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The thing with film remakes is that you can't view them in a vacuum; they need to co-exist with the originals and comparisons simply cannot be avoided. When the original is a cult classic like the late Mukul S. Anand's Agneepath, the sheer weight of comparisons can tear them apart. Fortunately, then, for debutant director Karan Malhotra, his remake of Agneepath more than lives up to its cult counterpart's status and comes close to being a masterpiece itself.
Praise for the film belongs to director Malhotra and Ila Bedi Datta, who work hard to recast Vijay Dinanath Chauhan's story in a new mould with their adapted screenplay. At the core, it's still the same one, one where Kancha (Sanjay Dutt) finds only the principled Master Dinanath Chauhan standing in his path to taking over the island of Mandwa, and frames him to have him lynched by the villagers. Master Dinanath Chauhan's young son, Vijay Chauhan witnesses his father's murder and swears to avenge it with Kancha's life. Moving away to the city, he rapidly rises through the ranks of the Mafia until he finds himself in a position to challenge Kancha. And then, don Vijay Chauhan (Hrithik Roshan) returns to the village he was thrown out of, for the final confrontation with his nemesis.
However, it's the way that the best elements of the old story find their way into the new one that makes one want to stand up and applaud. Malhotra and Datta are supremely judicious in the way that they adapt the classic. Some characters have been done away with, chiefly, Mithun Chakraborty's Krishnan Iyer M.A.. Though some may be disappointed, it is understandable why this is so; Mithun's Krishnan, though a fan-favourite, was more or less a form of comic relief in the original. Malhotra's remake, though, is such an exhilarating action drama from start to finish, that there is simply no space for comic sidesteps. This time around, Vijay Dinanath Chauhan's intense focus is so single-mindedly on Mandwa that you actually come to believe that there isn't a single moment in his life in which Vijay isn't thinking about Kancha.
To that end, Malhotra brings in a new character, Rauf Lala (Rishi Kapoor), to give Vijay a second nemesis to deal with. While there may be no space for the comedy of Krishnan Iyer here, there certainly is more scope for darkness, and that is what Rauf, as the don of Mumbai, brings, raising Vijay within his ranks, but forever making sure that he stays under his thumb. It is a shocking change, to see Kapoor play a character this dark; however, he more than rises up to the challenge. He relishes the role, digging his teeth deep into it and more than matching up to the writing of the film, so much so that one is inclined to believe that the first half belongs to him.
The film breaks away from the original in its characterisation of Kancha as well. Where the original saw Danny Dengzongpa play it suave as Kancha Cheena, living it up in Mauritius, here Sanjay Dutt is nothing but the personification of pure evil, spouting teachings from the Geeta on one hand, even as he continues to kill and oppress without thought on the other. Though it may have been Dutt's new bald-headed, black-clad look that may have earned him buzz around the film, its safe to say that his performance as the psychotic Kancha is infinitely more shocking than his get-up could ever be.
However, the most amazing break from the original comes from Vijay Dinanath Chauhan himself, a character so intense that he actually scares you at points. In his quest for revenge, Vijay turns into a fantastic manipulator of people, biding his time for fifteen whole years until he finds himself in exactly the right place to have it. The film retains most of the trappings of the original, but then weaves them into the film in such a way that the audiences can't help but be in awe of them. Perhaps the most iconic scene of the original film was that of Amitabh Bachchan sitting in a police station and telling a cop his full name, 'Vijay Dinanath Chauhan, pura naam. Here, when Hrithik finally says that legendary line, in the midst of an exhilarating action sequence, you can't help but stomp your feet.
Critics will hold that Hrithik's performance doesn't match up to that of Bachchan's. But then, Roshan isn't actually trying to recreate that classic growl and stagger. Instead, Hrithik's Vijay Chauhan is a character all his own. He doesn't wear suits and doesn't drive big cars. Instead, he is content living in his small rooftop hut in Dongri, because his single-minded focus is Kancha. Taking centrestage, Hrithik's Vijay speaks little, believing that his actions speak louder. And speak louder, they do. Brilliantly intense and controlled in every step, Hrithik shocks with the sheer force of his performance, so much so that as you glimpse into his face, you actually ache for him to have his revenge.
