Updated: January 6, 2021 8:39:00 am
Touted as a big “Christmas release”, Coolie No. 1, a faithful remake of the 90s’ hit of the same name, started to stream on Christmas Day on Amazon Prime. Starring Varun Dhawan, Sara Ali Khan, and Paresh Rawal in key roles, the reboot is directed by David Dhawan, who also made the 1995 original.
Indian cinema has had an old relationship with the character of the “coolie” — this isn’t the first time there’s an entire film on it. And while the Indian Railways officially always refer to “porters”, Bollywood and people in general speak casually of “coolies” at train stations — a word that is now widely seen as an offensive and racist expression for a person from South Asia or East Asia.
Origins of ‘coolie’
The word has its roots in the Hindustani ‘quli’, which comes from the Turkish ‘qul’, a word that was originally used to describe imperial subjects irrespective of their social position. After the arrival of the European colonisers in Asia in the 16th century, the word came to be used generically for Indian, Chinese, and other Asian labourers, mostly for those who were migrants and were unskilled.
By the mid-19th century, the term was used widely in America to refer to the large numbers of Asian workers who were now working on the plantations and the railroad, having to a significant extent replaced the African slaves.
In India, the word continues to be used interchangeably with porter in common parlance, for someone who lifts luggage for passengers at railway stations, and for dock labourers who carry heavy packages and equipment and load and unload them on ships.
The genre-defining hit Deewaar (1975) took the audience into the world of dockyard coolies. Amitabh Bachchan played a coolie who sheds the blue shirt of the dockyard labourer and becomes a smuggler. Deewar was a commercial and critical success, and remains an entry on most ‘must-see films’ lists.
To play the coolie in the 1983 film of the same name, Bachchan shed the blue uniform of the dockyard for a red one of the railway station. His porter’s licence — Billa — number was 786, and the film’s title song, ‘Saari duniya ka bojh uthate hain hum’ evoked the hardships faced by poorly paid labourers. The film, directed by Manmohan Desai, became life-defining for Bachchan, who suffered a serious injury during the shooting, and moved millions of fans nationwide to offer prayers for his recovery. After Bachchan recovered, the film’s plot was changed, and the hero who was originally supposed to die at the hands of Zafar, the evil villain, ended up living.
Coolie No. 1 (1995), starring Govinda and Karisma Kapoor, was loud and slapstick comedy. Govinda, who played Raju coolie of Dadar bus terminus, is roped in to marry a very wealthy girl by a local matchmaker called Shadiram Gharjode, who wants to avenge an insult by bride’s arrogant father. After Raju is married to Malti (Karisma Kapoor), a comedy of errors follows. The comedy caper did very well commercially and cemented the position of Govinda as a hero of the masses, but predictably had very little about the actual life of a coolie.
The remake follows the same plot line as that of the 1995 original — pandit Jai Kishen who wants to settle scores with a rich businessman, plots to get Raju coolie (Varun Dhawan) married to Sarah (Sara Ali Khan).
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