A temple priest takes on more than he can handle when he bears witness to a murder and gives evidence in a court of law against a powerful landlord in his village. The landlord bribes his way to freedom and embarks on a relentless campaign to ruin the priest's reputation. Ashamed of his tarnished status the priest commits suicide,and leaves his wife and young children to face the atrocities of the evil landlord. The son (Ajay Devgn) flees the village and travels to Mumbai to make a life, but returns years later to settle the score with the landlord.
Just how culturally irrelevant and intellectually vapid much of what we remember as entertainment from the 1980s truly is driven home in Sajid Khan’s Himmatwala. As grotesque and garish a spectacle as I’ve seen in quite some time, this Hindi remake of a coarse and unremarkable hit comedy from 1983 is cringe-worthy and puerile.
cringe-worthy and puerile
Churned out with minimal attention to script or production values to serve the booming VHS market, '80s Bollywood films were rarely the sector’s most accomplished or memorable works. They adhered to a series of very commercial hooks to appease mass audiences and minimalise writer’s block: a blokish, muscley hero would often return home to avenge the dishonouring of his family (usually a teary mum and virginal sister mourning the loss of their patriarch) at the hands of a 'sarpanch’, the village overlord who rules without mercy.
Khan’s Himmatwala (colloquially translated as 'braveheart’) barely deviates from this model. Its setting is hard to determine; it opens on a cage-fight featuring Ravi (a stony-faced Ajay Devgn, who neither commits to the comedy nor impresses heroically) that combines anachronistic '80s imagery with constant references to smart phones and current technology. The pre-intermission scenes predominantly present boorish, laboured humour (the irksome Paresh Rawal, as Singh’s 2IC Narayan, regularly breaks the fourth wall to deliver inane asides) interspersed with okay dance tunes and nonsensical action sequences. The 'best’ of these harkens back to Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles and the famous horse-punching gag; here, Ravi must subdue a Bengal tiger released into a crowded market by spoilt rich-brat Rekha (Tamannah, just awful), which he does with a swift left hook. It’s one of several dubious homages to great Hollywood moments; for no apparent reason, the production recreates the shower sequence from Psycho and lifts word–perfect dialogue from the 'Those aren’t pillows!" scene from Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Post-intermission, the risible script (Khan has the story and screenplay credit, pinning the excruciating dialogue on Bol Bachchan’s Farhad) takes an ill-advised dark turn when the ridiculous romance between Ravi’s sister, Padma (Leena Jumani), and Narayan’s son, Shakti (Adhyayan Suman), leads to threats of sexual assault and pack-rape. The use of such a plot device in a film without any redeeming features is exploitative and insensitive in the extreme and only serves to prove how far from the mark all involved were with this travesty.
There’s also a steady stream of misogynistic touches to the humour as well that may not have seemed out of place audiences in 1983, though they damn well should have been. Sajid Khan’s women are either weepy or slutty, occasionally mean-spirited and usually stupid. His men are stoically granite-like; his villains, comically evil. The temptation is to get righteously indignant about a film such as Himmatwala, but it is so appalling that it feels enough to just let it hang itself before the court of public opinion.