Crime, Drama, Films, India, Recommended posts, Reviews, Romance, Suspense / Thriller

Malang: Unleash the Madness

An intricately plotted, fun-as-can-be crime/revenge thriller that strives to paper over its relative lack of substance…

While most Bollywood directors over the years have primarily looked towards Hollywood when not their own traditions for ideas or inspiration for their films, Mohit Suri (alongside Sanjay Gupta) is one of very, very few who’s actually more often looked further East. There’s a startling three times he “borrowed” from then-recent Korean crime films: A Bittersweet Life for 2007’s Awarapan, The Chaser for 2011’s Murder 2, and I Saw the Devil for his most successful up to then, 2014’s Ek Villain. His rips would not be carbon copies, but usually lifted the basic concept and sometimes key scenes then changed and/or thoroughly localized the rest.

I can’t be particularly critical of that (least of all in a singling out sort of way) when noting Korean and Hong Kong directors themselves also had habits of ripping Hollywood or other Asian films until years into the 21st century; Mainland Chinese films still do to this day. A bit further back, even some Hollywood directors also ripped Asian (especially HK) films not least of which including Tarantino. However, I will say that in 2020 now with the strides Hindi cinema has made, it’s time for Mr. Suri and similar directors to fully evolve past extensive dependence on foreign movies for ideas. So is Mr. Suri up to it by now?

It’s holiday season in Goa. Regarding criminals, Inspector Agashe (Anil Kapoor) follows the mantra “Redemption By Instant Justice,” usually by method of “encounters” — a distinctly Indian English term denoting (often extrajudicial) killings by police reported as self-defence/protecting others. The blow-sniffing Inspector gets a mysterious call from someone reporting a crime in progress in a rather unusual way: “it hasn’t occurred yet — I’m about to do it”. Ex-con Advait Thakur (Aditya Roy Kapur) wasted no time with that announcement upon being released much to the relief of numerous other prisoners he brutalized.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Special Cell officer Michael (Kashmiri Kunal Khemu, here having a Catholic name like many from Goa), who’s trying to handle the latest investigation honestly and by-the-book. Unfortunately, his wife seems to be trying anything but, as their relationship is deteriorating over issues on the beat, in the bed and with some guy he caught on her phone. Michael comes to have an even more volatile relationship with Agashe after the two are brought together by the brutal murder of an officer in Michael’s unit.

Agashe — illustrating how cynical and flippant he is about his job — almost admires the way the criminal hung another officer “like one hangs a medal on a wall”. At the same time, however, the ruthless efficiency of the murder (as the victim was also injected with a strange toxin) combined with the warning calls before and afterwards (promising more to follow) completely excite Agashe and prompt him to take it as a challenge; it also drives him to warn Michael that he’s out of his league against a genuine “monster” and had better leave the case to a more experienced and (more importantly in his mind) uninhibited cop.

With the story now jumping back and forth through time, we’re shown events from five years prior when free-spirited malang (vagrants) Advait and Sara (Disha Patani) meet each other in Goa during a rave, instantly falling into what seems an ephemeral “love” story with no concern for destination. Hopping the rave scene, they also befriend Swedish bisexual prostitute/drug addict Jessie (Mumbai-based Swedish actress Elli AvrRam) — basically an amalgamated personification of popular images of Sweden being a world leader in every perceived vice (but still probably not offensive for that, as the country accepts much of that image for long having been freer in allowing such than most). Basically, her life is sex and “ecs”.

Advait, Sara and especially Jessie’s heavy presence in that party/prostitution/drug scene under the influence of organized crime eventually lead to fateful encounters (standard English definition) with both Michael and Agashe’s units, leaving several changed, broken and destroyed lives….

Back to the question of the director, as far as I know, he isn’t too significantly ripping anything this time around (certainly not any of the last few Kim Jee-woon films). There are still at least a couple of scenes that clearly got inspiration from other sources; the climax, for example, has echoes of Se7en, but is vastly different in its nature and circumstances. So Suri seems to have finally gotten on the right path of inspiration over imitation.

Otherwise, one easily detectable talent Suri has shown is the ability to keep his films ever-lively and moving at brisk paces even while fairly long. His perpetual biggest concern as a director is keeping the audience excited — something that’s served as both his biggest strength and weakness as it often comes at the expense of solid and fully organic writing. That hasn’t really changed, but it shows more as a strength here than ever. Just in the intro (even if it’s a long one at over 20 minutes), we’re treated to an appetizing long-take POV tracking shot of the (well, an) antagonist leaving a path of pain and broken bones as he ploughs his way through prison over everyone who gets in his way; right after that comes Agahsa’s darkly comic showcase of how to weed out (badgeless) criminals; then there’s some quick family drama in Michael’s Catholic household before Advait and Sara paint the town purple with their sybaritic sex/drug-addled run through a series of neon-flashing raves in a whirlwind, whirlpool romance.

