one of the finest outings to date.

SINGHAM (Dir. Rohit Shetty, India, 2011) – Return of The ‘Hard Body’

Picking up from where Dabangg left off, Singham is a police action thriller directed in tribute form by an unashamed fan (Rohit Shetty) of the angry young man films of the 70s. With a plot involving a dishonoured police inspector and the village boy as mythological hero, Singham is very much a throwback film bathed in nostalgic yearnings for traditional genre cinema. I’m not so sure if this plea for re initiating a lot of the action films made in the 70s and especially in the 80s is such a worthy one given their diabolical narratives and questionable technical proficiency. Like Dabangg, Singham reasserts the rural Indian village as a microcosm of Utopian ideals in which community, honour and justice are organised around the police and local criminals. The crusading cop with a vendetta is now one of the most tired conventions in all of cinema. However, such a melodramatic convention carries with it a narrative momentum and set of conflicting ideologies (the cop who must transcend the law to reinstate order) that still appeals to film makers and audiences alike. Like Dabangg, Singham is clearly a star vehicle for Ajay Devgan who first appears on screen emerging from the holy waters of the river Ganges with a Goliath like physique – his larger than life entrance marks him out as a mythological figure; an immortal amongst mortals and whilst Singham may be a police inspector, he is also a superhero. Ghajini, Dabangg and Singham prove that the hard body is an iconographic element and established convention intrinsic to the DNA make up of the contemporary Indian action film. I’m not sure but I think it might have been academic Yvonne Tasker who coined the term ‘hard body’ in reference to the action heroes played by Stallone and Schwarzenegger in a testosterone fuelled 1980s Reaganite America. Compared to Hollywood, the hard body concept seems quite new to Indian films.

Traditionally male leads like Amitabh and Dharmendra were expected to perform demanding stunts and also maintain some kind of physique but the Indian film star and leading male hero tended to remain a little out of shape so to speak. One could argue that much of this has changed considerably now. The emphasis on maintaining a clean, crisp and buffed physical appearance has now become an audience expectation. All of the major male leads working in the Mumbai film industry today have taken up the ethos that the inner must be in equilibrium with the outer – for many male leads such an ethos has become the norm. So now it might be appropriate to say that we are clearly in the era of the hard body cinema but with one major difference when compared to Hollywood – the absence of blood. The violence in Singham and Dabangg is a comic book pastiche, using a slow mo aesthetic that magnifies the violence as a post modern spectacle. Dabangg may have had Salman Khan as the star attraction but Singham wins out largely because of the scene stealing presence of Prakash Raj in a fantastic turn as the villainous Jaikant Shikre. Actor Prakash Raj who is closely associated with the Tamil film industry has acres of fun with his role. Of course, I am forgetting to mention a major point in my appraisal of the film; Singham is a remake of a successful Tamil action film of the same name. So, perhaps it’s not so surprising why it works so well as a mainstream summer film.