Filmmaker Anil Sharma might call film critics donkeys, but his latest outing with Sunny Deol, The Hero: Love Story of a Spy, shows that he is paying obvious attention to us blockheads. While playing on a jingoistic ditty, The Hero, India's most expensive film yet, does make some overt amendments to the much-criticised campy aesthetics of the monster blockbuster from the Sharma-Deol duo, Gadar: Ek Prem Katha. It's Round II of Pakistan-bashing in the midst of some politically correct talk of insaniyat, mazhab and dosti. And mind you, there are as many good souls across the border as in India and Muslims are different from Pakistanis here—they take the lead in launching a verbal tirade against the "rogue" nation. And, in an inordinately humanitarian gesture, Sunny Deol goes out of his way to show respect for the "enemy nation's" flag: "Jhanda logon ka samman hai. Hamari ladai desh se hai, logon se nahin." (A flag is the dignity of the people and our fight is with the nation, not against individuals). As if all this wasn't enough, The Hero also starts off with a statutory note: any reference to any country or community is coincidental.
Even as Sunny tries to save India from the Pak nuke, he no longer crudely wrenches out handpumps to ram into the villains; rather, he has a stylish pow-wow with an awesome avalanche and jumps from a height of 11,000 ft at Jungfrau, Switzerland. That's when he's not rigging computers! Gadar's truck driver Tara Singh gets a slick makeover as super-spy Arun Khanna with the backing of some exotic locales, impossible stunts, outrageous chases and breathtaking cinematography. However, under the veneer of 007-like suspension of disbelief, the story still remains rooted in the very desi spy-thriller tradition, complete with the silly walkie-talkies and outdated hidden cameras. Our hero finds ingenious new ways to wipe out the villain: by shoving some green radioactive liquid down his throat. And, of course, there are some priceless gems from Shaktimaan, the writer: "ISI ke head hain? Apne head ka istmal kijiye." (You are the ISI head? Use our own head instead!) It's this goofy spirit that makes for a curiously entertaining film.
But it's not Gadar 2003. The wolf whistles aren't as shrill, the catcalls are less deafening, and the claps not as loud. The industry has already declared the Rs 55-crore film "thanda" (cold). "It's gone; it's a loser all over and doing average to reasonable business in Delhi-UP and Mumbai," says Film Information's Komal Nahata. "Indications in the first week are that it appears to be a flop," says trade analyst Amod Mehra. After a good start, The Hero started crashing mid-week: even in the holiday season, it could fetch only 84 per cent collection in Mumbai and 80 per cent in Delhi. Other important centres like Jaipur mustered 75 per cent, Nagpur 70 per cent, Indore 60 per cent and Calcutta 60 per cent. Only UP logged a good 90 per cent. Punjab, Sunny's biggest stronghold, too saw a crash of interest.
The biggest problem has been the film's huge budget. The producers have admitted to making table losses of Rs 10 crore after selling the various distribution and music rights. The trade thinks it'll be difficult for them to recover the amount. Distributors and exhibitors too would feel the pinch—the film reportedly went for
Rs 3.75-4 crore for major territories. Ginni Chaddha, who distributed Gadar in Delhi, stayed away. "It's a good commercial film but the risk factor was too high," he says. "The target now is to recover money for the poor distributors," says Mehra. A difficult proposition considering that too many prints of the films have hit the market and ticket rates in some Mumbai cinemas have been hiked to Rs 230. "Forget Gadar, it's not even an Indian," says Vinod Mirani of Box Office.
It's also unlikely to be a hit overseas. Playing in 21 theatres in North America, it grossed $1,30,000 in three days and is pitched to end up with a gross of $3,50,000, a figure way below the earnings of films with similar themes—Vidhu Vinod Chopra's Mission Kashmir took $1 million, while John Mathew Mathan's Sarfarosh amassed $8,00,000. But Sunny has managed a prized write-up in The New York Times: "High adventure and low comedy in the spirit of James Bond and Jackie Chan, star-crossed lovers bathed in sentiment worthy of Claude Lelouch and coincidence to warm the heart of Charles Dickens heap the lavish Bollywood banquet that is The Hero....This colourful Indian spy adventure constitutes the cinematic equivalent of the delightful and inconsequential escapism of a 700-page summer beach novel."
But Sunny's still sporting his trademark smile, masking the anxiety and anger. He says the trade's being unfair in dismissing his film within a few days of its release. "It's a bad phase for the industry. We must all say 'Hey God, make this film run so that we too can move ahead with it'. But they can't take anybody's success. They want to pull us down. The film industry is a family that never stays together," says Sunny. He claims that the collections in Delhi and UP over the weekend have been the best since k3g and better than even Devdas. "It's difficult to satisfy everyone. They want the film to be more loud and violent. Gadar was hard-hitting because it portrayed a simpleton's emotions that are not calculated. With The Hero we wanted to bring in a little sophistication," he says.
But irrespective of whether money pours in or not for this "sophisticated" venture, The Hero is a new landmark in the genre of patriotic films that play on the animus against Pakistan. So how seriously does one take the film's ideology and politics? Anil Sharma would stress on the lack of any agenda. "I'm not a politician, just an entertainer. I don't make serious cinema," he retorts.
It also reinforces popular Indian perceptions about Pakistan—that it's a diabolical state, that it's totally servile to the US, that it's poor because it spends money on useless things like the Islamic bomb, that it's a land of no freedom. And that it's been meting out second-hand treatment to the Muslims who crossed over from India. "Humko paas bulaya nahin, gale se lagaya nahin, duniya bhar ke musalmano ki kya baat karte ho." (How can you think of representing Muslims of the world?)
Some of the assumptions may sound simplistic and, at times, silly, but the chief villain Ishaq Khan (Amrish Puri) is sillier. So daft and gullible is the man that he can't identify his chief enemy in giveaway disguises (watch out for Sunny as the fake Bong saying shotti, khub bhalo, kemon in accent worse than Ash's in Devdas)? It's because the film makes a caricature out of its Pakistani protagonists that you stop taking its politics seriously. In that sense, The Hero is more escapist than the damaging and annihilatory Gadar. The hatred and unbridled violence make way for some popcorn enjoyment. But the prejudices still shine through. You can almost feel the hero breathe a sigh of relief on realising that his beloved is not a Muslim. There is a long dialogue on the perversion of Islam and the true meaning of jehad: Jihad andar ke shaitan ko marna hai (It's about killing the evil within yourself).
Meanwhile, even as this patriotic spiel unspools, Sharma-Deol are on to their next show of nationalism. Sunny starts work on Devdhar Gandhi, a story about an "honest Indian". Sharma is making Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Saathiyo, a family social in the backdrop of the Kargil war. Beware Pakistan!