I don’t say this about films often but I don’t think there was a single frame in Coolie No 1 that didn’t annoy me. It started with the animated opening credits in which we get the back story of how a coolie named Raju became a coolie.
This film is a remake of the 1995 Govinda-starrer, also called Coolie No 1, which itself was a remake of the 1993 Tamil film Chinna Mapillai. The earlier Hindi film was also directed by David Dhawan. In that film, we didn’t get any backstory. But here we are told that Raju was separated from his mother as a child. He stepped out of the train, which left before he could get back on and was then raised on the train station. Govinda was a coolie on a bus station but making it a train station allows this film to reference the iconic Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Coolie, directed by Manmohan Desai. In fact, an animated Bachchan appears wearing the famous 786 billa. He asks Raju, ‘tumhare paas kya hai’ and Raju replies, ‘mere paas maa nahin hai’. The Bollywood referencing and winking self-awareness felt so formulaic that I groaned aloud and the film had barely begun.
As it turned out, the opening credits were the most benign part of this train-wreck. The rest of it is even more harebrained, distasteful and unfunny. The earlier Coolie No 1 had a cheery lunacy and a degree of innocence that allowed the ridiculous plot to play out as an extended joke. Govinda’s effortless clowning helped viewers to ignore the more problematic parts of the film. But in 2020, the narrative is dated and offensive on so many levels.
Coolie No 1 is about how a matchmaker takes revenge on a greedy man by making his daughter marry a coolie. Raju pretending to be Kunwar Raj Pratap Singh marries Sara, who is so dim-witted that she doesn’t ask any questions. His money makes everything else irrelevant. On their wedding night, she won’t have sex till he promises to take her to his bungalow.
The screenplay has been written by Rumi Jaffrey who also wrote the original Hindi film. He randomly inserts action sequences. At one point, Raju rescues a deaf boy who has wandered on to the train tracks. This is to establish that Raju might be duplicitous but he is a bona fide hero. But the real damage is done by Farhad Samji’s dialogues. The greedy father who was named Hoshiyar Chand in 1995, is now a Goa hotelier named Jeffrey Rozario. This was perhaps done so the character could say lines like: heaven on the docks man, whiskey on the rocks man. In another scene, Raju introduces himself as: Orphan but I like to have fun. And in another, Rozario says: Gucci, sacchi mucchi. The low IQ humour will make you cringe.
So will the character of Rozario who is basically selling his daughters to the richest men he can find. At one point, he is sending his other daughter for a vacation with Raju, who is pretending to be Kunwar’s twin. Rozario asks her: bag mein dala chhota chhota frock? Soon after this, his two daughters are in hotel rooms with Raju flitting in between the two of them and the dad peering in from outside to make sure that there is enough action.
People who stammer, lisp or are overweight are punchlines for jokes. And the women are props. It hurts to see Sara Ali Khan reduce herself to dancing vigorously and making faces. Her Manish Malhotra-wardrobe has more complexity than her character. And then there’s Varun Dhawan in brownface because obviously a coolie can’t be fair-skinned. He throws himself into the job of being a proper Hindi film hero – doing comedy, action and romance with gusto. But this film needs him to combine the effortless comic timing of Govinda with the larger-than-life presence of Amitabh Bachchan. He also mimics Mithun Chakraborty, Shah Rukh Khan and other actors. Basically, he has to be an all-in-one, which is an impossible assignment.
This film is a remake of a remake so it’s not surprising that we also get remixed versions of the two chartbusters from Coolie No 1 – Main toh raste se jaa raha tha and Husn hai suhana. In the first song, there’s a shot of Varun and Sara dancing on an upper deck of a pink double decker bus with nuns swaying to the music behind them. What does this mean? I have no idea. And neither does this film.
You can watch Coolie No 1 on Amazon Prime Video.