Dir: Advait Chandan. With: Aamir Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Mona Singh, Manav Vij. 159 mins. Cert: 12A.
Reviewing Secret Superstar, the 2017 collaboration between director Advait Chandan and Bollywood megastar Aamir Khan, I made passing reference to the latter’s “Hanks-ish likability”. That quality is tested to the limit by the pair’s new project: a Hindi remake of Forrest Gump, late 20th century Hollywood’s foremost Marmite movie. Sending Gump eastwards opens new channels of history and culture, screenwriter Atul Kulkarni swapping in golgappa for chocolate boxes. Yet the source has largely been swallowed whole: the CG feather, the sappy score, the picaresque storytelling and parkbench philosophy, the running with and without callipers. Assiduously replicating its predecessor’s strengths and weaknesses, the one thing it risks is that a three-word summary – Hindi Forrest Gump – would tell you all you ever needed to know about it.
Tweaks of emphasis do become apparent. Unloading his frankly exhausting lifestory onto Chandigarh’s unluckiest commuters, Khan’s title character emerges as an even bigger momma’s boy than Gump, closer in spirit and relentless commentary style to Kids in the Hall’s precocious oddbod Gavin. With AIDS deemed so last century, a possessive-abusive sugar daddy conspires to remove Laal’s sweetheart Rupa (Kareena Kapoor, bringing great warmth to Xerox-flat characterisation) from sight. And there are more potshots at Indian militarism than expected: Laal’s forefathers fall victim to successive border disputes in a tonally jarring prologue, while our hero’s service prompts ultra-light chuckles, suggesting how easily unblinking conformism and sheer dumb luck are mistaken for heroism. This version is happier admitting to its (mild, peaceable) politics than the cagey, bet-hedging original, a positive of sorts.
Certain stretches work. The running is still funny; Khan remains supremely physically expressive; and making the amputee pal a reformed fundamentalist (Manav Vij) is semi-interesting, although the hands-across-the-temple-aisle editorial feels watered down set against Khan’s puckish religious satire P.K.. It’s just, as before, the connective tissue is narrative happenstance and by-the-yard melodrama, now with a so-so set of songs. Far from the worst Hindification of a Hollywood property, it consolidates the core competency Chandan demonstrated in Secret Superstar without achieving the genuine magic that film conjured from well-worn material. Few could blame Khan for playing safe faced with renewed personal attacks and weaponised hashtags. But his best films have taken stands of various kinds; here, he’s caught running a little scared.
Laal Singh Chaddha opens in cinemas nationwide today.