One of the questions at the heart of Coolie No. 1 is, “Why can’t a poor man marry a rich woman?” In this case, the answer is: “Because he doesn’t deserve her.”
Coolie No. 1 is a remake of the 1995 film of the same name, both of which are directed by David Dhawan. I have not seen the original, so this review will focus solely on the remake.
The coolie in question this time is Raju (Varun Dhawan), head of the porters at a railway station in Mumbai. Raju defends his elderly coworker from an abusive jerk Mahesh (Vikas Verma), not with his wits but with his fists. In the scuffle, Mahesh is exposed as a drug dealer and arrested.
One witness to the fight is pandit Jai Kishen (Javed Jaffrey), who is on his way home after bringing a prospective groom to the mansion of hotelier Jeffrey Rosario (Paresh Rawal). When Rosario insults Jai Kishen and the groom, declaring that his daughters will only marry men even richer than himself, Jai Kishen vows revenge. He plans to trick Rosario into getting his daughter Sarah (Sara Ali Khan) married to a poor man, and Raju seems like the perfect pawn for his scheme. Raju takes one look at a photo of Sarah and is onboard.
Raju poses as Raj, the son of the king of Singapore. Sarah is smitten with how humble Raj is despite being so rich, and Rosario is smitten with Raj’s apparent fortune. Only after the handsome couple is wed does Rosario begin to doubt Raj’s identity. When Rosario spots Raj working at his old job, the coolie improvises, inventing a heretofore unmentioned identical twin brother — compounding his original lie and making things exponentially more complicated.
It’s hard to buy in to Coolie No. 1, because it never acknowledges the harm done to Sarah for the sake of chastening her father. Sarah is tricked into falling for a man who lies to her about his identity, promises her a lifestyle he knows he can’t deliver, then traps her in a legally binding marriage contract. Would she have married him if she’d known he was working class? Maybe. We have no way of knowing.
Part of that is because Sarah is written as an empty shell. She’s too vapid to be suspicious of Raju. She earnestly fears for his safety when his charade keeps him away from home overnight. She eagerly tackles the housework in their dilapidated apartment, as though she didn’t grow up in a mansion full of servants (I guess women are just supposed to be innately good at cleaning). She’s a beautiful blank slate who reacts the way the plot needs her to react.
Coolie No. 1 is yet another film that thinks goodness is conferred upon its main character just by virtue of his being the main character, regardless of what he actually does. It’s significant that Raju doesn’t tell Sarah the truth until she accidentally discovers his deception. He wasn’t struck by a pang of conscience, nor did he try to enlist her help. He planned to keep lying to her indefinitely. How exactly does that make him a good guy?
For non-Hindi speakers, jokes in Bollywood comedies don’t always survive the translation via subtitles. But much of the wordplay humor in Coolie No. 1 is in English, and it’s still not funny. Rosario’s rhyming shtick and Raju’s Mithun Chakraborthy impression grow tired almost immediately. The physical humor in the movie isn’t amusing either.
As for the film’s positive points, it does have a number of entertaining, large-scale dance numbers (although the one where Rosario peeps through the window of his daughter’s hotel room while she’s on her honeymoon is creepy). Shikha Talsania and Sahil Vaid are likable as Sarah’s sister Anju and Raju’s friend Deepak, respectively, who fall in love amidst the drama.
Varun Dhawan and Sara Ali Khan are both forgettable. In fact, let’s just forget this remake ever happened.