Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Inkaar (India, 1977)

Kurosawa's High and Low is, hands down, one of my very favorite films of all time, so it's only natural that I would be all over this Bollywood remake starring Vinod Khanna as soon as I learned of its existence. Director Raj N. Sippy and screenwriter Jyoti Swaroop stick fairly close to their source material here, only really mixing things up with the introduction of a two-fisted, take-no-prisoners police detective in the person of Khanna's Inspector Amar Gill, who provides quite a contrast to the super-efficient but relatively faceless group of law enforcement functionaries in Kurosawa's version. The effect is to combine the Japanese master's sprawling, Dickensian social drama--an examination of those inevitable points where the various strata of society, giving the lie to their façade of mutual exclusivity, meet and fret like overlapping tectonic plates--with a Dirty Harry style police actioner, a marriage of disparate elements that ends up being surprisingly successful.

The story, adapted from the Ed McBain novel King's Ransom, concerns a wealthy chief executive of a shoe company (Shreeram Lagoo) who, faced with the threat of ouster by a rebellious board of directors, is on the verge of a dramatic takeover of the company using borrowed company funds. Before he can complete the stock purchase, however, he receives word that his son has been kidnapped, with the abductors setting the ransom at the exact amount needed for the buyout. It turns out that the kidnappers have made a major mistake, however, and rather than snatching the executive's son Guddu (Master Rajesh), have instead ended up with Bansi (played by uncanny Weng Weng doppelganger Master Raju), the son of the exec's faithful chauffeur. Once this is established, the exec initially refuses to pay the ransom, but is soon driven by his conscience to change his mind, thus putting the financial future of the company he has struggled to build from the ground up in serious jeopardy. His only hope is that Inspector Gill (Khanna) and his men can track down the culprit, a disgruntled former employee named Raj Singh (Amjad Khan), and recover both the child and the money before it is too late.

Inkaar's close adherence to its model makes for a much grittier type of crime film than you'd typically see coming out of Bollywood in the 70s. The underworld that its bad guys inhabit is a far cry from the glamorous demimonde of other such films, exemplified by the fact that Amjad Khan's hideout, rather than the lavishly appointed lair we're used to seeing him kitted out with, is nothing more than a dingy bungalow--and his haunts, rather than those gaudy monuments to decadence that usually stand in for the underworld denizens' habitats of choice, are simply squalid little dives (one of which plays host to a wonderful and appropriately debauched item number from Helen). Furthermore, this is a Bollywood crime film in which we get to see detectives doing actual detective work--though, of course, not at the expense of them also doling out a liberal amount of the dishoom dishoom--which is quite striking. That, combined with a generous amount of grimy urban location shooting, gives Inkaar an exhilarating feeling of authenticity that makes it really stand out from other contemporary examples of its genre.

At times, Inkaar's makers see fit to simply follow Kurosawa's film shot-for-shot, such as in the tense and haunting sequence in which the executive makes delivery of the ransom by tossing it from a moving train to the kidnapper's emissary standing on an embankment below. It's hard to argue with this choice, because to do anything otherwise would be an attempt to improve upon perfection. What's important is that, whether sticking close to the template or veering from it, the creative team creates a consistent look that never undermines the forward momentum of the narrative or jars with the maintenance of cohesive tone. Finally, credit also has to go to Rajesh Roshan for his instrumental score, a tense funk built on reverbed-out, staccato guitar jabs that Kalyanji Anandji would have been proud to put their names on.

A Bollywood remake of High and Low is, by its nature, guaranteed to be such a completely different animal that any qualitative comparison between it and its inspiration would be largely pointless. Suffice it to say, however, that Inkaar has far from replaced the original in my heart. Still, to my mind, it is something of an ideal remake; respectful of the original, but at the same time adding enough of its own elements to enable it to stand alone. It's a solid example of 70s Bollywood action cinema at its best, and one that I would recommend to anyone, regardless of whether or not they'd seen the classic film it was modeled upon.

5 comments:

memsaabstory said...

I haven't seen Kurosawa's film, but I loved Inkaar. Thought it was really well done and unusual in its themes (at least for a Hindi film ;-)

And Mungda Mungda is one of Helen's best. She was also so far from her usual glam self, very earthy and tribal.

Todd said...

Yes, I was really taken by surprise by how ambitious this film was. I just expected them to use the original film as a rough template from which to make a typical masala film, when instead what they ended up with was something pretty unique; a well crafted and thoughtful film that is much more moody and intense than your usual 70s dishoom fest.

Todd said...

BTW, I highly recommend High and Low, though that probably goes without saying.

Cindy said...

Having only seen Inkaar, I'm surprised to learn that Vinod Khanna's character wasn't part of the original. They really seem to have seamlessly incorporated his character and the other new elements into the original plot, since the whole thing flows quite smoothly.

I hadn't thought about the lack of an opulent villain's lair and other typical 70s masala elements, but that helps explain why I got such a different jibe from this film. It definitely had a much more realistic and grittier feel to it than I expected.

Todd said...

Cindy: It is surprising, isn't it? While there are police detectives in Kurosawa's film, the film isn't really told from their perspective, and none of them are given the kind of back-story that Khanna's character is, much less a love interest. But, hey, it's Bollywood; As different as this one is, if they hadn't worked a love story in there somewhere the resulting cognitive dissonance would have been just too great for me to maintain consciousness while watching it.