Directed by: A.R. Murugadoss || Produced by: Tagore Madhu, Madhu Mantena
Screenplay by: A.R. Murugadoss || Starring: Aamir Khan, Asin, Jiah Khan, Pradeep Rawat, Riyaz Khan, Tinnu Anand
Music by: A.R. Rahman || Cinematography: Ravi K. Chandran || Editing by: Anthony Gonsalves || Country: India || Language: Hindi
Running Time: 185 minutes
A.R. Murugadoss’s 2008 film, Ghajini, is one of the most bizarre movies I have ever seen. Given the types of movies that are widely regarded as “the best” or the most representative of the Hindi film industry, the action genre doesn’t seem like a natural thing for the culture. Action scenes and Hindi cinema don’t mix well based on the limited number of lazily shot, awful sequences of violence I’ve seen in my limited sampling of the industry (e.g. parts of Sholay , Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge ). They seem like a contradiction, if you ask for my outsider’s opinion, an obvious yet forced attempt to incorporate an overseas (Western) filmmaking style into a filmmaking culture (South Asia), the combination of which gels like oil and water.
Action seems to be more the staple of Hollywood, the typical American summer blockbuster, or better yet stereotypical Asian shootouts like John Woo’s Hard-Boiled (1992) or the plethora of martial arts movies from east Asian film industries. When I think of Indian movies, I think of long, drawn-out melodramas, tearful romances, love triangles, and handsome heartthrobs stealing away brides at the alter. Action is the last thing that comes to mind when I get in the mood to watch Bollywood — or Indian cinema in general, for that matter. But the Indian cinematic diaspora is the largest national film culture on the planet (if you count sheer numbers of films released per year), so even genres that aren’t typically regarded as the industry’s forte are supported with numerous titles each year.
And that brings us to Ghajini, my first modern Bollywood action-thriller. According to the movie’s star, Aamir Khan, “Ghajini is not a remake or even slightly inspired by (Christopher Nolan’s) Memento (2000), but it’s a remake of the Tamil film, Ghajini (2005).” This movie is about a man (played by Khan) whose fiance who gets murdered by a gangster called Ghajini, hence the movie’s title. During the attack, Khan’s character suffers severe head trauma after being struck in the head by Ghajini and develops anteriograde amnesia, which prevents him from forming new memories. Some time later, Khan embarks on a violent mission to find his lover’s killer and compensates for his severe memory deficiencies by taking pictures of places and people and writing down notes about them. Khan also keeps track of his vendetta progress by tattooing angry reminders of his wife’s murder all over his body and keeping detailed maps and records of the mission in his hotel. That totally doesn’t sound like Memento at all.
This obviously ripped off plotline is just one of countless unsanctioned, unofficial remakes released by Bollywood every year. The Hindi film industry is even more shameless than Hollywood in the number of remakes it produces, which is amusing considering how often Indian filmmakers get away without anyone acknowledging their film’s blatant plagiarism of other artists’ works.
Ghajini takes the time to make obligatory alterations to its borrowed structure, Hindifying and dramatizing the thriller concepts for South Asian audiences. A significant portion of the movie is dedicated to the romantic backstory, how Khan’s character fell in love with his doomed lover in the first place. The film is stretched to the standard three-hour Bollywood length and includes a healthy dosage of radio-friendly pop songs and accompanying dance numbers, courtesy of A.R. Rahman, and includes a happier, simplified ending.
These Bollywood-adjustments work well enough. All the songs are amazing, though many seem haphazardly shoved into the narrative to make the film more accessible to South Asian audiences. The song numbers that do progress the plot or flesh out the characters aren’t the most visually daring that Bollywood has to offer, but they’re serviceable and fun to watch. The melodrama is limited to the action scenes, while the good pacing keeps this Hindi thriller relatively exciting throughout the majority of its long running time.
Where the movie gets weird is in the primary storyline after Khan’s fiance’s murder. In the flashbacks leading up to the incident, Khan plays a normal, successful businessman who seems content with his lot in life until he meets and falls in love with a beautiful, charming girl named Kalpana (Asin). Things change drastically after the villain, Ghajini (Pradeep Rawat), murders Kalpana and assaults Khan, causing his condition. Not only does Khan vow revenge, he also develops a permanent scowl, gains martial arts superpowers, and goes batshit crazy. The contrast between Khan’s character’s “before” and “after”-states is hilarious. It’s so cartoony and his behaviors so exaggerated you will laugh at loud. Badass-revenge-Khan doesn’t have a character or personality so much as he just wanders around looking pissed off, occasionally bursting into fits of rage whenever he looks at his tattoos in the mirror and gets reminded of his nemesis. From time to time he’ll fumble around with his Polaroid camera, doing his best Leonard Shelby impression when he’s not demolishing wave after wave of the villain’s cronies on his convoluted quest to avenge his girlfriend’s murder. The sheer number of times Khan plows through his enemies like an unstoppable Terminator mount up by the end, making you wonder if the choreographers have a really good sense of humor or are just lazy.
The rest of the movie is similarly a mixed bag. Asin, Bollywood’s latest pretty face, does a good job as Khan’s charming and likable love interest, while Pradeep Rawat is OK as the main villain and Jia Khan is uninteresting as Aamir Khan’s reluctant sidekick. Ghajini’s biggest selling point is without a doubt its soundtrack, which not only helps with the pacing like all good Bollywood soundtracks do, but also is well written with Rahman’s veteran touch. The movie overuses its stylized, rapid-fire camera movements way too much, making the movie feel sloppy and incoherent rather than energetic and visceral as in City of God (2002).
Taken as a whole, Ghajini is a movie that’s more than the sum of its parts. It manages to keep the adventure exciting and interesting despite its inherent inability to make you take it seriously on any level whatsoever. It’s a shame that so much of Khan’s charisma and screen presence gets wasted on him acting like a meathead Rambo-wannabe for half the movie, yet the honest backstory allows you to sympathize with his plight enough so that the movie’s conclusion is satisfying.
If nothing else, Ghajini is a good introduction for curious outsiders brave enough to explore Bollywood’s movie library beyond melodramatic romances. I’m not sure how much further I plan to delve into the depths of Hindi action cinema, but for what it’s worth, I enjoyed my time with Ghajini — even if it was one of the most bizarre, unintentionally hilarious experiences of my movie-watching career.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Ironically, the most original part of Ghajini that has no connection with the plagiarized, Memento-inspired premise, the romantic backstory, is the most charming, fun, and honest part of the movie, even if it does feel a bit standard-issue. A.R. Rahman’s pop-infused, glitzy soundtrack is catchy and appealing in all the right ways. Many musical numbers feel thrown in as an afterthought, but they’re fun nonetheless.
— However… though he does have a few cool moves, Khan’s character becomes a complete bore after his traumatic transformation at the hands of the movie’s villain — but on the other hand, much of what he does is absurdly funny. Numerous parts of the story makes no sense at all (why does no one ever call the police?). Pradeep Rawat’s and Jia Khan’s characters don’t do much for me, and aspects of the cinematography grow tiresome.
—> ON THE FENCE
? Why does Ghajini keep swinging his weapon like a golf club?