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Prabhu, Venkatesh, Govinda, Shashi Kumar... Is Varun Dhawan Coolie No 1 or 5?
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Though the 1995 Hindi version of Coolie No. 1, starring Govinda and Karisma Kapoor, is popularly known as the remake of the Tamil comedy Sinna Mapplai, it also takes inspiration from another Telugu drama Coolie No. 1.

When the Telugu original released in 1991, it became a blockbuster in no time. Venkatesh’s role as a railway coolie earned him plaudits, but director K Raghavendra Rao got Tabu to play an arrogant woman. The taming-of-the-shrew template was pretty popular in South Indian cinema in the 90s and the writers (Paruchuri Brothers) capitalised on it.

Ranjani (Tabu) is introduced as a person who stops the train to look for a tube of lipstick that she accidentally dropped. On the same train, an elderly woman battles for her life. Even in the storm of a medical emergency, Ranjani doesn’t allow the train to move an inch until her friends find the ‘treasure’. In a matter of minutes, the unwell woman dies, and Ranjani tells the ticket examiner that she can’t travel with a dead body. The heroine, since she’s brash, doesn’t show any remorse; there’s just an I-do-not-care air around her.

If the roles had been reversed and a man had been in her place, he’d have immediately been  beaten to a pulp. Well, if he were rich and powerful, some people would have at least been afraid of him. But this is an attractive young woman who has crossed the moral lines, so the coolie (Raju, played by Venkatesh) marries her by making her family members believe that he’s a Singapore-based singer. Of course, Raju isn’t just baffled by the train incident alone. What irks him most is the fake rape case filed against him by Ranjani’s friend.

Sinna Mapplai (1993), however, simply took the skeleton and added its own meat to it. Here, a matchmaker gets offended when a zamindar ill-treats him. The zamindar wants his sons-in-law (he has two daughters) to be wealthier than him, and unless the eligible bachelors meet that condition, he won’t break bread with them. It’s a ridiculous demand really, but the matchmaker gears up to teach him a lesson.

Unlike Sima Aunty from Indian Matchmaking, Ambalavanan (Visu) from Sinna Mapplai doesn’t tell anybody to adjust. He casually ropes in Thangavel (Prabhu), a coolie who works at a bus station, and convinces him to wear designer garments and pose as the scion of an affluent family. This is exactly what happens in David Dhawan’s universe, as well. But the filmmaker borrows the name of the protagonist, the title, and the haughty nature of the hero from the Telugu film.

Oh, and not to forget, the armband that Raju (Govinda) wears in the Hindi remake to show his opponents that he’s the number one coolie first appeared in Raghavendra Rao’s drama.

The Telugu version starkly feeds on misogyny. In fact, there’s a scene where Ranjani’s mother gives her a glass of drugged milk so that Raju can impregnate her. The mother is of the opinion that it’ll change Ranjani’s attitude for the better. There’s no mention of rape anywhere in this segment since Raju and Ranjani are a married couple — the Paruchuri Brothers perhaps thought that motherhood, no matter how men went about ensuring it, could bring about a change in women. Also, this particular scene plays out differently in the other versions.

The ladies of Sinna Mapplai (Janaki, played by Sukanya) and Dhawan’s Coolie No. 1 (Malti, played by Karisma Kapoor), on the other hand, are naïve. They don’t come across as folks who would stop a train to find a lost lipstick. They’d rather buy new ones.

The comedy bits work in both the movies. While there aren’t too many actors who can beat Govinda at comic timing, Venkatesh is a fine actor who can crack a joke with a poker face. Nevertheless, when Govinda coats every line of his with a touch of shocking-urgency, you can’t help but laugh. He can play a jolly-good fool with his eyes closed and still sound funny. That’s a rare gift!

In the Kannada version, titled Coolie Raja (1999), Shashi Kumar follows the path laid by Prabhu. Had he taken some notes from Govinda’s performance, he could have probably done a better job. And so, Shashi Kumar’s Coolie appears boring. As a result, this is the weakest link in the Coolie series.  

The latest remake by Dhawan could have either been a walk in the park, or a nightmare, for the millennial actors. But the trailer, which is already out, hints at the latter. On December 25, we might need an extra bottle of wine to digest the new movie.

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