0.5 Stars (out of 4)
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Can someone check director Sajid Khan to make sure his brain is still functioning? Lack of neural activity is the only way I can explain why someone would be so unaware of current events as to make a film as out of touch as Himmatwala.
Himmatwala is a remake of a hit film from 1983, a period when cultural views of gender equality were less advanced than they are today. Khan sets the events of his remake in 1983, but that doesn’t mean that every detail of the remake must be exactly the same as the original. In fact, characters make numerous references to modern life — things like swine flu and YouTube — that were obviously not part of the original.
(Further evidence that this is not a strict remake is that Khan lifts an iconic scene directly from the 1987 comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I’ve included a video of the original scene at the end of the review.)
The problematic sequences have to do with the film’s depiction of women. The film shifts from a light-hearted, Looney Tunes-inspired comedy in the first half, to a more serious story in the second, though refusing to abandon its comedic elements entirely. As a result, women’s suffering is made light of, existing only as a prompt for jokes.
The story centers on Ravi’s (Ajay Devgn) return to his hometown, which he left as a boy. His father, a respected priest, had been framed by the evil town overlord, Sher Singh (Mahesh Manjrekar), and driven to suicide. When young Ravi attacks Sher Singh, Singh’s goons burn Ravi’s house, presumably with his mother, Savitri (Zarina Wahab), and his younger sister, Padma, still inside. Upon learning that his mother and now-adult sister (played by Leena Jumani) survived, forced to live in squalor on the outskirts of town, Ravi returns.
In the process of restoring the family home, Ravi inspires the impoverished villagers to hope for a life out from under the thumb of Sher Singh. Ravi’s divinely endowed heroism wins the love of Singh’s bratty daughter, Rekha (Tamannaah), and gets her to stop being mean to the poor townsfolk.
Up to this point, the tone is relatively light. There are a few impressive dance numbers, lots of cartoonish sound effects, and direct-to camera asides from Narayan Das (played by an incredibly annoying Paresh Rawal), Singh’s brother-in-law.
The tone changes when Padma reveals that she and Narayan’s son, Shakti (Adhyayan Suman), are in love. Ravi objects to his sister’s relationship with the nephew of his arch-rival, but relents and apologizes to Shakti when he sees how unhappy Padma is. This apology is an insufficient balm for Shakti’s wounded pride, and he conspires with his father and uncle to ruin Ravi by physically and emotionally torturing Shakti after going through with a sham marriage to her.
But first, Padma is almost raped by a gang of Singh’s goons. After trapping her in an abandoned train car, the lead goon declares, “I will molest you, and then your brother will kill himself.”
Of course, Ravi shows up in time to save Padma, but his pre-fight announcement is less than reassuring. He says, “If you lose your dignity and your life, you can never get them back. I will definitely protect my sister’s dignity, but who will protect you from me?” Then he announces that women need not fear when there’s a himmatwala (“brave heart”) around to protect them.
I feel comfortable speaking for all women when I say, I don’t want a man to protect me; I don’t want to be threatened in the first place! And why, as a woman, is my virtue at stake if I get molested against my will? I didn’t do anything wrong, the man who molested me did.
After escaping the rapists, Padma marries Shakti, who whips her when she complains about being psychologically tortured by him and Narayan. She reports her miserable living conditions to Ravi. Their mother restrains her son’s justifiable urge to beat up Shakti, saying, “When a girl moves to her husband’s house, she leaves only after she dies.”
Ravi and Rekha concoct a scheme to extort Singh the same way he’s extorting Ravi. They pretend that the worst possible thing has happened to Rekha: that Ravi has gotten her pregnant out of wedlock!
While Singh begs Ravi to marry Rekha and spare him public humiliation, Ravi sets about trying to right the wrongs committed against Padma. He does so by forcing Narayan and Shakti to sweep and wash dishes (how womanly!), and then he puts a crab in Singh’s pants, causing the overlord to dance around. Hilarious, right?
So, according to Himmatwala, equivalent punishment for physically abusing a woman (not to mention the near gang rape, ostensibly sanctioned by Singh) is light housework and mild embarrassment.
With new stories of some horrific gang rape emerging from all over India seemingly every month, it’s time for moviemakers to stop treating the abuse of women as a joke. Remakes are fine, but they need to be updated to fit the times. Sajid Khan is should be ashamed of himself.
*Here’s the scene Khan stole from Planes, Trains and Automobiles, recast with Singh and Narayan. The English subtitles in Himmatwala are exactly the same as the spoken dialog in the original: