Coolie No. 1 **
Dir: David Dhawan. With: Varun Dhawan, Sara Ali Khan, Paresh Rawal, Johnny Lever. 134 mins. No cert.
It’s a tale of two Bollywoods this Christmas. For Netflix, Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane, representing Indian film’s modernising wing, have engineered the sharp and knowing meta-thriller AK vs AK. Over on Prime, meanwhile, you can watch veteran comedy director David Dhawan renew his IP rights on Coolie No. 1, previously a hit 1995 vehicle for the Sandwell-born funnyman Govinda. Even the latter’s most devout fans would probably concede the original left room for improvements, but that’s an option Dhawan appears unfussed about taking up. This Coolie updates a few reference points and replaces Govinda with latter-day hunk Varun Dhawan - the director's son - then surrounds him with antiquated players and playing, part of a frenetic attempt to pretend the last 30 years never happened.
The plot – lowly railway porter (Dhawan) is hired to woo a society belle (Sara Ali Khan) as part of a conspiracy to disgrace her family – remains stubbornly familiar and predictable. The most immediate change is a result of the recasting. Rather too obviously a handsome, cardio-trained leading man schlubbing down for (not many) easy laughs, Dhawan bounds onscreen with boyish enthusiasm, but trails a lingering note of condescension – and Dhawan Sr. was evidently too busy remembering how best to smash his supporting actors in the gonads to redirect anyone. Khan, sadly, is stranded on balconies looking fetchingly concerned while the men below determine her character’s destiny. In this, Coolie 2020 really does seem so last century.
As illustrated by the well-populated songbreaks – which retain more life and colour than the jokes – it’s a bigger film than its predecessor. Dhawan now has access to sunnier locations and more expensive hotels; the aim was clearly to give those of us in the cheap seats a sniff of the high life. But with the material as thin as it ever was, that just makes this version seem emptier: it goes in one ear, and vaporises before it can emerge from the other. In 1995, and in the absence of more pressing entertainment options, such candyfloss might have passed two hours mindlessly enough. In 2020, it forms the basis for what will almost certainly be the streaming premiere most likely to go unfinished this season – and competition for that sorry title has been notably fierce.
Coolie No. 1 is now streaming via Prime Video.