There are other characters along the way, most of them peripheral, like Om Puri's commissioner Gaitonde, or Priyanka Chopra's Kaali, who plays Vijay's love interest. All of them are played to just the right tone. Though some maybe disappointed that Priyanka's role is a rather short one, it should be understood that had it been any longer, the track would interrupted the flow of the core story, as it already does at points.
Zarina Wahab is present as Vijay's mother, and does fairly well for herself in the role originally essayed by Rohini Hattangadi. Young Kanika Tiwari debuts in the role of Vijay's sister Shiksha, but doesn't get much screen time. Deven Bhojani's role is inconsequential, as is Sachin Khedekar's. Instead, amongst the rest of the cast, it is the young Vijay, played by the debutant Arish Bhiwandiwala, who wows with his intensity.
Credit is also due to production designer Sabu Cyril, who carves out the look and feel of the film on a truly epic scale. The opening scenes, in craggy, rocky Mandwa set the pace for the film, and that is carried on to the frenzied surrounds of Mumbai's Dongri, as shown in the film. The Ganpati Visarjan scene, and the final confrontation between Vijay and Kancha on the island of Mandwa, are the highpoints, in terms of sets and looks, ones that action director Abbas Ali Moghul capitalises on, brilliantly. Kiron Deohans and Ravi Chandran work superbly on their cinematography, taking dark tones in the right sequences and splashing Vijay's happier moments with lots of colours, sweeping through the sets.
While Ajay Atul have already earned praise for their soundtrack of the film, especially the sizzling Chikni Chameli, with Katrina Kaif, it is the film's background score that truly impresses. While the original's music was very liberally 'inspired' from the works of Jean-Michel Jarre, this time around, it's an all-original score, one that actually sets the atmosphere and pace for the narrative of the film. There are points where the duo does make faint references to the original, especially a three bar piece when Vijay makes his first kill, but thereafter, this work stays brand-new. Though Chikni Chameli is superb, the film's true musical high point comes with the Ganapati devotional Deva Shree Ganesha, complete with horns and dhols, that sets up for a fantastic action sequence in the film.
That Mukul S. Anand's Agneepath is a cult classic is a fact that even Karan Malhotra, and his producer, Karan Johar, acknowledge, inserting a slate of text at the beginning saying that their film is just a tribute to the original. However, one feels that when they call their new film a tribute and a remake, they are doing their effort a disservice. With the thought that has gone into it, it's more apt to call Karan Malhotra's Agneepath a gritty, raw reimagining of the classic, which is what it is.
Though the original Agneepath has earned itself a cult status, it has done so solely on the back of Amitabh Bachchan's brilliant performance as Vijay Dinanath Chauhan. Indeed, Bachchan as Vijay, came across as a pure force of nature and there isn't a performance that matches up to his sheer intensity. However, at the risk of sounding blasphemous, that performance apart, there isn't much in the film that could qualify as a classic. Though the film relates an epic, larger than life story of the enmity between Vijay Chauhan and Kancha Cheena, it does so at a lax pace, dawdling at times before getting to the final resolution.
Karan Malhotra, though, recognises his story for its scale, for what it was always meant to be, and sets up Agneepath as a true epic right from the opening, on the rocky, sweeping landscapes of Mandwa. The moment that Vijay has been witness to his father's brutal lynching, you know that he will never be the same again. And when he takes his first steps into crime within the first fifteen minutes into the film, you know that there is an epic confrontation coming that will have you on the edge of your seat for the remaining two and a half hours. Though there are a few places where Malhotra stumbles, bringing in a few unnecessary tracks, the way it all comes together at the end, with Hrithik, Sanjay and Rishi dazzling, it isn't hard to see why this new Agneepath may just turn out to be a classic all its own.