The hippie wonderland of the 1960s is a rotten wasteland in Rohan Sippy’s Dum Maaro Dum. It is a canvas close to reality. Goa is not just an exotic beach state or a picturesque tourist spot, but a drug paradise where locals are pimps for paedophiles and slaves to drug lords who are, in this film, the rulers of Goa. Everyone is in on this party—tourists and Goans. The local politician is invisible and the only one who is concerned about its fate is an ageing man in the twilight of his political career.
Sippy’s prism for Mumbai in his first successful film Bluffmaster (2005) was unique. Although the film’s merit was limited to its stylized language, it captured details of the city and people that often go unnoticed. Goa, in Dum Maaro Dum, is what we don’t want to see about Goa.
In form, it is a crime thriller—a classic 1970s Bollywood thriller reimagined. The gold smuggling don is replaced by a drug mafia. The policeman is what Amitabh Bachchan was in many films of that era: tough and upright, with a cultivated manner of witty speech. There’s not a single frame in the film where Vishnu Kamath, the film’s protagonist played by Abhishek Bachchan, is not on to some crackerjack street-language repertoire. What’s called “dialogue-baazi” in Hindi films drives the protagonist, despite his sentimental backstory.
In look and pace, decided by the cinematography, editing and sound design, Dum Maaro Dum is competently executed. It looks like an early Wong Kar-Wai film, even some thrillers from Korea and Hong Kong. There are some over-edited sequences, although the film could’ve been more enjoyable and engaging if it were 20 minutes shorter. Some visual gimmicks stand out sorely, and the sense that Sippy and his technicians are trying too hard to be slick is obvious in many frames. From dialogues to post-production flourishes, Dum Maaro Dum is dripping cool, which is conflicting at times because of the story’s innate grittiness.
Writer Shridhar Raghavan’s ode to the Big B style of histrionics is obvious. For example, the picturization of the hip hop number Thayn Thayn, high on adrenalin, machismo and style, is out of place in the plot—taking away from Kamath’s trajectory as the man with a mission, which just about takes off when the song begins. Smart lines also overload the story; there’s little room to stay with potentially powerful moments. And the emotional life of the characters, some of which come across as careless afterthoughts, are the antithesis of the well-crafted coolness of the film. There’s no synergy between, say, cutaways to a dead wife and lost lovers, and the story’s breathless present.
Kamath is an additional commissioner of police in Goa. Before a life-altering personal tragedy, he was a ruthless policeman, tough with criminals, but corrupt—the ubiquitous Indian policeman. He declares his ordinariness and mediocrity in the beginning of the film, in an introductory sequence (every character introduces himself or herself, the easiest tool to establish characters) by saying that all he wanted for his family was heaven in a hellish world, justifying bribes. But we meet a changed man. With a team of two other policemen, he is on a mission to find Michael Barbossa, a man with many addresses, who fuels Goa’s drug economy.
Russian prostitutes, British and Israeli drug dealers and local pimps are the drivers of this economy. Joki (Rana Daggubati), a Goan musician, who is in love with Zoe (Bipasha Basu), an ambitious girl, are both mired in this cesspool created by Barbossa and Lorsa Biscuta (Aditya Pancholi), a local businessman. So is Lorry (Prateik), a naive young student and footballer.
Most characters have one overwhelming shade which defines their performance. The villain, Lorsa, required more fleshing out. On paper, he is a menacing, power-hungry, deceitful man in love with a woman he forcibly acquires. Pancholi is the wrong choice. He fails to bring out any complexity to the character. The villain spoils the face-off—for a film screaming coolness, a predictable and boring villain is the ultimate downer.
Kamath is the only really convincing and interesting character in the film. Bachchan delivers the role carefully. He has the strong idealistic streak, which is tempered by a ruthlessness and violent energy. It’s a character Bachchan understands and grasps well. Unlike all his recent performances where he has appeared woefully mismatched and awkward, he is comfortable here—it’s a role which will do wonders for a floundering career.
Daggubati, the Telugu actor making his Hindi film debut, has an interesting and often overwhelming presence on screen. But he is not yet a skilled actor. Basu has little or no depth as the good-girl-turned-bitter moll. Govind Namdeo, an experienced actor on screen, is powerful.
So Sippy’s real achievement—and it is reason enough to watch the film—is in reimagining a Bollywood formula by hiding its excesses and blatant melodrama with eloquent and efficient post-production tricks. For most of its running time, Dum Maaro Dum will keep you engaged.
Dum Maaro Dum released in theatres on Friday.