I liked Don. Not because my expectations were lowered by too much advance carping. Not even because I’ve forgotten the original – I haven’t. I liked Don because though there are many commonalities in plot, it is the departures that are most interesting and significant.
Farhan Akhtar’s Don inhabits a more morally ambiguous universe than Chandra Barot’s Don. Barot has said in an interview, that in his Don, the fight was between good and evil and that he couldn’t see the value in a fight between evil and evil.
Akhtar situates his story very clearly in a post-Cold War (though not explicitly in a post 9/11) international context. Early on we are told that after the break-up of the Soviet Union, a Russian criminal, Boris, has set up a drug cartel operating out of South-East Asia. Singhania is the inheritor of his empire; Vardhaman, who was also a part of Boris’s inner circle, has disappeared. Don is Singhania’s man, and the most dangerous of the lot.
The subtext of this early scene is that if the world had been viewed thus far through the lens of Capitalism = Good and Communism = Bad, the only ism of any value in a post-Soviet Union world is Opportunism. Where is the post-9/11 dominant world-view of Islamic Fundamentalism, you may ask? Where are the clear divisions of the “if you are not with us, you are against us” rhetoric? If there is an international context at all, how is it that the latest demons are entirely absent from the film?
I think that this omission cannot but be deliberate. We know that the story takes place post-9/11, because Arjun Rampal’s character, Jasjit, mentions the year 2002 to his friend when he comes out of prison. I would interpret this as a deliberate refusal to be drawn into easy and absolute definitions of good and evil; if these people are criminals, they are criminals regardless of religion or nationality.
The only scene in the film where religion is overtly displayed is the Ganpati visarjan scene. Even here, the departure is significant. In the earlier version – I hesitate to use the use the word ‘original’ too often – Vijay was an itinerant circus-type performer, a character very much on the margins of society, as was Pran. In this version, to place the character in the institutionalised, and highly politicised context of a Ganpati visarjan is, I think, to make a statement about the largely cynical way in which religion is used (or misused) in public life.
There are only a few scenes set in India. Even the Paan Banaraswala song is set in Malaysia, amongst a fortuitously found Indian community celebrating Mahashivratri. The architecture of globalism is everywhere – the Petronas Towers (the scene where Arjun Rampal takes his son across the bridge between the towers was a great variation of Pran's tightrope walk, I thought), the flyovers, the ropeway at the end of the film, the cars, the gadgets and the cast.
It is as if Akhtar wants to tap into the much-imitated coolth of Asian cinema, and he pulls it off. But he does this not as tribute or homage, in the way that Kill Bill is a homage and a continuous quotation of yakuza and martial arts cinema; he does this by using the earlier version as a palimpsest upon which he writes an entirely different story, but through which you occasionally see glimpses of the old one.
And this is why I think the film is good: because though you are reminded often of the old Don, you don’t spend your time making futile comparisons. Instead you watch this one for its own sake and recall the earlier version only once in a while and that with no regret.
Make no mistake: the film is all style but it is not without substance; a substance that we have not been used to seeing in Hindi cinema – where criminals are criminals with no redeeming features attached; where revenge is ugly and unsweetened by True Love, whatever that is; and where identity is no sheet anchor mooring us to the world as we know it, because everyone is also someone else.
PS -- I especially liked Priyanka Chopra’s Roma in this and thought it was better than Zeenat Aman’s Roma, not least because in this film, the character is unapologetically feminine. (Of course, this might not be as progressive an impulse as it appears, because the audience demands eye candy and perhaps androgynous sulkiness is no longer a turn on.)