Saturday, October 31, 2015

Dhoom 3 and its precursors

Sahir looms over Chicago
Fantômas looms over Paris

They have a complicated and highly choreographed plan to steal your money and three hours of your time. You know when and how they will strike, and yet you still can't escape. They are invulnerable (to criticism) and elude all pursuers (at the box office). And, they will inevitably return. Yes, I'm talking about the movie series Dhoom.

I hadn't thought that I would write anything about the Dhoom movies—even though, like much of the population of the planet, I've seen all three of them (so far)—both because it felt like too much had already been said, and that when it comes to movies like these words don't really matter. You know after seeing five seconds of trailer and hearing the first notes of the theme music whether you're going to see the next Dhoom or not. In that determination, any opinion I might express is meaningless.

But as I watched Dhoom 3 (2013) recently, I realized that there was an aspect of the Dhoom series that I don't think has been explored before. Of course, many people have traced the homages and borrowings of the series, but I think one key influence has been missed.

The Dhoom series has understandably been compared to the James Bond films. And like the Bond films, the Dhoom series has instantly recognizable theme music, lots of chase scenes, and ambiguous women who are (at least initially) allied with the villain.

But unlike the Bond films, whose villains with rare early exceptions (Dr. No, Rosa Klebb, Goldfinger) all seem to blur into one another, the Dhoom series is increasingly centered on the anti-hero. So far played by John Abraham, Hrithik Roshan, and Aamir Khan, the Dhoom villains are far more charismatic, and have far more screen time, than the pursuing good guys: police detective Jai (Abhishek Bachchan) and his buffoonish buddy Ali (Uday Chopra).

Jai and Ali, outwitted again
In their focus on the anti-hero, the Dhoom films are actually far more like another series: the Fantômas novels and films. Like the Dhoom villains, Fantômas is a criminal mastermind, the master of a thousand disguises, who returns in each installment to commit ever-more astonishing crimes. And like the Dhoom villains, Fantômas has two nemeses who pursue him relentlessly, but ineffectually: the police detective Juve and his younger journalist partner Fandor. Finally, as in the Dhoom series, there are ambiguous women with divided loyalties: Fantômas' daughter, Hélène, and his lover, Lady Beltham.

But the first Fantômas novels (written by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain) and films (adapted from the novels and directed by Louis Feuillade) were produced nearly a century before Jai and Ali jumped on their racing bikes. Despite being created in the pre-WWI era, and despite having origins in sensationalistic 19th century fiction, the Fantômas novels and films are surprisingly modern. In his book Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Popular Culture in Early Twentieth-Century Paris (University of California Press, 2000), historian Robin Walz has identified four distinguishing elements of the Fantômas series:

1. Indeterminate identities: Fantômas takes on multiple disguises or identities over the course of a given episode, and in fact has no fixed identity. I don't want to give away too much about Dhoom 3 (although I think I'm the last person in the world to see it), but a key plot point involves disguise and impersonation.

2. The swerve: The anti-hero can't be thwarted or captured, even when he announces where and when he will strike; he seems to appear and disappear at will. Fantômas escapes at the end of each novel and film; in the Dhoom series, the anti-hero is never brought to justice. Even when, in Dhoom 2, the villain apparently dies, we learn that his death has been faked to throw the police off his trail.

3. Truquage, or gadgetry: The Fantômas novels are filled with the latest technology, which Fantômas uses to his advantage in staging his elaborate crimes. The same is true of the Dhoom films; in Dhoom 3 the technology is either theatrical (the villain Sahir is a magician and circus performer in a Cirque du Soleil-type spectacle) or centered on the motorcycles that he uses to escape the scenes of his crimes. In one spectacular chase scene, an apparently cornered Sahir rides his motorcycle up and off the end of a raised drawbridge over the Chicago River; as he plummets towards the water, his bike transforms into a jet ski. And when Jai commandeers a boat and races after Sahir, it turns out that the jet ski can also function as a one-man submarine, and then again as a motorcycle. What chance do the hapless police have against such ingenuity?

4. Spectacular criminality: Fantômas's crimes are not motivated by ordinary criminal incentives, such as getting rich. Instead, Fantômas wants his deeds to be as spectacular and shocking as possible. He mocks the police as he plans, executes and gets away with his crimes despite all their precautions. In the Dhoom series, too, the crimes and escapes are elaborately planned, highly choreographed, and designed for maximum sensationalism. In Dhoom 3, after he robs a bank Sahir doesn't even keep the money—he announces his theft by sending millions of dollars fluttering down over the streets of Chicago.

Of course, there are also differences between the series. Fantômas is a shadowy figure, often acting through others; his lair is never seen, and his backstory is never revealed. It's telling that his signature costume, the cagoule (hood), completely masks his features. The Dhoom films spend far more time focussed on the villain than on the supposed heroes. In Dhoom 3, for example, we learn in detail why Sahir repeatedly targets the "Western Bank of Chicago." Clearly, there are super-criminals in Chicago; it's just that (to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht) most of them own banks rather than rob them.

Another difference between the series is that Fantômas' crimes have a gruesome human cost: he wrecks passenger trains, puts sulfuric acid in department-store perfume dispensers, and sinks the world's biggest ocean liner (the "Gigantic") with the loss of everyone on board. In the Dhoom films, the crimes don't involve mass murder, but clever heists. Despite the lengthy chase scenes, explosions, car crashes and so on, no one ever seems to get hurt.

And it's impossible to imagine Fantômas serenading his love interest on the streets of Chicago, as Aamir Khan does Katrina Kaif in Dhoom 3:

Dhoom 3 can be pretty entertaining for about three-quarters of its running time if you're in the right mood, as long as you don't think too hard about its premise, have a high tolerance for chase scenes, can ignore multiple geographical and cultural incoherencies, don't care that the two women characters have about four lines of dialogue between them, and aren't concerned about its multiple borrowings from other film franchises. But towards the end writer/director Vijay Krishna Acharya seems to exhaust his ideas, or perhaps just his budget, and wraps up the plot over-hastily.

Certainly, to audiences in India and worldwide none of that mattered: Dhoom 3 quickly became the highest-grossing film in Bollywood history (without adjusting for inflation), although by some reports it has since yielded the top spot to another Aamir Khan film, PK (2014).

And inevitably, Dhoom 4 has already been announced. Even Dhoom 5 has already been anticipated, in Om Shanti Om (2007); in the "Dhoom 5" trailer in that film the focus on the anti-hero has been taken to its logical extreme, with the vestigial Jai being entirely eliminated. Can Dhoom 19 be far behind?

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