Opening today, Sunny Deol’s Bhaiaji Superhit is a nod to the star’s action roots and at the same time, expects the He-Man to deliver quirky laughs with deadpan seriousness. Will the Ghayal star nail this gangster farce? Who can say if director Neerraj Pathak wants to give Deol his very own Munnabhai moment? Certainly, Deol is nobody’s idea of a laugh-riot but of late, Bollywood’s favourite paaji has proved that he can take a shot at comedy (watch the Yamla Pagla Deewana trilogy) and not come out looking like a total disaster.
Paaji still can’t dance, but it’s oddly enjoyable to see Sunny Deol, with all his ‘dhai kilo ka haath’ history, shake a leg. The phrase ‘two left feet’ was originally invented for Dharmendra (though Amitabh Bachchan was an equally clumsy dancer) but sonny Deol happily took the title from daddy and made it his own post “Yaara oh yaara” from Jeet and other 1990s chart-blunders. In hindsight, “Yaara oh yaara” looks like heavyweight Sunny’s version of warm-up before a big fight.
In Sunny Deol, we are talking about a ‘90s prizefighter, who could do a bhangra with his fist, as opponents went flying into the air. Wearing a wounded expression, he was a bull charging into the field, a slaughterhouse skill he had honed after years of angry, vigilante blockbusters that were lapped up by the mofussil. Arjun, Ghayal, Narsimha, Ziddi, you name it. What a strange twist of fate that the Deol heir, on screen, became a descendent of Amitabh Bachchan, only angrier and louder than Salim-Javed’s ‘Vijay’ and in doing so, cinematically distanced himself from Dharmendra’s vast career that includes the idealism of his early phase and gentle romantic comedies of the Hrishikesh Mukherjee era. Late-career, the father-son duo do cross paths, in the freeway of campy B-actioners designed to titillate the mass crowd.
2001’s Gadar: Ek Prem Katha was perhaps the last Deol money-spinner. Since then, he has struggled to keep up, churning out washed-out rehashes of the template set by him way back in the 1980s and ‘90s. A common charge is that the world has changed, but Sunny Deol hasn’t. What went wrong? Deol is still a superstar in the old-fashioned way. Even today, the 62-year-old can work up a crowd. Just that the apoplectic scream and lungs-out roar that can send an average Joe straight to the nearest laryngologist don’t echo outside the theaters anymore as they used to in his heyday. It’s time, maybe, to wake up and smell the Starbucks coffee.
All is not lost, however. Here are ways to fix the action star’s career in three easy steps.
Step 1 — Stop Being So Sunny
Stop being so ‘Sunny Deol.’ But how do you do that, after years of playing an itineration of the same role over and over again? Think of Quentin Tarantino’s resurrection of John Travolta who had become a pop culture memory until the maverick director pulled him out of the trash can for Pulp Fiction. The rest is pulpy history. Glance at Deol’s recent resume and you will see that he’s lightening up with the Yamla series and Poster Boys, trying to parody his own image — once a great unutterable (the clan is highly emotional and touchy) that risked incurring the Deol wrath. Today, they are totally cool about it. That’s good news. Bad news? The whole action thing and Jat pride is way past overkill. In fact, over-over-overkill. The audience is eager to see an all-new and reinvented Deol but it’s a puzzle why the man himself refuses to see the writing on the wall.
In decades, he hasn’t been able to add new shades to his tried-and-tested style. Deol can help himself by turning his very handicap into an advantage. What may work for him today is still the trite patriotism of Gadar, all the flag-waving, hand-pump exploits and sloganeering, but slickly repackaged to include modern cinegoer’s concerns and newsworthiness while striking a balance between something meaningful and Deol’s commercial might. What makes Akshay Kumar relevant is the same thing that should make Sunny Deol relevant — chime with the time.
Step 2 — Find Your Tarantino
Take the recent Mohalla Assi. Depending on who you ask, Sunny Deol’s Dharmanath Pandey of Chandraprakash Dwivedi-directed satire, that released on November 16 to poor showing, is either an idealist on the lines of one of dad Dharmendra’s most iconic roles in Satyakam or he’s a man warped in time. Either ways, Mohalla Assi — as unusual as it was for Dwivedi to cast Deol it was equally unusual for Deol to say yes to a director like Dwivedi — is typical of his recent output. Most of his films spend years in the cans and when they finally release, the world had changed a wee bit more. The reason why Mohalla Assi, I Love New Year, Singh Saab The Great or Big Brother look so miserably dated.
No offence, but ‘bade bhaiyya’ can learn a few chops from Abhay Deol. Deol can do with some open-mindedness and risk-taking. Sriram Raghavan gave Dharmendra one of his most interesting roles in Johnny Gaddaar in 2007. The master of pulp is a Sunny Deol fan and though things didn’t work out the last time round he’s still hopeful. “I want to make a film with Sunny some day,” the Andhadhun maker told Scroll.in. “And I will.”
It’s probably time Deol gives the usual suspects, Guddu Dhanoa, Neerraj Pathak, Anil Sharma and the likes, a break and considers teaming up with Raghavan, Imtiaz Ali or Dibakar Banerjee. These filmmakers are known for casting partly for nostalgic and retro pleasures and Deol can be rest assured that he’s in safe hands. Although Anil Dhawan was quite a coup in Andhadhun pause for a moment and try imagining Sunny Deol, instead. It could have been a good start for Sunny paaji, a sly wink to all the things that makes Sunny Deol cool.
Step 3 — Make Ageing Cool
How quickly time passes. Who could have predicted that Deol who made his debut (surprisingly, as a romantic lead) in 1983’s Betaab with Amrita Singh will still be a hero in the time of Sara Ali Khan? Kedarnath, which marks Amrita Singh’s daughter’s debut, is just weeks away. Even Deol’s own son, 27-year-old Karan, is busy prepping up for his marquee launch, in Pal Pal Dil Ke Paas. Bottom line is that Deol, and not just him but all the stars who are past 50 including the Khans, are in dire need to embrace ageing.
The revenge capers that worked in Deol’s time are increasingly looking anachronistic in today’s Hindi cinema. A new realism is washing up and the game-changers are those who are defying and disrupting the status quo. The Deols are still seen as light years behind these winds of change. “The Deols refuse to come out of the time wrap,” read one review of Yamla Pagla Deewana Phir Se, a series that has become a pop-and-pop shop. “Name one actor who has succeeded without being trapped in an image,” Deol told Filmfare recently, and rightly so. Various interviews online suggest that Deol knows the reality. One interview’s headline screams, ‘I don’t fit in now.’ Another questions his box-office bankability. One says, referring to his short directorial stint, ‘As a director, I have matured over the years like Scotch.’ Somewhere you know that’s a lot of Scotch talking. But here’s a thing: the sun hasn’t set on the Ghayal star, yet. The ‘dhai kilo ka haath’ can still do some serious damage. The punch is there, but no one can tell when and where it will land.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)