The director duo of Abbas-Mustan strike again. Starring Saif Ali Khan, Bipasha Basu, Akshaye Khanna, Katrina Kaif, Anil Kapoor, and Sameera Reddy, this latest outing of the sibling kings of mainstream Bollywood thrillers makes you appreciate a few things about this pair of seasoned directors: firstly, they stick to what they know and enjoy doing, and secondly, they make a constant effort to improve their craft in spite of being in this game for almost two decades. Race is a cheap and cheerful, unabashedly sleazy thrill-fest that is proud of its populist leanings and its fantastic unrealism. It comes as no surprise to me that this little beast is doing well at the Hindi box office, because it is all the better for its confidence, and I loved every twisted moment of it.
The plot is simple, if you can call it that. Two rich brothers who own a stable of thoroughbreds and race horses for a living are leading a seemingly normal but unbalanced life. One is the ruthless responsible one, and one is the alcoholic do-nothing. They aren’t exactly the spawn of Mother Teresa, but they seem happy enough in their own twisted reality, or are they? The undercurrent is not so much of a mystery or surprise, considering the film begins with a nasty car accident, and soon moves into horse racing machinations and casual murder. This is obviously a world where anything goes, and before the curtains fall you can be sure anything and everything will come and go on the screen in front of you. Needless to say the plot is full of twists, turns, and surprises. I say surprises, because the clever thing about this movie is that even jaded movie buffs such as myself, who can generally read the mind of the scriptwriter a few moves ahead, are genuinely surprised in a few instances. The film always makes it a point to do exactly what you were expecting it to do, but in some counter intuitive direction to keep you guessing till the end. Any thriller that can still provide a few twists in this day and age is OK in my book.
Considering the subject matter, the cast does an admirable job in bringing believability and a certain gravitas to such larger-than-life characters. Saif Ali Khan and Akshaye Khanna have grown to be admirable performers on screen over the past decade, and they manage to bring a special mania to this plot. Saif Ali Khan is controlled and collected as the elder sibling and Akshaye Khanna returns to his truly endearing state of constant over-acting, which he seems to reserve for his sojourns into the Abbas-Mustan universe, of which he has had many to date — in case you’re wondering, I actually think that is a good thing.
The women do a decent job given the circumstances. Bipasha Basu sizzles with that slightly distant intensity that seems to have won her many fans, Katrina Kaif plays the smouldering good girl of the bunch, and Sameera Reddy throws in a perfectly ditzy role that will have the political-correctness brigade booing from the dress circle and the average viewership laughing at all the pre-packaged but well intentioned humour that comes with the territory. None of the female actors are going to win any awards for this, nor do they deserve to in my book, but they pull off their main function in this piece, which is to look pretty and hang on to every word of their male counter parts. This is very much a traditional (some would say backward) macho action thriller, but I look at that as more of a genre rather than a statement of sexual politics. Every thriller can’t be the female-driven beauty that was Ek Hasina Thi (also starring Saif Ali Khan, opposite Urmila Mathondkar), but I don’t think every thriller should be.
On a technical level there is plenty to be proud of and plenty to cringe about in this piece of celluloid. This movie is a masterpiece of editing and shot planning. It is set in South Africa, where all the external shots are filmed, but all the internal shots are in fact filmed in Dubai, an increasingly popular location for the Bombay film industry. I could recognize this fact since I live in Dubai, but for someone who hasn’t been to either of these locations, the editing between the two is seamless, and I can imagine the shot planning and storyboarding for this would have been monumental. I applaud the effort.
In other departments the quality is not as stellar. The songs and music is often truly bad. It was a bit of a joke between Vishal and me that this movie was a large April fools joke until it was released, because in the 2-3 months of promotion preceding it, only the title song was ever shown … over, and over, and over again. Now I realize that it was done because every other song on the Race soundtrack is so monumentally bad. That being said, I must wonder if the complete schlock factor of this film would not be harmed a bit if it had beautiful music. Having covered the state of the music, though, I must emphasize that there are some truly great visual achievements in this movie. While the post-processing and colour grading is abysmal in parts, there are some scenes that are excellent. Some of the day-for-night shots on a rooftop have a surreal flavour that is very fetching. My compliments to the chef.
Race is one of those movies which millions will enjoy and a vocal few will consider a sign of the end of Indian civilization as we know it. Considering the state of Indian civilization “as we know it”, I’ll be the first one to cheer its demise, but be that as it may, you can count me strongly on the side of the unwashed masses on this one. As long as Abbas-Mustan, Saif Ali Khan, Akhaye Khanna, et. al. are willing to dish out this exquisite slop I, along with countless others, will line up to partake in it. Indian civilization has bigger issues to worry about than entertaining Hindi cinema.