War : Hrithik Roshan is back with a bang in this satisfying mix of masala and Hollywood

After a series of disappointing films, Hrithik Roshan is back in form with Yashraj Productions’ latest film War, which co-stars Tiger Shroff

 

Hrithik Roshan’s career is one of the strangest that i have seen in contemporary Indian cinema (or for that matter world cinema). After making one of the most sensational movie debuts in an all time blockbuster like Kaho na pyar Hai(2000); designed specifically as a launch vehicle for him by his father Rakesh Roshan, he suffered a series of setbacks. His films flopped left , right and center and Hrithik, who possessed great screen presence, oodles of star-charisma and an effortless ease as a dancing, fighting and emoting Indian mainstream lead and, was being touted as the next numero uno,  was soon relegated to the status of a one hit wonder. But then, papa Roshan stepped in to save his career again , this time with the film Koi Mil Gaya(2003), which became a superhit and brought Hrithik back to the forefront . He continued his hot streak in 2006 , when his 2 releases for the year: Krish3 and Dhoom 2 , became the two biggest hits of the year. But Unfortunately, Hrithik seems to have learned all the wrong lessons from his setbacks and resurgence. He bulked himself up to almost grotesque levels, started taking long breaks between films and became obsessed with exploring the (non-existent) character actor in him ; by giving some heavily wrought performances in roles\films for which he was totally unsuited for. The result was a series of box office under-performers . Add to that the setbacks in his personal life :  divorce,health issues, a public spat with actress Kangana Ranaut about a love affair gone sore, and Hrithik was almost finished as a star; what with younger, ultra-talented and more focused actors like Ranveer Singh and Ranbir Kapoor becoming the toast of the town. Even the space that he held as an Uber-muscular, dancing, fighting star has been usurped by youngsters like Varun Dhawan and Tiger Shroff.  And going by the release of his last film Super 30 – that came after a sabbatical of 2 and half years; where he played a small town math wiz Anand Kumar, it felt to me that he was never going to learn his lesson and would forever be engaged in a kind of quixotic pursuit to prove himself as a character actor when he could have ruled the industry as a most charismatic and talented movie star.

But his new release, Yashraj films’ War directed by Siddharth Anand, has come as a welcome surprise. The film has brought back the charismatic, stylish, gorgeous movie star of yore in a role befitting his age and experience and perfectly suited to his talents. Gone are the overwrought quivering, vein bulging antics and, in it’s place there is an economy, smoothness and a quite intensity. And for a guy who was vanity personified not long ago , he neither shies away from showing his age nor does he try to compete with his co-star and the much younger rival Tiger, when it comes to dances and stunts. He knows, that at age 45, he can’t kill it as well as Tiger, so he sticks to doing what he is better at; providing the gravitas and the cool quotient. When i heard that Hrithik was pairing up with Tiger, I thought it was a bad idea and Hrithik was definitely going to be overshadowed by the more athletic Tiger. But, the film proved me wrong. With his charisma and towering physicality, he holds center-stage effortlessly.  Hrithik also benefited immensely from the fact that this is a well conceived and executed film; at least to the extend that these films go. I always felt that Hrithik was just too sophisticated , vain and polished to be a good masala hero ; Agneepath remake is a good example, but here, he works surprisingly well , mainly because it is in his comfort zone of a polished , stylish character albeit with the masala elements well integrated into it. This is something that the film – more often than not – does well too . It manages to root itself in the indian masala film tradition,  even as , on the surface, it plays out as a derivative of a contemporary Hollywood genre picture like the Bond or Bourne movies.

 

Ever since the modern Hollywood action franchises have started making an impact in India (and world over), Indian cinema has tried to adapt those elements into it’s traditional masala film format. But it’s always been a difficult proposition, mainly because the two aesthetics are as different as water and fire. The overheated, operatic  sensibilities of masala suffers greatly when mixed with cold, emotionless and often mechanical sensibilities of a Hollywood action picture. Yashraj Films , which in the past had tried unsuccessfully with this marriage in the Dhoom films, Ek That Tiger etc… , seems to have finally  cracked the formula with War. The film provides the surface level pleasures of a slick action thriller, even as it is grounded firmly in the masala tradition, with strong characters and well defined emotional arcs . Zanjeer, the 1973 film written by Salim Javed and starring Amitabh Bachchan, could be considered the first serious masala film made in India. The film told the story of the son of a (reformed) criminal, who  grows up to be a cop and wipes out the gang and the gang-leader who killed his father . Salim Javed and Bachchan would return in 1975 with the even more iconic Deewaar, where the lead character is a dock worker turned gangster who is haunted by the specter of his union leader father’s betrayal of his comrades , and whose mark he carries on his forearm; tattooed as “My father is a thief“. In Siddharth Anand’s War , Tiger Shroff  plays Khalid , whose father was a traitor to the country . Khalid’s father was killed in an operation masterminded by  RAW agent Kabir(Hrithik Roshan) . But unlike Zanjeer, Khalid does not live to avenge his father, instead, he joins RAW and, under the tutelage of Kabir,  becomes a honest and courageous soldier of the country. And as in Deewaar, he carries the mark of his father’s treachery on his body, not as a tattoo, but as a blind-spot in his left eye – on account of the beatings he got as a child from his classmates for being the son of a traitor and , in the greatest of masala traditions , would echo back in a later scene to form a pivotal plot point in the film. These are just two of the instances that tie this film to the rich masala roots of Hindi cinema. The other cornerstone of the masala tradition, the mother character- a brief and brilliant performance by Soni Razdan as Khalid’s patriotic  mother,  who tips off Kabir about  her husband’s nefarious activities  – is again used judiciously here. We also get a scene – referencing another memorable moment from  Deewaar- where the mother receives the medal for bravery  intended for her son. The oedipal angst, which was the basic element in all those great  masala films, is superbly re-imagined here as a duel between a son and a surrogate father figure. Khalid’s father is killed by Kabir and, he takes the father’s place in Khalid’s life.then. Kabir goes rogue and it’s up to Khalid to hunt him down. Siddharth Anand’s previous outings like Bang Bang does not prepare you for the intensity and the work that has been put into this film. Not just in the writing department, but also in the making of it.  I mainly credit the writing combo of  Sridhar Raghavan(screenplay) and Abbas Tyrewala(Dialogue) for the successful amalgamation of these two aesthetics. Even the brief role of heroine Vani Kapoor becomes a pivotal turning point in the plot.

