There’s been talk in India of remaking “Forrest Gump” as a pan-historical Indian parable for decades, but landing Aamir Khan as star was what it took to get it made. If Gurinder Chadha can take on Jane Austen for “Bride and Prejudice,” why not see if Winston Groom’s riff on a “simple man’s” journey through American history translates?
I’d suggest that a quick read-over of a quick refresher on recent Indian history before buying a ticket to “Laal Singh Chaddha.” But even skipping that won’t leave you lost once the story of the “crippled” boy who crosses paths with Indian history and meets and inspires historical figures establishes its time frame with world famous events such as the incident that triggered the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984.
“Laal Singh Chaddha” is a straight-up “Forrest Gump” adaptation, with “Forrest” now Laal and played by Aamir Khan (“Like Stars on Earth,” Lagaan”), his unhappy, adrift childhood love Jenny now Rupa and played by Kareena Kapoor (“3 Idiots” ), and that Army buddy Bubba who inspired a shrimp restaurant franchise now named Bala (Naga Chaitanya Akkineni) and an expert in underwear.
It’s “Run, Laal run!” (in Hindi and Punjabi with English subtitles), the war isn’t Vietnam, but one of the many bloody dust-ups with neighboring Pakistan and the nation torn by strife, struggling to discover itself, not America in the ’60s and ’70s but India in the ’80s and ’90s.
“My Mama always said life is like a box’a chocolates,” becomes “Life is a box’a Golgappas,” and so on.
Anyone familiar with “Forrest Gump” should at least be curious to see how a different culture might interpret a comic parable of how its history was experienced by a “simpleton” who just lets the parade of horrors and conflict roll over and past him, focusing only on what’s important to his limited world view — loyalty to family, friends and that one true love, no matter how far astray she wanders.
But the movie opens with the longest, most detailed disclaimer in screen history. If you thought American politics, culture wars and racial strife was a touchy subject, that “work of fiction” and “never happened” messaging reminds you of the many cultures and religions of the Subcontinent and how no one would want to set them against each other with a movie.
No sense dwelling on the Sikh assassination of PM Gandhi, or the bloody assault on a Sikh shrine that incited it, for starters. Stick to turning Forrest-inspires-Elvis into Laal gives a leg-braces-move to future Bollywood singing star Shah Rukh Khan, and the like.
It’s just that there isn’t enough that plays as all that funny in this version of the comic satire Groom cooked up. It’s a mostly joyless slog, reaching for laughs with Aamir Khan’s bug-eyed, head-bobbing dopey take on the title character, special effects that turn the former “cripple” into an Indian track star and Laal’s eternal fish-out-of-water status as a guy who never wholly grasps everything that’s going on.
The pathos in his mother’s (Mona Singh) devotion to teaching her “special” boy “you’re no different from anybody else” is lacking. And all the socially conservative Indian cinema does by making Jenny’s misguided “searching” for meaning a kept-woman/nude model “scandal” for Rupa, instead of surfing the waves of counterculture via abusive “free love” and drugs and the like so tames the character as to neuter her.
Khan’s turn as Laal/Forrest is superficial, a performance of exteriors. There’s no “soul” to “the dimwit,” and few grace notes in the performance. And being so afraid of offense — when you’re dealing with SATIRE here — muzzles the movie.
In America, conservative firebrand Newt Gingrich was a great “Forrest Gump” champion as he recognized the GOP base then and into the future — loyal, rural and often Southern people who stick to the important things in life, mostly skipping the faddish nature of pop culture, but also unquestioning, easily-led and “simple.”
There’s nothing in “Laal” to grab hold of, not for a Westerner, anyway. You just check off everything you know is coming — “This is ‘Lt. Dan,'” that train ride dissertation about Laal’s life takes the place of Forrest on that bench in Chippewa Square in Savanah, and so on.
Another problem with tackling over-familiar material, from Shakespeare and Dickens to global blockbusters or their equivalents in other cultures is the impatience they build into the experience. We know what’s coming and we’re restless getting there.
Wonder if anybody in India sat through this and thought, “Wait, our movies ARE too bloody long!”
Rating: PG-13 for some violent content, thematic elements and suggestive material.
Cast: Aamir Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Naga Chaitanya Akkineni
Credits: Directed by Atul Kulkarni, scripted by Advait Chandan, based on the film adapted from Winston Groom’s novel. A Paramount release.
Running time: 2:39