I am sure there are a lot of Padaiyappa fans out there. Ditto for Chandramukhi, Kuselan and Sivaji. I even know someone who claims to like Baba — for reasons too numerous to mention, I am disinclined to hold it against him, though. But as far as I am concerned, the last great Rajni movie that came out was Baasha.
There are numerous reasons for this, the most important of which is that it carries very little additional baggage. Sivaji had a romantic subplot that pretty much epitomized silliness. Padaiyappa was just too long, almost like someone stole a megaserial script from Radhika’s vault, gave the main character a penis and amped up the star power. Kuselan came close, but sometimes felt like a nice little story jostling for space with Rajni’s stardom. Chandramukhi faced a similar problem — it took a nice little supporting role and gave it more than its due simply because of who was playing it.
Baasha doesn’t do any of these things. It wants to be a great masala movie as much as it wants to be a star vehicle — as a result, although Rajni is present all over it, it doesn’t feel excessive. I think one big reason is the script. I cannot think of too many instances where a remake turned out to be infinitely better than the original simply by introducing a bit of nonlinearity in the storytelling.
For all its commercial success, Hum isn’t a particularly great movie. It starts well — the pervasive sense of fear about Bhaktavar (playing magnificiently by Danny Denzongpa) is well created, and when Tiger (AB) breaks the shackles, it is quite effective. But once he escapes and begins a new life, it all becomes very ho-hum. You know that his past will come back to haunt him, so all that is left is to see how and when. By adding a considerable bit of buffoonery involving two Kader Khans, the tension is brought down a couple more notches. By the time Bhaktavar came back, it was all I could do not to yawn.
Take Baasha on the other hand. Its central choice is very simple: Take the first act of Hum and push it down the order. Start with a man trying to lead a quiet life, with little hints that indicate that there might be more to him than it seems. The man you see is the typical do-gooder hero, but you are never allowed to take that for granted. For one thing, there are moments when he is about to lose his cool and his “other” identity seems to surface briefly, only to be quelled. There is also a moment when he reveals it to someone, but you don’t hear what is said, only the panicked reaction to it. Throughout the first half, the tension mounts. Just to ratchet it up even more, there is a sequence where he allows himself to be beaten up by a goon just to avoid a conflict.
All this might work well enough even with some other actor, but what really sells it is the fact that we know who Rajni is. Every time you see him controlling himself or going out of the way to avoid conflict, you’re not just wondering why the character would do this. You’re wondering why Rajni would do this. The movie takes his image as an invincible hero and asks him to rein it in, so that the audience is primed for the moment when he finally cuts loose.
This comes at around the midpoint of the movie, when the aforementioned goon goes too far and hurts his sister. This is, as far as movies of this ilk are concerned, The Unforgivable Sin. In what has since become a tradition in action sequences involving a hero facing off against multiple goons, the first man unfortunate enough to make a move is hit so spectacularly hard that he doesn’t get up again.
I watched this movie in a little single-screen theatre in Chennai and when that blow landed, the entire audience erupted in cheers. The cheering didn’t die down until the fight sequence got over. And you know what, I could perfectly understand the feeling. Because I was whooping and hollering along with them.
ps: Shankar seems to have understood this strategy quite well. Throughout the first half of Sivaji, Rajni takes what is dished out to him. It is in the second half that he starts hitting back. Now, if he hadn’t made Rajni play such a lovesick twit in the first half, it would’ve worked sooo much better.
pps: Can you come up with instances where the remake turned out to be much better than the original? Might make for a good (if short) list.
ppps: And no, Hum Aapke Hain Koun doesn’t count, even if it made more money. I thought Nadiya Ke Paar was the better movie by far.