Despite tall claims and promises, Aamir Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha turned out to be no more than another Bollywood film. Its makers had said that it is going to be an official adaptation of the Academy-award winning American film Forrest Gump that had Tom Hanks in Aamir’s role. But it seems that it was a risky job for an Indian filmmaker. And they did not take that risk. In the end, the Hindi remake ends up being a “non-controversial, innocent and decent” venture.
Here are the six major points of difference between Forrest Gump and its Indian remake:
The gaze: Forrest Gump looks at America from a Whiteman’s perspective. It depicts the itinerary of a white Caucasian guy, Forrest Gump. At the same time, it captures the journey of that country. During these two parallel and shared journeys, the burden of painful and embarrassing moments in the nation’s life is also shared by Robert Zemeckis’ film. After all, the protagonist played by Tom Hanks is White. He is mainstream. When America loses in the Vietnam War or when racism and segregation is being witnessed in the country, or when American youth are drowning in drugs, the character Forrest Gump is shown sharing the collective responsibility as an American.
The lead character of Laal Singh Chaddha is a Sikh, a minority community in India. The lead actress a Christian. These two castings are crucial. The narrative is bound to change once the protagonists are cast Sikh or a Christian. A Sikh youth and Christian girl conveniently discussing that Lal Krishna Advani’s Rath Yatra is being led by a ‘Laal!’ trivialises the seriousness of the issue. Chaddha’s association with contemporary India’s national events comes to the forefront only when his own community is directly affected — the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the subsequent 1984 anti-Sikh riots. The makers of Laal Singh Chaddha set the limits for the film by not choosing a lead character from the majority dominant Hindu community. This changes the gaze vis a vis the original.
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The stand on Indian culture: The school principal in Forrest Gump is a complex and evil character. He seeks sex from Gump‘s mother in lieu of giving her son admission in the school. The child may or may not be aware of the ghastliness of the incident. He is a reluctant or passive beneficiary of the deal, but is also angry about it. This is one of the defining moments in the film.
On the other hand, the principal in the movie Laal Singh Chaddha is shown to be very compassionate. As soon as Laal’s mother tells her that she will cook food for him and also clean the house, the principal agrees to admit her son but doesn’t allow her to do the household chores. This whole admission affair in the Aamir Khan movie gets a bland, ordinary treatment. This key difference from the American original makes Laal Singh Chaddha a weak movie. It might not have been possible for the Indian filmmakers to muster the courage and depict a guru (teacher) as a sexual predator.
Nationalism and war: Forrest Gump also tells the story of one of America’s greatest embarrassments. The film shows Gump fighting in the Vietnam War. A war that saw the defeat of a superpower. The film doesn’t shy away from showing piles of dead bodies and blood of US soldiers. The anti-war movement is vividly depicted in the film and Forrest Gump and his wife Jenny shown participating in anti-war demonstrations.
The makers of Laal Singh Chaddha had an option to show the failed Indian Peace Keeping Mission (IPKF) in Sri Lanka—a dark chapter in India’s independent history. But they decided to show the Kargil War, in which the Indian Army drove out Pakistani infiltrators. Had the filmmakers decided to take the story of Laal Singh Chaddha further back, they could have shown the Indo-China war of 1962, another low point in Indian history. But these wars or operations had no glory for India or Indians. Re-making something like Forrest Gump must have been a difficult task in India.
Racism not a North-South divide: Forrest Gump confronts another major embarrassment of America — racism. In the process, it brings out the inglorious past and, to an extent present as well, of the white people. Gump’s family is shown to have a linkage with one of the founders of America’s most infamous racist organisation, the Ku Klux Klan. The film shows how White students made fun of Black students when they first arrive at the University of Alabama. It also tells how black youth were drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. The story of racism is told mainly through Gump’s Black friend Buford Bubba.
Laal Singh Chaddha tells the story of India without even touching the Indian model of birth-based discrimination — casteism. Chaddha is from an upper caste Sikh family. The caste did not harm him in any way. He studied in Delhi University during the days of anti-Mandal Commission movement but the incident does not affect Chaddha’s life in any way. The film features Bala, a South Indian, playing the role equivalent of Bubba. But equating Blacks with South Indians is an act of absurdity. Laal Singh Chaddha, thus, skips talking about one of the most atrocious traits of Indian social life.
The obvious enemies: Forrest Gump doesn’t have an explicitly negative character. The two characters who also have some negative traits are the principal at Gump’s elementary school and Lieutenant Dan of the US Army. Both are White. No villain has been prominently portrayed among the Vietnamese with whom the American army is at war.
But in Laal Singh Chaddha, leader of the infiltrators at Kargil had to be a Muslim. He and his fellow terrorists are shown to be initiated in the terror module after they listen to the tale of ‘72 virgins in the heaven’. His life is saved by Laal and he goes back to Pakistan as a reformed person. Thus, Laal Singh Chaddha joins hundreds of Indian films looking for enemies across the border. Abu Salem, Monica Bedi, Dawood Ibrahim, Ajmal Kasab, all feature in Advit Chandan’s film. But post temple movement riots have no villains, in the film.
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The female lead contrast: Jenny, the love interest of Forrest Gump, chases a mirage all her life. Her life is rudderless and devastated. She spends time with her abusive boyfriend who is also a leader of the New Left student movement. She gets into drugs, hippie culture, unbridled sex, and catches a viral disease, probably AIDS. She takes part in anti-war protests. This is the story of an entire rebel generation of America. The film also tells about the abuse (probably sexual) that Jenny is subjected to by her father.
In contrast, Laal Singh Chaddha‘s female protagonist is a woman running after success and money. She becomes a victim of exploitation, suffers a lot and finally returns to Chaddha’s rural cultured life to marry him. She is no rebel like Jenny. She gets into a relationship with a boy in college just because he is very rich. All she needs is success and money. Rupa’s father in Laal Singh Chaddha is a cruel husband but the movie remains silent on the interactions between the father and the daughter—thus remains protected the sanctity of the daughter-father relationship. This is the limit of Bollywood movie making.
Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)