Director Duo Abbas-Mustan (not otherwise known as ‘The Brothers Burmawalla’) have been steadily putting out pulp thrillers since their early 90s hit, Khiladi. The brothers’ latest offering, Race, hit theatres a couple of weeks ago, and since then has gone on to do unexpectedly good business. Some of this success can be attributed to the fact that it’s the first truly ‘Bollywood’ movie to come out for months; whether we admit to it or not, posh city folk like nothing better than an indulgent entertainer now and then. The last one that fit the bill — Om Shanti Om — was released last October. If only someone would tell our filmmakers, who are increasingly shifting their attention towards an output of macho noir violence-fests, epic historical snore-a-thons, Oscar bait (and always failing that, Filmfare Critics award bait) and trendy urban train wrecks distinguished by their characters calling each other ‘Guys’ a lot and knowing what ribbed condoms are.
In this age where the term ‘Pulp Fiction’ is more synonymous with an overrated art movie than the vibrant genre that supposedly inspired it, it’s nice to see that someone, somewhere at least isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel or make a genre of pure entertainment ‘relevant to this post 9/11 world.’ Wielding the twin cannons of amoral pulp and bollywood exuberance (with both genres’ devil-may-care attitude to realism as their car’s engine) the brothers have came out with a winner.
To summarise the plot of Race would be foolhardy. It’s ostensibly about two rich step-brothers who stand to inherit tons of cash in insurance payouts should either of them die in an accident. Obviously, this being pulp, one of the brothers is rotten and wants to bump the other off, and the story goes from there. How it does so is nothing short of marvellous: over the course of its two and a half-hour running time, Race manages to squeeze in more plot twists and sudden reversals than a whole DVD box set of thrillers. The twists themselves are all the old ones, but the makers are obviously aware that the viewers will be actively trying to guess which one comes next, and almost always the twist that they do deploy is not quite the one you were expecting. Is there one twist too many? That’s an irrelevant question in this case. It’s a tightrope walk, for sure, but it manages to be consistently entertaining.
The characters are sketched very broadly. You have the work-hard-play-hard businessman, his alcoholic schemer of a brother, the dame with a dark past, the pining secretary, the corrupt cop and his bimbo assistant, all of which is laid out within ten seconds of their onsceen appearance. It’s more archetype than character, and in any other movie this would not be enough, but Race is a film where your focus is always on the increasingly knotty plot; any attempts at making whole characters out of this bunch would distract from it.
Also, if you made these people more realistic they would throw the ludicrousness of the world they inhabit into sharp relief. Here people are blown up in broad daylight, men survive treacherous falls and deadly car accidents, and insurance companies have no problem parting with 50 million in cash once a little paperwork is done. Race is unrealistic to the core, and it knows it; it’s a sexy pre-code comic book where there are no good guys, but everybody isn’t a dour Frank Miller creation either.
To their credit, the actors do a fine job with what little they have. Saif Ali Khan and Akshaye Khanna are wonderful when they’re playing bad guys, and it only dawned on me a few days later that they were both in Dil Chahta Hai together (playing very different characters). Anil Kapoor’s fruit-munching cop is loud, over-the-top and has more bad jokes in him than there are pips in his orange, but even this manages to fit snugly into the proceedings. The women have less to do and don’t quite distinguish themselves beyond eye candy and comic relief.
What really impressed me about Race to begin with is the great pacing. Usually in films there’s an energetic first fifteen minutes, and then the filmmakers decide they’ve had enough quick stuff, and according to that ‘How to Make a Movie’ book they read, it’s about time to slow down and add in some character and texture to it. Not so in Race, whose first half maintains its breakneck speed from start to finish. Even post-interval they keep it up, and it only ever really slackens for a few minutes here and there. To anybody who says it can’t be done, this should be Exhibit A.
If anything lets Race down, it is often its technical side. There’s terrible sound mixing in the songs; Bollywood movies are loud and hissy anyway, but the songs here are really pushing it (and I saw it in a good theatre with excellent sound). The soundtrack itself is the by-now standard action movie staple of Pritam-composed songs and a revolting Salim-Sulaiman background score (they should stick to film songs; they’re much better at it). Lots of jarring hip-hop and crashing guitars. Some of it is hummable but most is not, and one wonders how much better the film would be if the score wasn’t trying to hit you over the head every two seconds. Oh, and the songs literally come out of nowhere (incuding one which happens just after a major twist in the second half), but like every excess in this film, I went with it.
Also, the film could have used a few more weeks of post-production, especially digital grading. There’s some wonderful physical camerawork to see, but since a lot of the film is shot during stark daylight it doesn’t quite have the same impact. Towards the interval there’s a fantastic day-for-night sequence on a high-rise terrace; it’s coloured to look surreal and weird, and I wish the rest of the film’s sequences could have had that much attention paid to them (but they probably ran out of time/money).
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here with dreams of logic and social relevance. This is the land of surreal entertainment that Bollywood should never really forget, and as long as Abbas-Mustan in their matching white clothes are around, it never will. Race is pulp without parody, Bollywood madness without apology. It’s loud and loopy and I loved it.