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.

JAB TAK HAI JAAN / AS LONG AS THERE IS LIFE (Dir. Yash Chopra, 2012, India) – Footnotes

Hindi cinema of late has unfortunately bypassed me and I have successively missed many of the major releases. I think it is a seemingly impossible enterprise to keep on top of the many Hindi films released each year but I’m trying to catch up with some of the more populist films that made it to UK cinema screens in 2012. One of the biggest Hindi films of 2012 was Jab Tak Hai Jaan. JTHJ was Yash Chopra’s last film as a director but unlike Veer-Zaarawhich functions as a summation of Chopra’s dominant ideological sentiments, this is a film that lacks any sense of purpose other than to pair Shahrukh Khan opposite Katrina Kaif. Although the film bears the familiar Chopraesque elements, the writing, direction and acting are underwhelmingly devoid of the dynamism or spark that usually compensate for melodramatic conventionality. While Yash Chopra had effectively announced his retirement in 2004 after the release of Veer-Zaara, the news of him returning to the director’s chair was somewhat of a surprise. JTHJ can be viewed as more of a cynical attempt by Yash Raj to generate profits at the box office and the films of Yash Chopra could easily be regarded as a lucrative franchise for the studio. In other words, the cynical construction of a film like JTHJ was predicated on a need to fulfill commercial impulses rather than offering audiences something relatively intelligible or innovative. If you know a film is going to be a sure fire hit at the box office does that mean you can literally offer anything to audiences as long as you dazzle them with enough hype? It seems to be case with JTHJ. There is nothing problematic with framing the narrative within a diasporic context but to then populate such a landscape with hackneyed imagery and excruciating characters is indicative of the way so many Hindi films especially ones aimed at a mainstream, if not international, audience find scripting such a secondary and subordinate element. The film’s second half is built on the dodgy foundations of a character suffering from retrograde amnesia. Memory loss and eventual retention is a narrative device not uncommon to Hindi melodramas from the 1970s onwards and it is emblematic of directors such as Yash Chopra who knowingly demonstrate a fondness for the past but it is rendered hopelessly devoid of any kind of emotional conviction by hyperbolic acting from the main leads.

It was Yash Chopra’s older brother, B.R Chopra who gave him his first break as an assistant. In 1959, he directed Dhool Ka Phool (Blossom of Dust), an unconventional love story that focused on the taboo subject of illegitimacy. It was the multi-starrer Waqt(Time, 1965) that brought him commercial success. Characterised by the ‘lost and found’ narrative and by the stylised, middle class settings of a New Indian society, Waqt was an escapist melodrama. Parting company from his brother in 1973 with the film Daag (The Stain), Yash Chopra became an independent producer whilst Gulshan Rai acted as distributor on many of his popular films, including Deewaar. His meteoric rise as one of the most successful directors of the 1970s was mirrored in his collaborations with Amitabh Bachchan. In the late 1980s, he suffered a commercial slump but came back in the 1990s with a string of lavishly shot romantic films including Chandni (Moonlight), Darr (Fear) and Dil To Pagal Hai (The Heart Is Crazy). Around the same time, Yash Raj enjoyed what was their biggest ever commercial success with the Kajol and Shahrukh Khan Dilwale Dulhania La Jayenge (The Big Hearted Will Take The Bride, 1995). Directed by Yash Chopra’s son, Aditya Chopra, the film helped to transform the Yash Raj banner into an integrated studio. One could go as far as to say that Yash Raj was perhaps the first Indian production company to respond to the growing cultural needs of the Diaspora by creating what has become a universally renowned cinematic brand. Admittedly, not all recent Yash Raj ventures have succeeded at the box office, but Shahrukh Khan’s close relationship with Yash Chopra has meant they have been helped by the global appeal of Indian cinema’s most recent superstar in reaching the widest demographic possible. As a matter of fact, every film Shahrukh has made with Yash Raj has succeeded at the box office, with recent hits including Chak De India! (Come on India!), Rab Ne Banda Jodi (A Match Made By God) and Veer Zaara. In many ways, Yash Chopra’s methodology for sustaining the longevity of his position in the industry has been his instinctive aptitude to collaborate with the leading stars of each decade. Nevertheless, it would be an oversight to pigeonhole him as simply a director of romantic melodramas as his body of work shows someone who has worked across a broad range of genres. With the angry young man films, he also represented working class concerns and although he never returned to such unfamiliar territory again, the Javed Akhtar scripted Mashaal (The Torch), which he made in 1984 with Dilip Kumar in the lead role, hinted at his potential for addressing political concerns within the framework of popular melodrama. The Salim-Javed scripted Deewaar, Trishul and Kaala Paathar are the films in which he came closest to imitating a realist tradition. 

One thematic point of interest for Chopra is separation, evident in many of his films, and it reappears yet again in his final film. The theme of separation may be attributed to Chopra having been born in Lahore before leaving for Bombay during partition. The trauma of partition shaped much of his ideological sensibilities and the pain of separation, be it in terms of nation, gender or ideology echoes in the work of Chopra as early as the multi starrer Waqt. Rachel Dwyer’s book on Yash Chopra was one of the first studies of a mainstream populist Hindi filmmaker to be published in the UK and Chopra’s output up until the 1990s cannot be dismissed since its influence is prescient in helping to shape the landscape of commercial cinema. Personally, his collaborations with Amitabh Bachchan and Salim-Javed during the 1970s and beyond saw him at his creative best. If the angry young man cycle of films came to define his films during this period, it was the romantic epics like Kabhie Kabhie and Silsilathat were to endure with audiences. I’m not a fan of his later collaborations with Shahrukh Khan since the involvement of Aditya Chopra seemed to bring into question the authorial presence of Yash Chopra, and besides, much of this twilight period lacks an ideological rigour that characterised much of his work in the 1970s. In fact, the song and dance sequences in JTHJ are credited to Aditya Chopra. Indian films are still largely marketed on the basis of star appeal and film stardom is still a precious and dominant means of attracting audiences but Yash Chopra was one of the few directors as stars to have emerged since the 1970s in mainstream Hindi cinema. In many ways, the image he cultivated as the director as star can be compared to someone like Spielberg; both branched out into producing, nurtured talent and collaborated with many of the major mainstream film stars. In one of the rare instances in the career of SRK, collaborations with Yash Chopra meant being upstaged by a director who could draw in audiences on the bankability and legacy of his own name. While JTHJ is a disappointment, the end credits gives us a brief look at director Yash Chopra busily filming at the grand old age of 80. Perhaps then we should situate JTHJ as merely a footnote and one to be ignored in many respects in such an illustrious film career.