The new Don is not what you expect. It kicks off with a dramatic shot of a swanky Paris bistro: Shah Rukh Khan's flat cellphone rings singsongedly, he flips it open and we look at his lips up close as one of the most wanted men alive answers his mobile with a 'Don.' There is no conversation, no drugs-money-murder order. No, this icon for cocaine trafficking across Asia says his name into the phone, snaps on designer sunglasses and walks out leaving a heavy tip -- and the restaurant unharmed.
Indeed, the new Don startles you. It's designed to. While there has been both cold cynicism and feverish excitement about the Shah Rukh Khan take on Amitabh Bachchan's cult classic, Farhan Akhtar manages to surprise both camps. Just, not in a good way. If you were afraid of what Khan would do with Bachchan's dialogues, lets just say that the director has tossed us all -- I'm a purist who can quote the first film verbatim -- a bit of a googly. The usual suspects in Don, the people you expect to screw it up, are actually quite impressive, no question. It is the ones in whom you have unflagging faith who end up letting you down.
Shah Rukh Khan is undeniably good. Given the script, that is -- but we get to that in a bit. Khan's visibly a tremendous worshipper of the original, and every time he says a line Amitabh made immortal, there is a quiver of awe in his voice. So then this, considering it is the first film Farhan remembers ever watching, is a complete fanboy tribute, and we should look on it with empathetic indulgence. Plus, SRK manages to balance out Don by occasionally tossing us something new, and much fun.
With Kareena Kapoor, the new (and adequate) Kamini on his armrest, Khan deftly tosses us words we've heard before: The bit about not liking women who take too much, or too little, time to come to him. It is a classic moment modernised, and it takes awhile to get used to him saying Bachchan's words -- in fact, the performance stays rooted in tribute, and you always see an overwhelmed actor uttering timeless lines. Then his cell (Don uses a remarkably lo-tech model, by the way) rings and Kamini asks if she should get it. 'No,' Khan suddenly snaps to a snarl. 'It's mine.' The moment has both edge and humour, and it's authentically Shah Rukh.
So coasts along the first half, smug in the assurance that audiences must have seen the old Don. Lazily, it picks up sequences and arranges them in a disappointingly linear narrative, usually adding nothing more than backdrop. But while the inclusion of an unimaginably plush hotel room might not do much for the film, the first half makes it clear how earnest both Farhan and Khan are, with the latter shining almost every time he gets room for his own little thing.
The real catastrophe unfolds in the second half, as Farhan goes all-out in desperate attempts to surprise his audience. Herein lies the fundamental error: Don was based on a very tight Salim-Javed script, one about an innocent lookalike and how he was trapped by circumstances. The greatness of the film lies in the fact that it shows nearly all its cards to the audience -- from the death of Don to the death of DCP D'Silva -- and yet manages to stay thrilling -- giving you a twist but sticking to a good, straight story with great characters.
Farhan, on the other hand, writes a far more amateurish story, a cop-and-robber tale that suffers from way too many plot twists. By interval point, we're already kinda wary of the young director's attempt at changing the plot. As the film goes on, twist over twist is plastered on, and none of it is remotely innovative. We can see them coming, and each newly contrived turn brings with it another bagful of loopholes, turning the end product into a pretty silly film.
So is it all about the style, the slickness? An insubstantial story supplemented by sophisticated visuals and affluent gadgets? Not quite, because it isn't stylish enough. Khan wears his neckties under his shirts, and that's as fashionably groundbreaking as this movie gets. The thrills too are served cold, as if Farhan is eager to skim over them to get to memorable lines or his own alterations. And while it's fine to have a Hollywood hangover -- Akhtar obviously owns Kill Bill, Face/Off, Scarface and Con Air on DVD -- the end result is oddly tacky, despite being expensive.
Dhoom is filler, but manages to click because the action grips you. In Don, watching Shah Rukh Khan and Boman Irani in a long car chase leaves you quite cold. All the action setpieces are oddly thanda, and resolve themselves in a far too convenient, filmi fashion. There are bits handled with great finesse, but so few and far between there isn't much to be applauded. Malaysia Tourism might enjoy most of the visuals, but there isn't really much for us to wow over -- Bollywood today is used to a slicker, more compelling action film.
Priyanka Chopra is the film's big surprise. Stepping into Zeenat Aman's shoes is a tough ask, but she doesn't really waste time pretending to be the stunner's successor. Chopra handles her role with efficiency, looking every bit the competent woman of action -- and a ravishing babe who fills out a skintight white jumpsuit deliciously. Roma is a hard part to play, but Priyanka has a no-nonsense air about her throughout the film. This is an actress willing to push herself, and has definite potential for screen magic. Not to mention a great smile.
Now, the infallible falls. Boman Irani, one of India's finest contemporary acting finds, astonishes us even in substandard fare. We take excellence for granted from Boman, but he is so woefully miscast in Don it isn't funny. His character of DCP D'Silva is a far cry from Iftikaarsaab's cop, and while there an old man could convincingly pull off a gritty senior cop -- here the wheezing Boman is strictly unfit for the part. This is simply not his role.
Also, Iftikaarsaab was the iconic top cop back in the day, which is why the casting made sense. In a remake, while turning back the clock on Jasjit (earlier Pran, now an awful Arjun Rampal), couldn't they have given Don a younger, tougher cop to deal with? The cops here seem an aged, withering bunch, which poses the question: Was Om Puri chosen as Malik only because his very name is a nod to original actor Om Shivpuri? Because outside of that, the veteran actor is unforgivably wasted.
Don is a hard film to take seriously. While those who love the original will balk at it, those who aren't conversant with the 1978 film are likely to be even more alarmed -- because Farhan doesn't develop his characters, letting the old film do most of the talking. Shah Rukh Khan tries valiantly, and while he incredibly manages even the bumpkin Vijay character, the film lets him down.
Maybe it's Farhan's subversive way of biting-the-bullet, of having some fun and saving us from a potential slew of Bachchan remakes -- everything from Amar Akbar Anthony to Satte Pe Satta is in the pipeline -- and if that is so, I salute him. If not, Farhan, dude, lets just go back to three guys trippin' in Goa. Please.
It's unbelievable how many obvious plot devices the film relies on. The original is a timeless thriller -- lean and low-fat, with no frills. Farhan's remake is more conventional, predictable and a lot more Bollywood, almost to spoofy levels.
As a result, the new Don emerges more dated than the classic.