Dir: Rohit Shetty. With: Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, Varun Dhawan, Kriti Sanon. 158 mins. Cert: 12A
2015 was the year the commercial cinema stepped up in the matter of monetising nostalgia. In the West, the Spielberg/Lucas copyism of Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens raked in megabucks by cosying up to established fanbases, as did SPECTRE by extracting 007 from the real world (and real-world peril) Skyfall placed him in and instead returning the character to those fantastical lairs he’d escaped a half-century ago. With Dilwale, Bollywood follows suit. In its title and casting, Rohit Shetty’s film trades heavily on fond memories of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, the 1995 landmark that was still enjoying regular rotation in one Mumbai cinema as late as this February.
What’s initially so discombobulating here is that that film’s stars Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol should be reunited in a very different movie. Where the original was a lush, keening romance, the new one foregrounds elements of those pulpy crime stories about one sibling getting inextricably drawn into another’s risky business. The good brother here is Raj (Khan), a former tough who reformed upon opening an auto repair shop. Yet one of the hot-rods parked under his roof is trickier to handle than most: this is younger brother Veer (Varun Dhawan), who – while attempting to impress the winsome Ishu (Kriti Sanon) – crosses a fearsome drug dealer.
An extended pre-interval flashback clarifies matters a little. Here, we learn that the beardless Raj only turned thug after he, too, stepped in to assist a damsel in distress – and after the thoroughly boysy beginning, it’s something of a relief when Kajol shows up, still possessed of the best eyebrows in the business (chief rivals: Camilla Belle, Lee Pace, Eugene Levy), as Raj’s beloved Meera. Thus can Shetty make a narrative point of having history repeat itself, and for at least its first half, Dilwale provides functional enough holiday entertainment.
It’s clear Khan’s rare, Cary Grant-like ability to strike up a chemistry with anyone placed in front of him hasn’t diminished over the past two decades. With Kajol, it’s a given, and a joy – and, for this lovestruck Raj, something of a liability – but there’s also a warmth to his interactions with Dhawan that steers the garage scenes away from flimsy Fast & Furious-ism. (The Khan-less scenes, full of grown men wailing like kids, overdo the wacky sound effects, and the less said about Dhawan’s impromptu Love, Actually homage the better.)
Shetty keeps his end up by ensuring the action scenes remain coherent: the punches land with uncommon force for a 12A-rated movie, and the crisp editing is such you can see the drivers in the cars flipping over at 80mph. While it’s transitioning between genres, you ride along. Trouble arrives, however, once Dilwale enters its ultimate destination: the dud second half feels copied-and-pasted in from some Big Bollywood Book of Star-Crossed Lovers, tossing out one implausible, indigestible chunk of melodrama after another. It’s not just the stars who’ve been reunited, but all those narrative and visual tropes that have curdled into cliché.
The lovers’ fringes still blow up as they turn towards camera in slow-motion; tragic developments occasion torrential rainstorms. Shetty’s clinging at numbing length to what’s worked before, and this of all seasons, that may prove as much limitation as consolation. The 1995 Dilwale’s title translated as The Bravehearted Will Take the Bride, and the boldly beautiful Bajirao Mastani surely has that prize sewn up this Christmas. The new Dilwale has the star power to pick up those unlucky bridesmaids shut out of adjacent screens, but everybody’s evening, everybody’s legacy, might have been better served by returning the original to circulation.
Dilwale is now playing in cinemas nationwide.