In short, Suri runs a gamut of action, comedy, drama and steamy romance in rapid and neatly separated succession, evoking the best of the Bollywood masala tradition — but in more distinctly dark and stylized Western and East Asian manner. One of the most vividly realized forms of that juxtaposition of styles lies in a key scene shown on the cover photo, making good use of a deluxe karaoke stage and cleverly reappropriating the classic erotic song “Aaj ki Raat” (“Tonight [….waiting for him to come]”) to represent macho posturing and the threat of violence instead. (That’s not to be confused with the 2006 song of the same name originally from Don: The Chase Continues and later used on Slumdog Millionaire that younger/international audiences would be more familiar with.)

Speaking of which, it’s never too long before Kapoor finds himself right back in the crime genre that saw the majority of his most acclaimed and star-making films in India in a near 40-year career including 1984’s Mashaal, 88’s Tezaab and most of all 89’s Parinda, as well as internationally with 08’s Slumdog. That’s not to say he’s not versatile even within that genre (and with an uncanny ability to inject extra fun to any role), as he just as easily plays the cops, PIs, petty crooks, dons or “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” hosts on them. And this role almost hangs with the best of them, creating an officer of the law who’s efficiently corrupt; both formidably sharp and out of his mind. He makes a very effective foil to Khemu (once again finding himself in a movie about Goa after Go Goa Gone), who’s given and gives life to the most interesting character of the lot despite looking the generic (if pretty boy) cop type.

Suri isn’t the only one here unusually connected to Farther East entertainment for Bollywood. Aside from being a big manga and anime fan (and naming her dog “Goku”), Disha Patani had the enviable chance to act alongside Jackie Chan in 2017’s Kung Fu Yoga only one movie after her Bollywood debut. Funny enough, that record-breaking movie (for China) was but the most extreme example on both ends of how every single movie she’s starred in since entering Bollywood so far has been a huge box office hit (either for its respective year or all-time) but just as consistently far from unanimously acclaimed critically. And frankly, Malang probably isn’t going to change either side of that equation too much and hasn’t so far.

But Patani fans could scarcely ask for better, as this is overall her best role yet, between the movie itself and how it gives the most balanced opportunity for the genuinely gorgeous actress to act, develop a distinct character, and yes, still have time for scattered showings of skin. It’s not a joke when saying that perhaps her most alluring of many such attributes (that gives her even more social media followers than several top industry stars) may well be her big, rounded eyes and long, luscious hair, both which stand out even among other Bollywood beauties.

Kapur — from one of many Bollywood families, with one older brother each in acting and directing — makes a surprisingly good turn as an action hero (or villain or something) even if he’s still not the greatest of choices for it. He keeps up the energy needed for this energetic movie’s most demanding role, both for being most active in the action scenes (even if stuntmen did his toughest work) and for having and needing to show the sharpest contrasts between himself in the present and himself in the flashback scenes.

Suri’s visual and audio flair is equally bustling. This is Goa as an island “paradise” in both senses, with ubiquitous Christian symbolism and holiday planning/celebration side by side with ubiquitous partying, vice and thumping tropical house — both which Advait makes good use of as a debauchee then as a fugitive.

No, this is not a strange big Bollywood number, but just a somewhat embellished depiction of Goa’s real Carnival celebrations.

But Sara has him beaten on the former category, openly speaking against the confines of normal relationships, just wanting to try all types of new things (particularly substances) and new people, “kissing strangers and having wild….” She doesn’t really complete the sentence because even for having an “Adult” certificate, marijuana, ecstasy and cocaine with only the latter not made to look cool, Malang clearly wanted to still leave room for more broad audiences to be allowed to see it.

As the longest part of the movie, the hyper-bourgeois sensibility (or insensibility) of Advait and Sara’s segment comes off not so much provocatively rebellious as escapist backlash towards India’s still deeply entrenched conservatism. Yash Raj Films productions (no matter who directs them) have a long history of showcasing grand “exotic” locales usually explored by privileged youth, catering like no one before them to the international and particularly NRI (non-resident Indian) markets. But this one resets the bar in that department without even going to a foreign country for most of it this time (though some of it was shot in Mauritius). These scenes — that are as much MV as movie even before the song sequences — are given further zest by how clearly both performers are already in their element, as Patani started as a model and Kapur as a VJ.

