Laal Singh Chadha lives by two tenets. One is imparted by his mother: treat every calamity like a malaria attack and retreat indoors until it is safe to emerge. The other is dinned into him by his one-and-only love: whenever you don’t know what to do, run, Laal, run!
Laal, who scores low on the intelligence scale, follows the advice to the hilt. Obedient to a fault, with a stupefied expression that shifts only in moments of grief, Laal inadvertently provides a road map to surviving post-independent India. It involves oversimplifying complex matters and dashing past the latest crisis.
Advait Chandan’s Laal Singh Chaddha draws its flashback-guided structure, twee tonality and childish humour from Forrest Gump. Robert Zemeckis’s 1994 blockbuster starred Tom Hanks as a simpleton who unwittingly influences such epochal events in American history as the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. Gump impresses a then-unknown Elvis Presley, shakes hands with American presidents and even makes a pile of money without quite realising it.
The official Hindi remake, led by Aamir Khan, cleaves closely to Forrest Gump, at times even translating the original dialogue verbatim. Atul Kulkarni’s 164-minute screenplay spans the 1970s to 2018. The namechecked events include Operation Blue Star, the massacre of Sikhs following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the Ram temple movement, the destruction of the Babri mosque and the Kargil war.
Despite weak legs and poor comprehension abilities, Laal is encouraged by his mother (Mona Singh) to regard himself as second to none. Laal teaches a certain movie star his signature dance move, fights bravely in Kargil, and sets up a successful hosiery company. Laal makes friends with Balraju (Naga Chaitanya) and Mohammed (Manav Vij) but his only ambition is to marry his childhood love Rupa (Kareena Kapoor Khan).
Except for a few crucial changes, the film is faithful to the beats of its source material. From the use of history as a colourful backdrop for Laal’s adventures to the depiction of Rupa as a wayward woman who deserves her fate, the remake barely strays from Forrest Gump’s folksy view.
The Hollywood production’s reductive perspective makes the remake a tough sell at a time when Indian history is sought to be recast in alarming ways. The idea of a mindless automaton gazing wide-eyed upon the latest train wreck was bizarre in 1994 itself, when Forrest Gump was released. Could it really work in 2022, in an India led by a hard-line government?
It’s not hard to see the attraction for Aamir Khan, who has co-produced Laal Singh Chadha. Here is an opportunity to present a hero who transforms his surroundings through relentless innocence. The remake turns out to be a resolutely old-fashioned saga, suffused with the yearning for a fairy-tale world in which love, death and loss are easily overcome.
There is much to savour in Advait Chandan’s thoughtful direction of a decidedly hokum plot. The tech specs are superb, making even ordinary scenes appear special. Cinematographer Setu conjures up earthy warmth, while editor Hemanti Sarkar smoothly links the present with the past. The sloppy heart at the core of the scripting contrivances is exemplified by Pritam’s lovely score and Amitabh Bhattacharya’s lullaby-like lyrics.
The de-aging technology that presents 57-year-old Aamir Khan as a young man is initially as distracting as Laal’s tendency to punctate his halting speech with “mmm”. Khan eventually grows into the role, in much the same way as Laal embraces the good fortune that unerringly comes his way.
Kareena Kapoor Khan, whose power to stop a film in its tracks with minimal make-up and ordinary costumes is only getting stronger, is luminous as Rupa. Among the supporting cast, Manav Vij has a memorable cameo as Mohammed, the Kargil prisoner of war who forges a firm friendship with Laal.