Watching Shakti Soundar Rajan’s latest film, Captain, earlier this month, spurred a few questions. Foremost among them was: why did he even make it? The film is a ripoff of John McTiernan’s Predator, one of the greatest sci-fi action movies of all time. This is the fourth film, wherein Shakti has heavily borrowed from well-known Hollywood flicks. He fancies the tag of being the first in Tamil cinema to make films in visual effects-heavy genres like creature features, space flicks, and zombie movies, from which most of his counterparts have shied away due to budget constraints. One could appreciate Shakti for attempting these less familiar genres in Tamil. But the attempts themselves have been ordinary and less original. Captain, for instance, is far inferior to its original (released 35 years ago) in terms of screenplay, action choreography, and more importantly, makeup, special effects and visual effects — which are absolutely essential for a monster movie.
There was a time when cinema beyond one’s region was not easily accessible. So, filmmakers could adapt films from afar according to local sensibilities. Take Sanjay Gupta’s remake of Reservoir Dogs, Kaante, for instance. He Bollywood-ised Quentin Tarantino’s cult classic. The film, apart from succeeding at the box office, earned praise from Tarantino himself.
“I think it was fabulous. The best part is, you have Indian guys coming to the U.S. and looting a U.S. bank. How cool is that. I was truly honoured. And these guys are played by the legends of Bollywood,” he said in an interview.
Kaante came out in 2002 when international films were still out of reach for most Hindi film audiences. Not many would have known that it was a readaptation of Reservoir Dogs. In this day and age, however, when films around the world have become more accessible than ever, do remakes still make sense?
Before answering this question, let’s see why remakes within Indian cinema don’t work all the time.
Lost in translation
Over the last few years, Hindi cinema has been increasingly remaking films from the south. This year alone, we saw the releases of Jersey (a remake of the Telugu film of the same name), Good Luck Jerry (a remake of the Tamil film Kolamaavu Kokila), and Cuttputlli (a remake of the Tamil film Ratsasan). Despite the success of their respective originals and being headlined by stars — Shahid Kapoor in Jersey, Jhanvi Kapoor in Good Luck Jerry, and Akshay Kumar in Cuttputlli — none of these films succeeded as well as they did in Tamil and Telugu.
For instance, Ratsasan worked because it pitted a young, inexperienced cop, who aspires to be a filmmaker, against an intelligent psycho murderer. Vishnu Vishal was apt for the cop’s role. Meanwhile, Akshay Kumar, who is 55 years old and has a superstar persona, was perhaps not the best choice. We can pinpoint reasons for the lukewarm response to Good Luck Jerry as well. But the truth is that the success of such remakes has always been unreliable. On most occasions, they do not work because something significant gets lost in translation. Take the case of Feroz Khan’s Dayavan, which was a remake of Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan. While the latter is regarded as one of the best-ever films of Indian cinema, the former is merely considered a bland simulacrum of it.
Despite both movies narrating the journey of the larger-than-life Mumbai don, Varadaraja Mudaliar, Dayavan did not work because of its setting. Ratnam himself talks about it in the book, Conversations With Mani Ratnam. “To me, Nayakan is the story of a man going to an alien zone and establishing roots and becoming somebody in that territory,” he says, “It is really an underdog’s conquest in an alien zone. So, for the Hindi version to root the story in Bombay was itself odd.”
Filmmakers, while transposing a story to a different setting, miss out on key elements. Shashank Khaitan’s Dhadak, the remake of Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi film Sairat, is a recent example that comes to mind. Both films are typical romantic tragedies. But where Manjule’s film stands out is in its portrayal of caste discrimination. He makes it apparent that the villain of his film is not one person or a few people; it is caste. Khaitan’s Hindi version diluted this caste angle, which is the most crucial element of the story.
OTT platforms have been a game-changer over the last three years in India. It has taken stars and filmmakers from a specific region to people from several parts of the country. Films like Pushpa, RRR, and KGF 2 performing well beyond their respective linguistic domains is an indication that audiences are ready to accept stars from any part of the country.
Filmmakers and producers who want to take their creations beyond their region now pay more attention to subtitling and dubbing in other languages. As a result, now, a person from Mumbai can watch and understand (to an extent) a film rooted in Madurai. This brings us back to our question: are remakes still relevant then?
The short answer is yes.
Remakes will not be obsolete because they are not always about casting different people and speaking a different language (say, as Nanban did with 3 Idiots). Merely rooting the same story in another cultural backdrop can produce interesting results. Take Arunraja Kamaraj’s Nenjukku Neethi — the Tamil remake of Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15, a film that discusses caste — for instance. The contrast between the two worlds of these films was noteworthy. Unlike Article 15’s Lalgaoon (the fictional town in Uttar Pradesh), we do not see people in Nenjukku Neethi identifying others’ caste by their surname. Because, thanks to the social reform movements in Tamil Nadu, even in a village in Pollachi, where the remake is set, caste is absent from people’s names. Yet, as the film shows us, it exists everywhere.
Remaking, per se, is not a problem; it is about what the filmmaker does with the original film. Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Internal Affairs (which he remade as The Departed) is a fine example of a good remake. The Departed, while retaining the essence of the original, presents a markedly different style of filmmaking. Scorsese took the story of Internal Affairs and made it his own.
Ultimately, a remake — at least a good one — requires what every other film does: a filmmaker’s unique vision.
Note: The term ‘remake’, in this article, refers to legitimate and illegitimate readaptations of films