Forget the saccharine theme tune from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai that has become the trademark anthem for the Dharma Productions logo. This time its a loud, frenetic drum beat that ushers you into the world of Agneepath. Debutant director Karan Malhotra, backed by producer Karan Johar, dive back into the loudness of 1980s Hindi cinema with this "restructuring" (not remake) of Dharma's original Amitabh Bachchan-starrer cult classic, which was directed by Mukul S Anand. While in treatment and vision, this Agneepath is a huge departure from over a decade of honey-dipped Dharma films, as a standalone film it constantly hankers for an emotional power and gripping narrative that is never there. All said and done, the film actually belongs to its two villains.
Madwa village, the hometown of Vijay Dinanath Chauhan (Hrithik Roshan), is a place right out of filmy folklore. The film is set in 1977 but the village still seems outdated even for that era. It's also the setting for a ravenous mob rule, where a holier-than-thou school teacher, Vijay's father, is framed for rape. Then, in a long gruesome sequence, he is beaten and dragged up to a rocky ledge to be hanged from the symbolic banyan tree. The man who spearheads the vicious killing is Kancha (Sanjay Dutt), the unpredictable villain that a grown up and angry Vijay is determined to kill for the rest of the film.
It's a classic revenge plot, with the suffering maa (Zarina Wahab), chirpy girlfriend Kaali (Priyanka Chopra), innocent younger sister Shiksha and an endless supply of goons thrown in. One of the biggest changes Malhotra makes to the original story is the addition of a second, competing villain, Rauf Lala (Rishi Kapoor). It's an interesting catalyst to the traditional one-on-one setup of revenge plots and frankly, quite welcome in a script that otherwise draws on all the oldest tricks.
Hrithik Roshan's portrayal of Vijay is just as angry as Amitabh Bachchan's in the original, but also more humane. Roshan's Vijay is loved and supported by an entire chawl full of people that are willing to orchestrate elaborate birthday parties for his sister whom he hasn't seen in 15 years. He regularly gives to charity. He is someone that, "paisa nahin, aadmi kamata hai" (earns people not money). At the same time, he doesn't think twice about slamming a few bullets or plunging a dagger into someone if that will get him one step closer to a face-off with Kancha. And somehow, through all this murderous rage, Kaali still has unconditional love for him. Chopra could have done so much more with her talent had her role been fleshed out beyond the usual pouting, giggling and crying at the drop of a hat.
While Roshan puts in his best efforts to play the conflicted, tormented "hero", the most interesting parts of the film center around the two villains. Sanjay Dutt's Kancha and Rishi Kapoor's Rauf Lala are pitted against one another, both equally ruthless, vile and insane. Dutt relishes his role, with the sly grin, the giant persona, the creepy affinity for Hindu philosophy, and the second nature in doling out the most ghastly punishments to those that cross him. In the same vein, Kapoor rips his lover boy and lovable father images to shreds with his role as the filthy, flesh-mongering, drug lord that is locked in a perpetual battle with Kancha over their territories. More confrontations between Kancha and Rauf Lala would have made for significantly more enjoyable viewing.
One of the biggest issues with Malhotra's retelling of Agneepath is the lack of contemporary relevance or points of reference. The village of Mandwa feels like another world entirely, especially Kancha's "concentration camp"-esque governance of it. It becomes hard to digest the suggestion that such an extreme place exists in 1990s India, that too next door to Mumbai. Then there is the predictable nexus of corrupt cops and politicians that add fuel to the mafia wars. And perhaps most disappointingly, in an age of stronger female characters in Hindi cinema, all of the women in Agneepath are pretty much irrelevant to the plot, barring perhaps Vijay's mother Suhasini who has a tense, conflicted relationship with her son.
The film's loudness knows no bounds. If the gestures and dialogues weren't vociferous enough, the background score by Ajay-Atul (who also composed the songs) will certainly beat you into submission, pummeling you with incessant drum beats and forcing you with grand orchestral music to feel emotion, whether you want to or not. Visually, fire is obviously the primary metaphor for, well, everything. The film is doused in saturated orange and yellow hues, and there are flames of some kind in almost every scene. It is a visually rich film, thanks to Director of Photography Kiron Deohans.
Agneepath's stellar cast and powerhouse backing will no doubt make it a big opener at the box office. However, as a film and a story it ends up being rather lackluster. The sudden shifts in emotional tone, mood as well as the loopholes make it a strictly average watch. It's not boring but it's also not a film you'd watch intently. Malhotra succeeds in making the film dark and raw, but then makes the situations and characters very cliched. While Roshan successfully carries his intensity throughout, the film really belongs to Dutt and Kapoor for their wicked performances. And if you don't feel anything towards the rest of the film, don't you worry, the deafening background score will ensure you surrender to whatever emotion it wants you to feel.