The last few years of Hindi movies have seen something of a resurgence of big masala. I have seen very few of these movies, and so to begin to remedy that gap, I turned to Arbaaz Khan's blockbuster, Dabangg ("headstrong" or "fearless"). I can't say I was disappointed - the movie is a (mostly) retro-feeling entertainer on classic masala themes of corruption, revenge, and family bonds, updated with slick modern production values. At its heart is an incarnation of the classic Angry Young Man archetype, rendered with just enough nudge-nudge-wink-wink by Salman Khan, whom I seem to like, in spite of myself.
As a boy, Chulbul Pandey is tenderly cared for by his mother Naini (Dimple Kapadia). But his stepfather Prajapati (Vinod Khanna) openly and cruelly favors his natural son, Chulbul's dull, lazy half-brother Makkhi. Once grown, Chulbul (Salman Khan) is uncensored in his contempt for his father and Makkhi (Arbaaz Khan), despite still living with them. Chulbul is a police inspector - a corrupt one, who builds a minor fortune in bribes and blackmail from smugglers and other criminals he is supposed to be keeping in line. Chedi Singh (Sonu Sood), ostensibly a student political organizer - but really more of a thug for the political party of Dayal (Anupam Kher) - tries to enlist Chulbul's help for his strong-arming dirty work. But Chulbul doesn't like or trust Chedi, and extorts him instead. Not one to readily to submit to that sort of demand, Chedi takes advantage of the slow-witted Makkhi, manipulating the rift between the brothers to try to gain the upper hand over Chulbul.
There is an awful lot of swagger in Dabangg. Chulbul is nearly all swagger - Salman Khan's stiff physique almost won't allow him to move without it, and his crisply ironed shirts, expensive shades, and neatly-trimmed mustache multiply the effect. But swagger is appropriate for Chulbul the anti-hero, who is a throwback to characters like Amitabh Bachchan's Vijay in Deewaar - he is unabashedly corrupt and criminal, despite an over-inflated sense of honor and fierce loyalty to those whom he respects, and especially to his mother. Indeed, Chulbul's notion of honor - and his somewhat out-of-proportion response to perceived violations of it - is his defining characteristic and a theme throughout the film.
Chedi Singh would like to have as much swagger as Chulbul - on some level, Chedi's rivalry with Chulbul is more about who is the coolest, most muscley guy in the village than it is about anything else. Chedi is shirtless in about half his scenes - Chulbul, despite Salman's reputation for disrobing, doesn't lose his shirt until their climactic final melee. And when he does, it happens with a style and humor that epitomizes the best of Dabangg's winks at the audience: as Chulbul grasps for the first time the depth of the violence that Chedi has done to his family, his muscles bulge in rage, tearing the fabric right off his body.
Despite all the self-conscious bravado, though, there is plenty of richness too, just as you'd expect from classic-style masala. Makkhi is a dolt, but there is a sort of sympathetic sweetness to him as well; his main motivation is not to defeat the huge alpha-personality of his brother, but rather to marry girl he loves (Mahie Gill), whom his father rejects because she lacks for a palatable dowry. One gets the sense from Arbaaz Khan's surprisingly nuanced performance that Makkhi resents his father's attention, that he never asked for it, and that he envies Chulbul's freedom to do and say anything he wishes. Chulbul's scenes of reconciliation with him, and especially with their father, are genuinely touching, in that excellent way Hindi movies often have of allowing even the toughest and most relentlessly masculine of men to nevertheless display deep emotion.
Dabangg's women add some depth as well, and as often happens in masala films, provide some anchoring and counterpoint to what would otherwise be overwhelming maleness. Chulbul's romance with a sad potter girl named Rajjo (Sonakshi Sinha) begins with at-first-sight suddenness, but develops more satisfyingly after their marriage, as Rajjo gives hints of an independent personality and a backstory that is mostly left to the viewer's imagination. Sonakshi Sinha - Shatrughan's daughter - is quite promising here in her debut. She is perhaps a little too grave for the big masala feel of the movie, but at its best that gravity is reminiscent of the intense characters that Jaya Bhaduri sometimes played in masala films. I'd like to see her in a serious role - I think she might have the chops for it, which is not something I often feel about very young actors. The wonderful Dimple Kapadia is underused as Chulbul and Makkhi's mother, but fills the screen with tremendous presence in every scene she gets.
Songs can make a mediocre masala movie memorable, and make a good one great. The songs in Dabangg do not go so far as the latter, but they are satisfyingly pleasant and fun. The title song is an excellent number; its neo-traditional sound is far superior to the monotonous club tunes that frequently mar modern movies. Its picturization offers a good sense both of village life, and of the protagonist's character. And then there is the item number, "Munni badnam hui," picturized on an energetically sexy Malaika Arora Khan. This number is very well-rendered, and I want to like it more than I do. I admit, without attempting to rationalize, that I hold older films to a different standard when it comes to item numbers - I sure do love me some Helen, some Aruna Irani, and even some Bindu now and again - but there is something off-putting to me about a nautch-girl in a modern movie. (I had similar issues with the widely beloved "Kajra re" in Bunty aur Babli, a song that "Munni" references briefly). Add to that Chedi Singh's cartoonish leering - his eyes bulge out of his head as though he has never seen a woman before - and the overall effect on me is not entirely entertaining. (It doesn't help that I don't much like Sonu Sood; he looks too much like Amitabh Bachchan.)
I have to add a note about the violence. As I have recently mentioned in reviewing Ram Lakhan and Ghulam, my tolerance for movie violence is already very low. In movies of the 1970s, poorly synced dishoom-dishoom sound effects and watery, orange-pink fake blood yield violence that is too silly to be very disturbing. In Dabangg, by contrast, violence is rendered with modern production values, and just becomes too much for me to bear. Body-checks are accompanied by hyper-realistic bone-crunching sounds, and gunshots by viscous spurts of blood and spatterings of flesh. Even if I avert my eyes - and there were times I had to - the audio remains to churn my stomach. The fight scenes are highly stylized and even cleverly amusing at times - Chulbul's first melee is interrupted when the cell phone of one of his foes starts to ring, and Chulbul stops mauling the man to dance to the jaunty tune. The way that Chulbul and Makkhi finish off Chedi Singh in the climax is appropriately imaginitive and dramatic for the movie's masala tone (not to mention aggressively homoerotic!) - but also especially nauseating. Most viewers probably have a higher tolerance for stylized movie violence than I do, but for me, it was just too much of too much, and eroded my delight with this otherwise very entertaining film.