Somewhere in the course of the past two decades, Amitabh Bachchan went from an "angry young man" to being an ubiquitous old man. Oh sure, in between there were the dog days of the collapse of his ABCL venture and his subsequent rehabilitation via the Kaun Banega Crorepati (Indian version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire) TV show. Post career resuscitation, Mr. Bachchan seems to have tucked into his new onscreen career with relish. But for the rest of us, it's a case of too much pickle ruining the chapati. If he's not invoking that distinctive voice of his for a film voiceover, he's busy lecturing some young buck on family values or hectoring the audience on patriotism. Even if he's not on the bill, there's no escaping a cameo appearance from the man. These days, a major Bollywood production is made notable by his absence. And of course, if you turn on Indian TV, he's selling something in a commercial near you!

Thus, director Ram Gopal Verma chief achievement with Sarkar, as far as I am concerned, is that he restores Amitabh Bachchan's grandeur as an actor. He does this by stripping away the bombast and the many layers of acting tics Amitabh has accumulated over the years. Here, Amitabh speaks volumes via the stillness of his face and eyes - gone are the usual dramatic flourishes. Of course, if you see Ajay Devgan's performance in Company, you'll see this is a tactic often used in Verma's productions. But the danger there lies in underacting the role, particularly as Indian audiences are not usually served up subtlety very often in their cinematic diet. All credit then to Amitabh for communicating with a look or a glance what would take pages of exposition and thundering soundtrack to convey in a standard masala flick.

If only the rest of the film stood up so well! This film was tirelessly publicized on two fronts: first, as the Indian answer to the Godfather and, second, as a vehicle for both father Amitabh and son Abhishek Bachchan. It may be argued that the marketing went overboard on both counts. Certainly, the sight of the two stars walking to the Siddhivinayak temple on foot for "personal reasons" on the eve of the film's release didn't hurt it's chances.

As for the film, even if you were holed up in an ashram in the Himalayas, Ram Gopal Verma explicitly reminds you that this is a tribute when the film starts to roll. Unfortunately, this tactic distracts from enjoying the film on its own merits. Matters aren't helped when, in the opening sequence, a man trudges to the Sarkar's residence, looking for retribution for his raped daughter. Okay, there is no wedding going on at the time, but still ... Thus, throughout the film, I was left drawing comparisons between it and the original. Would Sonny get killed this time around? How about the Godfather? How would they handle the transformation of Michael Corleone? Where the hell was Fredo? And Sarkar suffers by comparison. There are places where it hints at some original twists but it doesn't explore them in sufficient detail. What remains is Godfather-lite, a place where the head honcho, Sarkar, really is a good man who eschews organized crime, where the women are mere window dressing and where Abhishek Bachchan and Kay Kay Menon's fine performances are wasted because their roles are so poorly developed. Don't get me wrong - this is a polished production that is an order of magnitude better than Verma's last film, Naach, although the music is too bombastic in places, frequently building to false climaxes that lead nowhere. Like the bulk of Ram Gopal Verma's productions, it's eminently worth watching. It just doesn't scale the heights of the maestro's previous achievements.

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- August 1, 2005 11:56 PM // Bollywood , Review , Select