The Imitation Game
Adaptations like Laal Singh Chaddha. improve on the original
Laal Singh Chaddha gives rise to many fascinating speculations. When does a movie adaptation work? Who deserves praise or blame for a copycat movie? What value does Hollywood add to Bollywood? And can one enjoy Laal Singh Chaddha, without seeing Forrest Gump? A few days ago, Shoma Chatterji confirmed that Laal Singh Chaddha is just as enjoyable as a stand alone film, to a viewer who does not know Forrest Gump. Others, like me, who watched the original to prepare ourselves for the Bollywood version, revel in the delights of the imitation game.
Laal Singh Chaddha is a 'copycat' movie par excellence. With it, Amir Khan has become a full fledged member of the Bollywood club of imitators, which has over the years brazenly stolen the themes and tales, the sequences and tunes, even the swagger and stunts of Hollywood films and actors.
Amir Khan has, however, raised imitation to a new level, after making this copy with the permission and cooperation of the original producers and openly acknowledging the connection. The art lies in his adaptation of the episodes and even the frames of Forrest Gump to the Indian setting with brilliant plausibility.
Forrest Gump is a record of a period in American history reflected in the lives of a simpleminded young man and the girl he loves. Writers like Dosteovsky, Gunther Grass and Harper Lee have used outsiders like children, "idiots" and disabled persons to comment on political atrocities. In the same tradition, Forrest Gump sets the story of its hero against the backdrop of the major events of the time, events in which he is both observer and participant.
Laal Singh Chaddha successfully meets the challenge of adaptation by fitting the same episodes to the chronology of recent Indian history. It's a clever decision to make the hero a Sikh so that Amir Khan can weave into the tale the Khalistani movement, the storming of the Golden Temple and the assassination of Indira Gandhi and its aftermath. Other cataclysmic happenings of the country are also part of the political narrative, which closes with the India Against Corruption fast in New Delhi.
There are many clever touches while retelling the story. Forrest Gump corners person after person who wait at a bus stop so that he can tell them his tale. Laal Singh Chaddha improves on the original: the hero is in a Chandigarh bound train, capturing the attention of a group of travellers and the ticket collector with his gripping story. That's a familiar environment to every Indian and a perfect locale to connect with people from all over the country; there is always one person and often many who recognise and react to what he is saying.
Many of the adaptive touches are gently amusing. As the movie opened, I wondered what gift the hero would carry to the heroine. It was delightful to see Forrest Gump's chocolate box transmuted into gol gappe, with its links to Laal's mother and his girlfriend.
And, like most of Laal's audience, I laughed out loud when the passion of his friend in the army was revealed to be men's underwear, which captures the market only when it is rebranded as Rupa. This is a joke that only Indians can follow. Rupa is the name of a very popular brand of Indian men's underwear, it's also the name of Laal's girlfriend, making it the perfect fit for this episode of the story. Adaptations like these improve on the original and Indianise the movie marvellously.
Many scenes of the film are just as effective in the Hollywood and the Bollywood versions. Laal does not wade into the water before a monument as Gump does before the Washington memorial to rescue his girlfriend, but there are equally stunning shots of our capital city, like the sequence of the couple strolling down Rajpath together in front of India Gate at night.
Some liberties have been taken with the script too. Laal rescues a Pakistani infiltrator at Kargil, not his own commanding officer, as Forrest does. This plot is used by Amir Khan to hint at building bridges with our warring neighbour. The scene teeters on the brink of Bollywoodian melodrama, when the erstwhile spy whom Laal befriends watches the terrorist attack on the Taj Hotel, Mumbai in anguished silence.
On the whole, though, the political messages are muted as in Forrest Gump. There is no flag waving, no protest against or violent reaction to any of the terrible events that happen in the country. The simple Laal is always honest, talking of his achievements and foolishness with the same sincerity, even daring to tell the nation how bewildered and scared the soldiers at Kargil were.
He is the symbol of the innocent Indian at the mercy of everything thrown at him by the country's leaders, always picking himself up and stumbling on. It is only when he is cornered and defeated, that, like his counterpart Gump, he takes Rupa's advice and flees, running in fear and distress mile after mile till the pain is expiated and he is whole again.
Fellow citizens, caught in their own travails and looking for a leader, find redemption in his example and willingly join him. I can only marvel at the stupidity of those who have boycotted the film, when it has only held up a mirror to the sad and happy events that all Indians have lived through from the nin1980s.
The styles of Hollywood and Bollywood mingle well throughout the picture. Hollywoodian restraint prevents the tearjerker episodes from descending into bathos, while the Bollywood music plays on our emotions with a special sweetness. The verses of the theme song linger in the mind, evoking the philosophy and spirit of the movie. These are the additions which drag out a long story over an additional half hour.
Comparisons may be odious but they are unavoidable in a 'copycat' movie. Laal Singh Chaddha is just as engaging and will continue to be watched as much as Forrest Gump. The tale and its setting seem closer to our lives than the American version for this is what we have all seen and known. On the whole though, I prefer Tom Hanks to Amir Khan, Katrina Kaif to Jenny Wright and the junior Laal to the boy Forrest. I shall return to the movie, as I do to Lagaan, my other Amir Khan favourite.
As for the imitation, Amir Khan might just have started a fresh trend in moviemaking. He has discovered immense possibilities in Forrest Gump; surely it can be transposed to other countries and backgrounds too. An Egyptian, Pakistani or Sri Lankan Gump seem possible and even necessary, when we remember what ordinary citizens of these countries have felt and suffered in recent years. I look forward to seeing them soon.