Saturday, August 31, 2013

Aurangzeb - throwback that doesn't throw us very far.

When the premise of Aurangzeb begins quickly unfolding at the beginning of the film, I was instantly reminded of those 70's masala films where the backstory is told in 20 minutes, before we even get to the title screen. The tale of twins switching places, the importance of family (and nature versus nurture), inheritance of business and of values, these are all themes that crop up in Hindi films time and time again, but something about this particular set up reminded me more of 70's than of 2010's. And since I love 70's Hindi films, this was a very positive association.

Unfortunately, though, this is very much a film of the 2010's. There is no Pran as the dad or as the villain, there is no diamond smuggling, or divine intervention thanks to pious son praying regularly. There are no snazzy villain lairs or cigar-smoking baddies called Robert, or Helen wearing animal print while dancing. Instead, we get plots centering around more grounded, real issues – corrupt policemen making deals with corrupt politicians, making money alongside corrupt businessmen, off the backs of the common man, farmers and villagers (who are barely seen, of course, because in the end the human drama is all about those with power). Our modern night club scenes have whiskey but they also have cocaine. Our bad guys are sometimes our good guys, and vice versa – the moral ambiguity allows characters to switch sides in the middle of the film.

It's not that one is inherently better than the other, of course. There's a reason why 70's films are as they are, in the style that they are, and there are reasons why modern films have a different take on things. Aurangzeb is an okay movie, but it's not an excellent movie, and perhaps one reason for that is the way that its premise could've worked better at a different time, in a different setting. That's not to say that family drama in modern films feels dated – it's just that here, the modern dating doesn't really enhance the melodrama.

Arjun Kapoor plays twins Vishal and Ajay. Ajay is the spoiled, despicable heir apparent to their father Yashwardhan's (Jackie Shroff) empire, whereas Vishal has lived a good, clean life with his mother, thinking that the policeman (Anupam Kher), who saved him and his mother's lives, is his father. Arya (Prithviraj Sukumaran), the real son of the policeman, discovers Vishal and his mother upon his father's death, and the head of the family, Arya's uncle (Rishi Kapoor) decides to make Vishal infiltrate Yashwardhan's connections by posing as Ajay. Ajay is kidnapped, and Vishal begins living life as him, but things become complicated when Vishal begins to sympathise with his real father...

Perhaps the best thing about the film are the performances, particularly that of Arjun Kapoor. I didn't have very high hopes for him – he was wooden in Ishaqzaade, where I hated his character, and his performance did little to save the character from bad writing. Yet he does manage to carve two separate characters out of the twins he plays. Of course, the contrast helps – Vishal is soft where Ajay is hard, Vishal has humanity where Ajay seems to have none. I find it appalling how the story tries to carve a “lovable rogue” out of Ajay, when he is simply just an appalling human being for the way he treats people, particularly his girlfriend Ritu. I didn't see anything here that blew me away, but it's still early days, so hopefully his future roles are good.

Prithviraj and some of the older cast all do a fine job. The music that underscores the melodrama mostly seems to take away from it – it's always too loud or too dramatic for the situations it's trying to heighten. Perhaps the biggest failure of the movie is the lack of connection I felt to each character. The moral ambiguity messes with that in a way that kind of turned me off. We follow Vishal and Arya quite closely but I didn't really root for either in a big way at any point of the film, and as far as story-telling goes, that's a pretty big failure. Arya is set up as being corrupt from the first moments of the film, and Vishal just kind of comes off as pathetic at first, neither really endears me to them until the plot takes a few twists and turns.

Even in all its accomplishments in setting up an ambiguous world full of corruption, back-stabbing and intrigue, Aurangzeb is pretty unremarkable. I wouldn't recommend it, unless you were a huge, huge fan of one of the principals.

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