Agneepath is a remake of a 1990 feature that starred Amitabh Bachchan as Vijay Dinanth Chauhan, a man on a mission. In this film, much of the fundamental setting and several characters remain, but the story has been completely reworked. This new version jettisons some of the most popular pieces of the original, including a much beloved turn from Mithun Chakraborty as a sidekick with a romantic subplot. However, in the place of the missing pieces, Karan Malhotra and his team have dropped in even more melodrama, two truly evil villains, and an small army of hijra (transgendered women), in addition to some truly stunning set pieces. If nothing else, this film shows just how far Bollywood has come in terms of production value (and costumes) in the last twenty years.
This time around, Vijay Chauhan is played by Hrithik Roshan, one of Bollywood's greatest movie stars who can put in a good performance when given the right material. Chauhan comes from the small rural island of Mandwa, which is taken over by Kancha, a crime lord who uses his captive population to churn out cocaine and who is responsible for the death of Master Dinanth Chauhan, Vijay's father, local school headmaster, and all around saint. Vijay and his mother leave the island following the murder and head for Mumbai, where Vijay begins plotting Kancha's downfall.
Recounting the plot of this behemoth film could take up a thousand words, easily, so I'm not going to do that. The film is riveting for all but probably fifteen minutes of its run time, and even that is spread out into a few here and there. The vast bulk of Agneepath is dedicated to exploring not only the characters, but the world in which they live, as well as creating settings wherein the most magnificent of set pieces could exist. This film is a throwback to old school Hindi masala, but in a way that feels more modern, with far less hyperbolic acting, and more scope.
Hrithik plays Vijay with an intensity we don't often find in Bollywood stars, who often resort to overacting when given material designed to evoke an emotional response. Roshan's piercing green eyes convey a pain, a desire, and an adamant focus that says more than words. The film really rests on his performance, even though there are several other big names putting in solid performances, if Hrithik isn't believable, the whole thing falls apart. After seeing his performance in 2008's Jodhaa Akbar, I knew he could act, but this film really drives it home for me. He is, all at once, an imposing and comforting presence on screen. When he cries, we believe it. When he rages, we believe it. The very end of the film plays the masala card, and we end up with something of a heroic bloodshed denouement, but apart from that, Vijay is a character with an intense passion and purpose for being, and I loved it.
However good he was, Hrithik's performance didn't occur in a vacuum, and his supporting cast really stepped up to the plate and delivered. Priyanka Chopra, as his love interest, Kaali, did a wonderful job oscillating between a vain and entrepreneurial salon owner and Vijay's closest confidant. It is worth noting that she is also one of my favorite Bollywood dancers these days, especially since we've now got to bid farewell to Aishwariya Rai for a while. Vijay's hero would be nothing without some serious villainy to contest, and Rishi Kapoor and Sanjay Dutt make a great pair of truly evil bastards. Whether it is the selling off of the daughters of the local debtors to the highest bidder from Rishi's Rauf Lala, or Dutt's Kancha enslaving an entire island to feed his drug smuggling dreams, these guys are a couple of gems.
Agneepath is the rare film that delivers on its promise, which was great to begin with. The scope and spectacle of the film is occasionally awe-inspiring, and never once is it boring. Whether it is setting an assassination attempt within the religious frenzy of Ganesh Chathurti, or an army of transgendered women with machetes attacking a slave sale, they aim high, which is what I like best about Bollywood. If they are going to fail, they are going to do it spectacularly, but Agneepath most certainly does not fail. It aims high and hits its mark.
This is a film that the uninitiated Bolly-curious film fan can watch and get into. The film is overwrought and melodramatic, it features several musical numbers choreographed within an inch of their lives, and lead characters who are exponentially more attractive than anyone in their immediate vicinity, but that's what makes it great. Agneepath's success is in Karan Malhotra's conscious decision to embrace the thing that makes Bollywood masala so appealing, the spectacle. It feels as though director Karan Malhotra finally got his hands on the reins for once and aimed for the stars. Well, congratulations, Karan, Agneepath is fantastic.