And that’s the funny thing: even after a half-hour of glorified extravagant partying, drug-addled raving, (implied) casual sex (on the water, in the water, underwater), and T&A-loaded (equal opportunity in showing off both Kapur and Patani’s chests) jet setting, (WARNING: MILD SPOILER) the movie and its leads rather bemusedly come to the conclusion that all of that is really nothing, wrong, and inferior to a peaceful life with mummy and daddy or maybe seeking marital bliss as pati and patni. While I can’t even really blame them for wanting to parade two of Bollywood’s best bodies and the most lavish lifestyles of India’s (modern) party capital and a couple of tropical hotspots, there’s a comically bizarre disconnect between message and manner here.

Never mind any of this, OK? Men find yourselves a good desi wife, ladies stay modest & chaste until then, worry not about worldly pleasures and don’t do drugs.

It’s hard to tell whether this obvious incongruence occurred more because they essentially had to do it to appease sizable conservative domestic audiences, or because general audiences will still more often than not be conditioned to “read” it all in a very different way, with profligate depictions of things so distant from everyday life and values that it’s indeed harmless escapism of no more concern than stories glorifying vampires or cyborgs. But both were probably factors.

Malang’s storytelling is as freewheeling and, well, malang, as its leads. It can be surprisingly clever in playing with viewers’ perceptions. A previously built up villainous character can suddenly do something unexpectedly heroic or generous, and a “good” one can end up doing something that’s shockingly underhanded or immoral — but with all of them given good reasons (at least psychologically) as to why they became as they are. One particular plot point is relevant (if made over-the-top here) for modern Indian issues in how it revolves around toxic masculinity (with the term even ending up literal here!)

But my favourite thing about it of all is its careful balance between genres and characters. It’s hard to even pinpoint who the “real” protagonist is, let alone the real villains, real heroes or real justice and injustices. Khemu, Patani, Kapoor or Kapur could all just as easily be argued to be the most important character (screen time? Focal point? Importance to the plot?), and it’s equally in the eye of the beholder who the most appealing is (Kapoor’s acting, Kapur’s character, Khemu’s action and Patani’s allure all uniquely stand out). One’s also hard-pressed to guess which among them might survive and which may not before near the end of the film. All of that if nothing else is a sign that a commendable amount of effort went into literally putting this movie and its disparate characters and stories together.

Upon seeing Malang there was no doubt in my mind it had to become (as they’re called in Bollywood) a superhit. Because while one can easily and reasonably dwell on its shortcomings, it delivers a buffet of confectionary entertainment on multiple fronts (exciting, amusing, romantic, sexy, twisty and occasionally a little kitschy) in classic Bollywood fashion as rarely seen anymore (especially as an ensemble piece that actually takes itself seriously). But at the same time, it does it all with appealingly internationalist stylings and sophistication, easily making for Suri’s best film yet. He still has a way to go in terms of attaining full originality and digging for deeper meaning for his films, but I’m guessing at this point, if he tried the latter he’d get bored, and worse yet fear his audiences — now largely hooked on his formula for frenzied postmodern masala —  doing the same.

“Jaan lenaa mera nasha hai [Taking lives is my addiction.]”

“Jaan lenaa mera mazaa hai [Taking lives is my pleasure!]”

Side notes

The original “Aaj Ki Raat” song that recurs as both a source of suspense and black comedy throughout this film (including in one of the most hilarious post-credits teasers in Hindi cinema) was originally from Anamika, a pretty obscure, pretty good 1973 film. They did well in reappropriating it here, because even when technically a performance, in retrospect the original — an item number (basically, sexy song) performed by item number queen Helen — is terribly politically incorrect.

While all kinds of crazy things were known to be able to happen in Bollywood numbers from the 70s in particular, “Aaj Ki Raat” is the only one I know of where the singer gets raped (off-screen) during the bridge; she’s then rescued by the song’s hero and finishes the song.

That was a family movie with a “Universal” certificate. And if you think things have changed much since then for the legendarily incomprehensible Censor Board of Film Certification, think again: Before Malang’s release, the Board demanded the removal of the terms “pot”, “joint” and “ecstasy”. While the filmmakers complied, the film still not only shows those very drugs, but even 3 of the 4 main characters using them (plus cocaine). Furthermore, ecstasy is still even referenced simply as “ecs”.

About the author

Wally AdamsWally Adams Wally Adams
Technically a product of the Carolinas; branching more widely in roots; a citizen of the world at heart. Asian cinema is but one of many avatars of my longtime fascination with cinema, general culture, music and languages all over. But by now I recognize it may be the strongest of them all and sum it up like this: Whether Mifune in a duel or Madhuri in a dance, Song Kang-ho being a dunce or Gordon Liu in his stance, the finest Asian cinema always leaves me in a trance. Find me on Facebook.
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