Have you seen a star vehicle that renders its lead attraction invisible? Singham Returns manages to do exactly that: Ajay Devgn is in practically each frame, and yet I didn’t see him.
When an actor and a director know each other well enough to read each other’s signature, the result can be sublime. Rohit Shetty and Ajay Devgn have made several films together, and in many of the broad, loud comedies they’ve done, Shetty has smartly managed to tap into Devgn’s innate funnyman. In most of those flicks, Devgn has been the only thing worth looking at. And that’s because he knows the importance of underplaying: the quieter you are, the more powerful you are.
Singham, which came out in 2011, was the star’s return to the kind of action he had done early in his career. In it, Devgn’s pectorals were mighty, shining with the kind of gloss only a big-budget studio-backed affair can provide. Even if Devgn could not match the Tamil star Suriya’s moves which made the original Singam such a boisterous ’80s throwback, he did what was needed to pulverise the villain: it was louder than Devgn had gone before, but the film fit the requirements of an audience which wanted only the decibels and garish caricatures in place of characters.
Accordingly, Devgn strode in slo-mo down the screen, and gave us a chance to look at his muscular chest. Salman Khan had done the same in Dabangg, and this was Devgn’s shot at doing the South-style over-the-top flick to enter the Rs 100 crore league. Comedies are all well, but the real money, as any old-time distributor will tell you, is in the film brimming with maar-dhaad.
Three years on, the bar has doubled. Salman has turned each of his southern copies, as well as the two Dabanggs into huge money-spinners. Shah Rukh Khan teamed up with Shetty in 2013 to chug his way up to Rs 200 crore with Chennai Express. Singham Returns seems to have been made with the twin purposes of keeping Devgn in the reckoning, and to rake it in.
It may well do that, and early indications are that it will outstrip Singham, but it has turned Devgn, a fine actor with an everyman face but speaking eyes, into a cipher. Ajay entered Bollywood with a stunt his father, action maestro Veeru, would have been proud of — a deft motorcycle spilt. And worked his way up the Bollywood hierarchy, with the first solo unexpected hit, then gathering steam with medium-budget entertainers till he hit his purple patch, and was catapulted into the big boys’ club.
His romance, and marriage to Kajol, the only leading lady after Madhuri who could open a film, also helped change popular perception of the star. It was the sort of image spin that PR firms dream about, in an era before PR firms. From the man with the useful fists, Devgn became the reliable, bankable actor who gave us a whole bunch of screen-filling roles. He was outstanding in Company and Zakhm, snagging the rare tag of “star actor”, combining starry sheen and acting chops with ease.
He could also do the brooding lover boy well. I rooted for him in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, and hoped Aishwarya would have the sense to stay back with the honourable Ajay rather than the feckless Salman. Sadly, there is no accounting for taste when it comes to love, even when it’s on screen.
From his playing the fool in Shetty-style comedies (Golmaal etc, all of which have now blurred into one unlovely mass), he’s moved into Shetty-style actioners.
This is a lion whose roar is loudest when it is muted. Enough of these Singhams. Bring back that Devgn.
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