Monday, August 17, 2009

GHAJINI (2008)

Ghajini is the Bollywood Memento -- that is, with songs, a real hissable villain, lots more ass-kicking action than the original, and a happy ending. In addition, Ghajini is the Hindi Ghajini, a bigger-budgeted remake of a Tamil-language "original" also directed by A.R. Murugadoss. So: do you remember the bad old days when movie buffs dreaded the announcement that an American studio would remake some recent foreign hit? It seemed inevitably to mean the original story would be dumbed down to be more palatable to the mallrats. The same thing happens elsewhere, it seems, but does this mean we should dismiss out of hand a film that has reportedly become the unadjusted-for-inflation Indian box office champion?

Murugadoss was apparently smitten with the idea of a man with short-term memory loss who has to tattoo notes to himself on his body to keep himself on a mission of revenge for the death of his life. His approach to the material is nearly the reverse of Christopher Nolan's original concept. He introduces Sanjay, his antihero, as something of a monster, almost as much Max Cady as Leonard Shelby. He's capable of nearly superhuman rage, which comes in handy for a number of brutal fight scenes, and other characters treat him as a menace as they learn of his past killings and his looming vendetta against one Ghajini Dharmatma. Only gradually do the protagonists discover a true story from Sanjay's notes, and not before the original police investigator is abruptly eliminated from the story, leaving it to Sunita, a female medical student to dig deeper while warning Ghajini of the threat Sanjay poses.

And here the tide turns, as Murugadoss leaves behind the ambiguity and tragedy of Memento in favor of crowd-pleasing melodrama, establishing that Ghajini, heretofore seen as a businessman and philanthropist, is far more of a monster than Sanjay has seemed, while Sanjay himself emerges as a pitiable victim who had the love of his life torn from him in a vicious manner. Once we learn the full truth through Sunita's research, we're ready to have Sanjay pointed in the right direction for some righteous revenge. The payoff is a relentless fight and chase scene with a perhaps unintentionally hilarious outcome, as Ghajini puts enough goons between himself and Sanjay that the poor slob forgets what the hell he was fighting about by the time he's through. He confronts Ghajini and hasn't clue the first about who he is.

So you're a villain and your enemy has totally forgotten who you are and why he should care. Do you:
a) Shake hands and walk away, perhaps to find some goons still walking who might whack him at your convenience.
b) Give him a new reason to be mad at you by attacking him from behind and stabbing him in the gut with a piece of broken pipe.

In defense of A. R. Murugadoss, it must be noted that Ghajini was racing toward the three-hour mark at this point, so it may not have been unreasonable to want to speed things up a little. Also, melodrama villains are never known for their subtlety, and I suppose this was Ghajini's best chance to be rid of his tormentor for good. Still, even with a broken pipe embedded in his bowels, you have to think that an enraged Sanjay would be more than a match for a stocky middle-aged businessman. In the final analysis, all Ghajini did was give the man another weapon to use, in tried-and-true martial arts fashion. There isn't really anything new in the final act of this film, but Murugadoss and Aamir Khan execute it all with a breathless intensity that at least makes it fun to watch.

Those three hours, of course, include a number of musical numbers, most of which involve Asin Thottumkal as Sanjay's lost love, and a lot of meet-cute material from the two long flashback scenes. There's simply more story here than in Memento, though quantity doesn't necessarily guarantee superior quality. This film is a long slog between scenes when Aamir Khan goes ape. It's been available at the Albany Public Library, but I hadn't thought I'd have time for a three-hour Bollywood brawl while doing my homework on Sixties cinema. But when Ghajini turned up on IFC yesterday morning I couldn't tear myself away. It's definitely a film of interest, if only as an example of how some powerful story concepts get translated from one film culture to another, and what often gets lost in translation.

You don't need to know the language to get the idea from this trailer, uploaded by nhjg6

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