 

Now coming to the major issues i have with the film:  the action scenes, apart from a couple of them , end up as disappointing. There are about six action sequences, each delivered in a different flavor, which is commendable. But, these scenes are derivative and very much inspired from Hollywood films. One from Die Another Day, one from Eraser ; you can play a game of spot the references. The action scenes involving an airplane is embarrassingly bad due to some terrible VFX. But the chase sequence  through the streets , with Tiger chasing Hrithik, works superbly. Another let down is the music; the background score is terrific , but the songs are just not catchy and lyrics are rather terrible. The big dance-off between Hrithik and Tiger was rather underwhelming; i wish the song was better and , the sequence was longer, as opposed to the climactic duel between the superstars that’s too brutal and goes on too long. Though Tiger Shroff gets a meatier role this time, he just couldn’t do full justice to it; often offering a bland face to the emotional upheavals around him. He is his usual acrobatic self in the action and dance sequences, but he has a long way to go as a performer

But where the the film scores the highest marks is in its pacing. The film maintains a terrific  pace throughout; something that’s absolutely necessary for a thriller.  Maybe it does  get a little tedious towards the end. But by then it’s too late to do any damage. One prickly point, again late in the film, is regarding a plot twist in relation to a major character. The twist, on the surface, is lifted from director John Woo’s Face\off(1997). But, it’s again a throwback to another of the iconic Salim Javed- Bachchan 70s masala offerings: Don(1978 ) – another film which did the mixing of masala and Hollywood really well, where the police hires a lookalike of a gangster to infiltrate his gang to spy for them . Here it’s the criminals who places a lookalike mole in the government agency. The twist does forces the viewer to re-evaluate the film from a totally different context, where a lot of what transpired before doesn’t make much sense, but it’s something that bothers only when one looks back at the film after it’s over rather than at the time of viewing. On one level, I really liked the twist. It’s an interesting way of tackling the Muslim question as far as the terrorist or traitor angle is concerned. And again, this Muslim angle was very much an important aspect of masala cinema; The bromance between Bachchan’s Vijay and Pran’s pathan in Zanjeer or Bachchan’s Vijay’s faith in his Billa 786 in Deewaar, and in this film I see an attempt to reproduce that ethos, either in the Hrithik- Tiger relationship or in the song sequence where both of them groove to Jai Jai shivshankar.

The film ends by keeping the prospect of a sequel open, which is not a  good idea at all. I believe that the character arcs are complete and it will be impossible to recreate the same magic again, at least not in the context of this story. I am never a fan of sequels and one has to just look at the progression of  Hrithik’s Krishh franchise to see how adversely the franchising can affect the actor.But, I hope that the grand success of this film gives Hrithik the inspiration  to move his career in the right direction . It’s really great to see his kind of old-fashioned star charisma that  not just holds the screen, but also manages to iron out a lot of flaws in the movie. And, Hrithik is one hundred percent a movie star. There is nothing wrong in doing a Super30 now and then and stretching himself a bit, but they have to be the exception rather than the rule. There is no shame in doing movie star parts, if that’s what you are good at and hopefully he would continue in this vein. Not everyone has to be Marlon Brando, Amitabh Bachchan or Kamal Haasan. The most iconic stars of all times,whether its John Wayne , Steve McQueen , Stallone or Rajnikanth were not all rounders. They had a particular niche in which they were most comfortable and in which they related the best  to the audience and they exploited to the maximum. This is what Hrithik should be doing as well. I also hope that this film  rekindles the love that the audience had for Hrithik  in his heyday as a star, and , as it happened with Salman Khan in his late forties with his mass films, Hrithik manages to make it back to the top of the heap by carving out his own niche as a sort of a mature, sophisticated masala hero , as there definitely is a space for one in the industry.

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