First off, this is a review of the movie ‘Laal Singh Chaddha’ and not of the controversies surrounding it’s lead actor, the redoubtable Aamir Khan, and of his political and nationalistic convictions which resulted in widespread calls for the film’s boycott in the wake of its release and perhaps helped contribute to its commercial failure. As a movie, this one is a warm-hearted and successful re-imagining of Forrest Gump in the Indian heartland. The basic thumb rule to follow here is simple; if you liked Forrest Gump, you will probably like this. If you were one of those people who couldn’t stand the treacly sweet and almost fairytale-ish journey of the lead character, then you wouldn’t like this one either. I loved Forrest Gump and I daresay I really liked Laal Singh Chaddha. The basic structure of the story remains faithful to the original, while introducing/changing a few things, some of which are inspired, others not so much.
Over here, the protagonist is Laal Singh Chaddha (Aamir Khan) and he narrates his story in a train traveling to Chandigarh to co-passengers who are initially dismissive to him and then gradually grow fascinated by the tale he spins (while always doubting its authenticity). It’s one of the major changes which work well in an Indian setting; after all, a train journey is a perfect emblem of the illusory nature of a lot of life and relationships and which the large middle class in the country can identify with. Another change is the replacing of chocolates and the famous quote of the same with golgappas and perhaps a more meaningful maxim. His early childhood is one of coming to terms with the world which mostly pokes fun at his ‘slowness’ and reduced mental capability, but he has a firebrand of a mother (Mona Singh) who wills him on to do great things in life. He also makes friends and falls into lifelong love with Rupa, his classmate, and pines for her through various points of life, a mostly unrequited love as the adult Rupa (Kareena Kapoor Khan) has grand designs on escaping her dreary and abusive life at home into the fame and independence an acting career can bring. But Laal Singh has a blissfully ignorant and sunny disposition to most of life’s happenings and he finds himself in some momentous occasions in history. His affinity towards running leads him to be a star athlete, while his total obedience to following orders makes him a great army man. We follow him as he finds himself, at various points, caught in between the Operation Bluestar fracas and the subsequent Delhi riots in 1984, while also witness to Advani’s Rath Yatra, the Mumbai riots and the anti-Mandal Commission violence. And most prominently, he is on the frontlines in the Kargil war, where he meets his friend, Bala (Naga Chaitanya) who has an immense influence on the course of his life from then on. If in Forrest Gump it was Bubba and the Shrimp business that Forrest makes his life’s mission, over here Bala sings paeans to the underwear and banyan industry and true to his word, Laal decides to start a factory for the same. An inspired naming choice allows them to tie it in to an actual famous innerwear brand in the country, the name of which you can guess from the review. Forrest’s habit of being an accidental witness and influencer of history’s great people and moments finds favor here too, with one particularly hilarious sequence involving a de-aged Shah Rukh Khan cameo. There is also a scene where he is superimposed in actual archival footage, apropos of the original.
During all this, he still holds a candle for his childhood love, Rupa. One of the things which work better here than the original is the meat which his lady love’s character gets. While over there, Robin Wright was something of a cipher of a love interest, flitting in and out without finding much substance, here Kareena Kapoor beautifully etches more meaning into a character that has been given depth and internal conflict. Her self-destructive traits lead her to the wrong people, but the simple affection and devotion of Laal proves a lifeline ultimately. There are parallels again in her story to some real-life controversies’ movie stars have found themselves in.
So, what are the problems? The acting from most of the supporting characters, including Kareena Kapoor, Mona Singh and the child actors are excellent, but I’m not sure if I can say the same for the lead himself. Aamir Khan, for so long known as the perfectionist and incapable of a bad performance seems to be overlapping traits of his characters earlier in this decade with the new ones. His underwhelmingly bad performance in the ridiculous Dhoom 3 finds echoes in some of his mannerisms of Laal, while even traits of his character from the super-successful PK can be seen at times. It isn’t that he is bad here, but you would expect he is one actor from this industry who can hold a candle to Tom Hank’s original legendary performance.
But he or the movie are not at all as bad as the naysayers, a lot of whom may not even have seen the film, would claim. In fact, the film itself is a warm hearted, delightful little treat for the most part. One worth a watch irrespective of whether you have seen the original or not. Get those golgappas ready.