Laal Singh Chaddha (LSC), directed by Advait Chandan and written by Atul Kulkarni, is an official remake of Forrest Gump (1994), written by Eric Roth and directed by Robert Zemeckis. As against the American film that is set against the socio-political backdrop of America from the late 1950s to the early ’80s, the Hindi adaptation is set from the end of Indira Gandhi’s imposition of Emergency (1977) till about four decades later. While both films look at their innocent, naive and humane protagonists advertently (and inadvertently) fulfilling their destinies, LSC plays far safer with its political content and choices. Though Gump itself was not the deepest film politically, nevertheless, it made some perceptive comments around the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. In by and large following the broader plot points of the original but diluting its more tricky issues, LSC ends up more as an homage to its Hollywood predecessor but without quite having the legs to break new ground.
LSC begins as a middle-aged Sikh man, Laal Singh Chaddha (Aamir Khan), narrates his tale, seen through various flashbacks, to co-passengers on a train journey. A low IQ child (Ahmad Ibn Umar) with legs in braces, he belongs to a family where three generations of his forefathers were soldiers who lost their lives at war. He is brought up single-handedly by his mother (Mona Singh), who takes great care to instil confidence in him that he is no different from others. While Laal gets admission to school, he befriends a beautiful young girl, Rupa D’Souza. As they grow up together, Rupa (Kareena Kapoor Khan) becomes the love of Chaddha’s life but she wants other things in life. After graduating from college, Chaddha joins the Indian Army to continue his family tradition while Rupa, hankering after wealth and fame, heads to Bombay with the dream of becoming a film actress. The films traces their lives over the next two decades and more as their paths intersect and bifurcate each time…
With Chaddha narrating his life’s journey on a travelling train, the train journey itself takes on metaphorical overtones. And Chandan makes sure the film has its share of heartwarming moments for us to be willing co-travellers with Chaddha. One interesting choice here was making Chaddha a Sikh, as against Forrest Gump coming from a background of being a privileged majoritarian American white male. Automatically, making a person from a minority community an integral part of a larger socio-political milieu of the country gives LSC another dimension. The film also makes poignant use of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, whose aftermath led to horrific riots against the Sikh community. Chaddha has to give up his religious identity as he is forced to remove his turban and cut his hair to avoid being identified as a Sikh and killed. It is one of the strongest (political) moments in the film, something the film doesn’t embrace too often. It leads to an equally strong bit later in the film when Chaddha finally ties his turban and embraces his Sikh identity once again.
The parallels with Forrest Gump run through the film and some are admittedly fun. If Gump taught Elvis Presley his signature moves, Chaddha too teaches a future star his iconic romantic pose, the box of chocolates is replaced with gol gappas, instead of football, Chaddha becomes a track star, if Gump becomes a hero in the Vietnam war, saving several of his injured mates, so too does Chaddha in the Kargil war. In fact, there is another intriguing touch here as the latter saves the lives of not only his own colleagues, but also that of the enemy, a terrorist, Mohammed (Manav Vij). Later, Mohammed and he not only become friends but also business partners, striking quite the blow for humanity. Instead of the shrimp business, it is the chaddi-baniyan (inner wear) business that gives Chaddha his fortune.
However, unlike Forrest Gump, it’s in the historical and political choices and their treatment that LSC leaves you dissatisfied. Rather than integrate the events cohesively into the narrative with some sort of context, the film seems to merely be doing lip service in referencing many of them and little else. Barring Indira Gandhi’s assassination, as mentioned, perhaps only the terror attacks of 26/11 on Mumbai in 2008 are used with some depth. As for the rest, even if its impossible to include every major event, a key omission seems to be of certain events that took place in 2002, while the graffiti of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election campaign in 2014 and the nod to the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan at the railway station appear to be a kind of appeasement to the Government in power rather than just some period depiction.
Performance-wise, Aamir Khan is far too old for most of the duration of his character. His performance too is not quite there as he invokes his weirdly odd expressions from the mentally challenged twin of Dhoom 3 (2013) and the alien of PK (2014) in trying to evoke innocence and simplicity. That said, he does rise to the occasion in some of the film’s key emotional scenes, proving his prowess as an actor. Kareena Kapoor Khan is radiant as the beautiful but tragic Rupa, who pays for following her ambitions. Like Jenny in the original, you can’t help but feel she is punished by the makers for daring to pursue her dreams and for crossing so-called acceptable societal morals as a woman.
From the supporting cast, Manav Vij as Mohammad, a terrorist whose life is saved by Chaddha and who becomes his marketing manager, brings credibility to his role with strength and conviction. The screen time shared by him and Chaddha provides the film with some of its most absorbing moments, including an eye-opening exchange over religion. Mona Singh as Chaddha’s mother powerfully conveys the inner strength of a single mother bring up a ‘different’ son under difficult circumstances. In order, to get her son admitted to a school attended by normal children, she is even ready to work as a maid in the house of the principal. The young Laal Singh Chaddha, played by Ahmad Ibn Umar, brings much innocence, cuteness and spontaneity to his role with an ease that immediately garners our empathy. Naga Chaitanya in his Bollywood debut, as Balaraju, brings a balanced touch of humor to his character even if his southern accent borders on the stereotype.
Setu’s cinematography expertly captures the rich tapestry and different hues and textures of the film’s various locations and landscapes, allowing us inhabit these spaces with the film’s characters. The editing by Hemanti Sarkar keeps a seamless balance between the past and the present while maintaining the tonality of the film But the length of the film, particularly in the second half and leading to its stretched out climax tells heavily on Laal Singh Chaddha. The film drags on endlessly here, taking away your engagement with its story. The musical score by Pritam contributes to the charm of the film. Songs such as Phir Na Aisi Raat Aayegi and Tur Kalleyan evoke a strong sense of emotion and strike the right chord. The VFX team has done a commendable job in blending the footage from the past with characters from the present. But the de-ageing bits on Aamir and another superstar are distractingly odd to say the least.
Laal Singh Chaddha could have been a highly relevant film of our time had it commented more insightfully on the various socio-political events that it chooses to include in its narrative vis-a-vis its hero. Instead, the filmmakers have opted for telling a story that dutifully ticks all the right boxes and is entertaining enough on the surface but could easily have been so much more. And that is the real pity.
Hindi, Punjabi, Drama, Color