Dir: Farhan Akhtar
Poised to open on the biggest holiday weekend of the Indian calendar, (October 20th-21st, the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali) which fortuitously coincides with the Islamic celebration, Eid-al-Fitr, Farhan Akhtar’s Don is perhaps the most highly anticipated Bollywood movie of the year. That means that over a billion people, from Mumbai to Lagos, from Singapore to London - even all the way to Jackson Heights, NY, await its arrival in thrall. The film marks the return of star Shah Rukh Khan, to the screen. It’s been three years since his last picture. To his legion of fans, three years is like an eternity. Shahrukh is a celebrity demi-god: Tom Cruise before he succumbed to “creative suicide,” Leonardo DiCaprio circa Titanic. Mass hysteria hounds him wherever he goes.
Don is a remake of the 1978 gangster movie of the same name, which was then Bollywood’s answer to Shaft. Chandra Barot’s original movie exudes Bombay blaxploitation—mod costumes, violent brawls, harshly erotic love scenes, and an atmosphere that oozes 70s funk. The plot centers around a rakish, good-natured street-performer named Vijay who is the spitting image of a sadistic, Goan mafia kingpin named “Don.” The Indian police quickly put unsuspecting Vijay to work as Don’s decoy, allowing them to penetrate the leader’s seamy underworld. But the mafia is on to the police plot, and they kill the only inspector who knows Vijay’s identity, leaving Vijay fighting for his life to outfox the mob and the police on his own.
Akhtar’s Don does away with some of silliness of the 70s film in favor of plausibility. Here, Vijay is a struggling single parent, trying to make ends meet as he reluctantly agrees to the dangerous assignment. Updated to the 21st century global sensibility, the movie takes us to Malaysia, where international crime bosses evade the grasp of the Indian police to control the Mumbai underworld from afar.
Journalist, Sukhetu Metha, writes that the term “underworld” is really a fallacy in India, and in Asia in general. Crime there exists in an overworld. Dons are pictured in society pages. They manage international narcotics rings and inaugurate hospitals. Lawlessness permeates every aspect of urban life in the business and media, from the small family mom-and-pops to the multinational corporations. It only augments the sense of helplessness of the individual and widens the abyss between the wealthy and the rich.
Elements of John Woo’s Hong Kong films pervade the storyline—the stylish characters spiraling towards destruction in a city controlled by ruthless triads. Woo’s flamboyant American debut, Face/Off, is a strong influence: two men with the same face, the cop posing as a gangster, the gangster posing as cop, two versions of the same anguished man.
The clothes and technology have changed, but the badass sensibility still remains. Don is an unequivocal star vehicle for Shah Rukh Khan precisely because Barot’s original film was also a star vehicle, for the young Amitabh Bachan, India’s biggest and most beloved movie star. Khan is stepping into big shoes here. Yet the show is his and his alone.
Even though Sharukh Khan is, at this moment, in the very epicenter of stardom, his position is precarious. He is Muslim in a predominantly Hindu country where the emotional and political divide between religions is as explosive as the one in Northern Ireland. Market analysts have surmised that Don will do well in secular, urban centers and in the Arab and East Asian market, but not in so well in Bihar, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, the heartland of India, the hotbed of Hindu fundamentalism.
In spite of the communal tensions surrounding its release, Don cleverly captures the essence of India: the glitter of the metropolis, the cultural mélange of Muslim and Hindu, the rustic honesty of the Indian worker, and the unyielding power of greed. The movie is set primarily in Kuala Lumpur. The Petronas Twin Towers, Malaysia’s national landmark, standing tall at over a 1, 400 feet, serves as the centerpiece to many of the film’s pivotal action scenes, bathed in green light against the night sky; Through gaze of Akthar’s lens, Kuala Lumpur positively glistens with mystery and menace.
Malaysia is a modern, inclusive Muslim state. Many of the extras are Muslims, the women in headscarves and the men in skullcaps. And yet the song sequences on the street are deeply rooted in Hindu culture and phraseology. Particularly “Khaike paan Banaras-wala” (“Chewing a paan from Banaras really opens up the mind!”), sung after Vijay is stoned on a traditional Indian marijuana-laced milkshake. It is full of the vigor and rustic charm that’s reminiscent of tribal India.
Khan’s song sequences are the high points of the movie, if only for the sake of the sheer amount of energy he pours into them. Like with all musicals, the bulk of characterization in Don plays out in the songs. And the composers, Shankar, Eshaan, and Loy, have created the perfect score to set the film’s mood. They move from Don’s cool menace to Vijay’s earthy playfulness and provide some entertaining respite from the barrage of action. “Main Hoon Don” (“I am Don”), the obligatory villain entrance number, is a P. Diddy style spectacle with Don clad in sunglasses and velvet Shanghai Tang jacket surrounded by glitzy shindig dancers and swirling cigarette smoke. Though lacking in substance, “Main Hoon Don” is dark and atmospheric, bringing us into the mobster’s tantalizing lair.
The same mood is evoked by the better written and staged, “Aaj Ki Raat” (“Night Falls…”), a retro-disco number with an eerie, seductive feel. The real showstopper, is the rousing religious hymn, “Maurya Re” (“O Lord, O Father”), sung by Vijay in devotion to the god Ganesha. The entire sequence is saturated in vibrant colors, full of graceful temple dancers, gleeful extras, and clouds of pink powder. There’s a recurring sprightly melody played out on the electric guitar that’s positively infectious.
But the boldness of Don is the ending, in which the plot unravels to reveal a surprisingly equivocal turn of events. It’s one of those haunting denouements, along the lines of the ending in Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, that lingers in your mind long after the credits roll. Throughout the movie, Akhtar explores the question faced by Vijay: Are we good people pretending to be bad, or are we bad people pretending to be good? In a movie that seems to glamorize the mafia, Akthar fervently condemns them and the men who invariably get away with it all because they’re masters at exploiting our vulnerabilities, our need for justice.