Director: Advait Chandan
Writer: Atul Kulkarni (Indian adaptation)
Cast: Aamir Khan, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Mona Singh, Naga Chaitanya Akkineni
The legacy of Forrest Gump (1994) is contained in one of the film's most popular sequences. The protagonist (Tom Hanks), a differently-abled simpleton from Alabama, begins to run one morning. And he doesn't stop. He runs the length and breadth of his country for months on end. Along the way, people start to notice him. They wonder why he's running: Is it for women's rights? Or climate change? Or poverty? World peace maybe? Reporters and activists and commoners attach their cause to him. He becomes a source of great debate. Other runners join him; One individual soon balloons into a group. One day, he abruptly stops. "I'm tired," he mumbles. His words stump everyone: Is that all he has to say after a three-year-long marathon? He walks back. Just like that, it's over. In many ways, this moment was designed to be prophetic. This was Forrest Gump, the film, trying to resist deeper meaning. As if to say: No matter how you choose to read me in the coming years, I'm just a fable about the randomness of fate. This apolitical stance felt cunning, especially in terms of a story that went on to become a monument to small-town American values.
When this sequence happens in Laal Singh Chaddha – director Advait Chandan's heartwarming Hindi remake of Forrest Gump – it feels different. "I'm tired" invites deeper meaning. By being an unwitting Sikh hero who captures the imagination of a country defined by its Hindu-Muslim conflict, his story becomes a monument to old-school democracy itself. Laal Singh Chaddha (Aamir Khan) grows up near Pathankot, a town that shares borders with both Pakistan and Jammu-Kashmir. He falls in love with a half-Catholic girl, Rupa D'Souza (Kareena Kapoor Khan). He joins the Indian Army and becomes best friends with a Hyderabadi man named Balaraju Bodi (Naga Chaitanya). Most of all, he becomes a war hero by rescuing not just his own wounded colleagues but also an 'enemy'. This is the touch that transcends the inbuilt conservatism of Forrest Gump: His Lieutenant Dan is Mohammad (Manav Vij), a presumably Pakistani fighter who is given a new lease of life by Chaddha's idealism. In other words, Laal Singh Chaddha runs to all four corners of India and beyond, both literally and figuratively. And he – like the film he occupies – is stopped not by borders or boundaries but dead ends.
Atul Kulkarni's writing – and his sense of translation – manages to suggest that Chaddha's mere presence is political. His guileless reading of religion – rooted in his mother's sugarcoating of communal violence as "malaria" to keep him indoors as a child – is political. A reading that's reflected in the lyrics of the theme song, 'Kahani': Ya isko na samajhna hi samajhdari hai? ("Or is there wisdom in ignorance?"). Even his unwillingness to be political – and his desire to just be – is political. Gump's heroism was an extension of his national identity: Be American and success will find you. But Chaddha's heroism is an indictment of his cultural identity: Be human and history will remember you.
The landmarks in the background are very much Indian easter eggs – a radio announcing the end of the Emergency; little Chaddha's dance moves influencing a future superstar; the telecast of the 1983 World Cup final and the 1994 Miss Universe pageant; the 1990 Ayodhya Rath Yatra; the origin story of a famous underwear company; the controversial Milind Soman-Madhu Sapre photo spread; the Swachh Bharat campaign. I was expecting a John Lennon-style moment with perhaps someone like A.R. Rahman and a famous track, but my imagination did the rest. Ultimately, however, it's the events in the foreground that reveal India's troubled relationship with peace and humanity. Laal is in Amritsar during Operation Blue Star, and gets trapped with his mother in Delhi during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Tragedy strikes him while he's fighting a war (visibly inspired by the Kargil War). Rupa's track is based on the Monica Bedi-Abu Salem alliance, a symbol of the Bollywood-Dubai nexus of the Nineties (which, to its credit, resists a passing mention of Tendulkar's Sharjah Storm). The 2008 Mumbai attacks – and the image of Ajmal Kasab – play a role in the 'cleansing' of Mohammad, Laal's friend and business partner.
One can argue that Laal's bond with Mohammad reiterates the noble-Indian-rescues-Pakistani-from-himself stereotype. It's written a bit carelessly, too: The more time Mohammad spends in India, the more bitter he gets about the hatred instilled in him by his own country. But this can also be read as a reminder that the reverse holds true too, which ties into the film's PK-style commentary about the futility of (organised) religion. The book-length disclaimer at the beginning of Laal Singh Chaddha and the radio silence about the 2002 Gujarat riots (or any conflict post-2014) only serve as evidence of the film's message. The governments change, but the irony remains. It still takes an alien or an adult of disadvantaged intellect to convey a nation's collective loss of innocence. While PK (2014) holds a mirror to the reality of our moment, Laal Singh Chaddha looks in the rearview mirror at moments that are closer than they appear.
Aamir Khan, the producer, deserves credit for recognising Forrest Gump as a film begging to be reformed rather than remade. And for backing Advait Chandan (Secret Superstar, 2017), a director blessed with the narrative manipulation of Rajkumar Hirani and the visual flair of Anurag Basu. Those quirky montages and well-placed voiceovers go well with a natural feel for music. Pritam's soundtrack sways between nursery-rhyme simplicity and brooding ballads, reflecting the black-or-white emotions of the protagonist. But unlike Forrest Gump, which was relentlessly redeemed by Hanks, this film works in spite of – and not because of – Aamir Khan, the actor. Ahmad Ibn Umar as the young Laal is remarkable, but his performance is almost undone by what follows.
Khan plays Laal Singh Chaddha in a strange mix-and-match manner that's meant to offend nobody: Not the Sikh community, not the differently-abled, not the autistic, not Indians, not even wide-eyed and floppy-eared extraterrestrials. His performance is excessive, like a parody of everything and nothing at once. He does this weird humming thing while speaking, which basically sounds like a teacher interacting with an infant (or the audience, in his case). He reacts better than he acts, especially in scenes with Rupa and Mohammad, where Chaddha's uncomplicated silence becomes an antidote to their inner noise. I like that Rupa is situated at the intersection of dreams (showbiz) and darkness (the underworld). As a result, the character has agency even when she is bereft of choice – which, in turn, makes Laal Singh Chaddha look like less of a male saviour and more of a hopeless soulmate. Kareena Kapoor Khan doesn't overcook the role. She plays Rupa as someone who – in stark contrast to Laal – is so desperate to make history that she gets consumed by it. He chances upon the concept of life through love; she stumbles into the notion of love through life. The opening shot of a feather drifting across a railway station and landing at Laal Singh Chadha's feet somewhat defines her journey: Rupa is the breeze that thought she was a feather.
It's been a while since I've enjoyed a Hindi big-screen experience like Laal Singh Chaddha. A lot of it is down to the film's marriage of mind with heart. The thinking often morphs into a way of feeling. The writing often digs a tunnel through the political to reach the personal – and it's this fable-like dimension that finds new context. In Forrest Gump, the journey of an underdog accidentally winning at life is staged as an ode to unhealthy coping mechanisms – where the grief of heartbreak becomes the cornerstone of greatness and fame. But Laal Singh Chaddha's seamless embrace of sentimentality turns this journey into a more grounded metaphor: Even the most invisible people end up meaning something and shaping someone in their quest to survive. Even the most ordinary of us put a dent in the windshield of time. After all, life can only happen to those who're busy making other plans – or simply running because they feel like.