Director: Advait Chandan
Writer: Atul Kulkarni (Indian adaptation)
Cast: Aamir Khan, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Mona Singh, Naga Chaitanya Akkineni
When the Tollywood hero Naga Chaitanya picked Laal Singh Chaddha to make his Bollywood debut, it must have seemed like a failproof choice. Laal Singh Chaddha is the official remake of Forrest Gump (1994), which won six Oscars and was the second-highest grossing film in America that year. More importantly, it stars Aamir Khan, who is one of Hindi cinema's most respected actors and has a track record of making blockbuster hits out of offbeat films. Add to that the glamour that Kareena Kapoor Khan brings to any project with which she's associated. What could go wrong?
A lot, as it turns out.
Forrest Gump is a portrait of America between the Sixties and the Eighties, as remembered by the film's oddball hero who sits at a bus stop and tells strangers the story of his extraordinary life. In the Indian adaptation of this film, Laal Singh Chaddha also presents a potted history of India, but from the Eighties till the mid-2010s. Instead of a bus stop, our hero is on a train, going from Pathankot to Chandigarh. While Forrest carried with him a box of chocolates, Laal has a mithai box filled with gol gappe. It's the first of many messy choices.
The adaptation is mostly well done and actor-turned-screenwriter Atul Kulkarni covers a lot of painful historical ground with Laal's life. As a boy, Laal is in Amritsar when Operation Bluestar takes place and a survivor of the anti-Sikh riots that erupted in Delhi after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Later, he becomes a soldier and is sent to fight insurgents in a warlike situation reminiscent of the Kargil conflict. Director Advait Chandan tries to hold on to an earnest and sweet sense of humour to balance a story that can feel like a checklist of traumatic events. For example, each time communal violence erupts in India, Laal's mother calls him and, instead of explaining the complicated reality, she tells him to stay indoors because "malaria" is spreading outside. We're also informed that Laal is the one who gave Shah Rukh Khan his signature move, which would have been a far more heart-warming episode if the artificially 'de-aged' Shah Rukh didn't look so creepy.
Ironically, the weakest link in Laal Singh Chaddha is also the film's biggest asset — Aamir Khan himself. The 57-year-old actor plays Laal from his college days till he's in his 40s, and resorts to overacting to seem young. As a child — played by the impossibly-beautiful Ahmad Ibn Umar — Laal is quiet and gentle. There's an almost poetic stillness about his wide-eyed gaze as he tries to make sense of the world around him. All this disappears from the grown-up Laal who, inexplicably, turns into a collection of tics. Khan's Laal hums every few seconds and makes a production of chewing his lip. His gaze is bug-eyed and his movements are so exaggerated that the adult Laal seems like a parody of a real person.
Laal Singh Chaddha rests upon Khan's shoulders and despite their muscular bulk, the actor can't hold up the film the way Tom Hanks did in Forrest Gump. In the original, Forrest is declared "stupid" and "below average", but Hanks's performance underscores that Forrest is what you'd want a 'normal' person to be like. Forrest stands out for his kindness and courage, and his quirks feel endearing rather than strange. Khan, in contrast, looks unhinged. Everything from the vocal tics to the overwrought acting makes his Laal seem weird. He's more Mr. Bean than Forrest Gump.
Khan's over-the-top acting does have some benefits though. It distracts the audience from other oddities in Laal Singh Chaddha, like how the Indian Army fails to realise it's providing medical treatment to an insurgent or the unnaturally-protruding lower jaw that Chaitanya sports as Bala (hoping to resemble Bubba in Forrest Gump). Chaitanya plays a character who is passionate about men's hosiery — let's leave it to the Freudian school to analyse Kulkarni's decision to substitute Bubba's love for shrimp with chaddi (underwear) — and ends up being a martyred war hero. Yet if there is anything memorable about Bala, it's his strange jaw.
Laal Singh Chaddha is at its best when it follows the young Laal and his mother, elegantly played by Mona Singh. Once again, Chandan, who directed Secret Superstar (2017) and was an assistant director on Taare Zameen Par (2007), shows he has a gift for bringing out the best in child actors. Later, the film's saving grace is Rupa, the love of Laal's life, played by a radiant Kareena Kapoor Khan. Unfortunately, her pairing with Khan has about as much crackle as a soggy gol gappa.
Rupa's story deviates the most from the original and has striking similarities to actor Monica Bedi's relationship with gangster Abu Salem. (There's even a quick cameo by a gent who looks a lot like Dawood Ibrahim.) Unlike Jenny in Forrest Gump, Rupa is determined to have a career in show business, which is an inspired call on Kulkarni's part as a writer. For Rupa, films are her way out of violence and trauma. She doesn't simply wander into dens of vices, but rather walks in with intention, hoping to make connections that will help her get a toehold in the film industry. Her quest for fame and wealth is rooted in the memory of being helpless and dependent upon others, and Rupa is desperate to be independent and powerful. Unfortunately, the reality of the film industry is that it has normalised the exploitation of the unprivileged. It's only after Rupa gives up on her dreams of becoming an actress that she finds any happiness.
Laal Singh Chaddha has obviously been made with a great deal of heart and with a lavish budget. Unfortunately, neither is a guarantee for excellence. Despite all the references to real incidents and people, much of the film feels fake. It doesn't help that it also feels at least 45 minutes too long. The more time passes, the older Laal gets, and the more tiresome the film feels. Ultimately, Laal Singh Chaddha offers neither any escapist assurances nor the reality checks that would encourage introspection. Instead, the film is an exaggerated and unconvincing performance of appearing carefree and innocent. Perhaps that is contemporary India?
Ironically, when it comes to holding a mirror to society, the most telling detail might just be the essay-sized announcement at the start of Laal Singh Chaddha. Prior to its release, the film was subjected to vicious, online trolling by those who stand opposed to Laal Singh Chaddha because it's headlined by one actor who is Muslim and another who is Hindu but married to a Muslim. To pre-empt any misunderstandings or allegations of 'distorting' facts, the film begins with a written assurance to the audience that while there are visual effects used on archival footage, Laal Singh Chaddha does not seek to rewrite history or cause any offence to anyone. It says a lot about present-day India that being imaginative has to come with a disclaimer.