Laal Singh Chaddha Is A Triumph Of Sentiment Over Sense

Director: Advait Chandan
Writer: Atul Kulkarni (Indian adaptation)
Cast: Aamir Khan, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Mona Singh, Naga Chaitanya Akkineni

The essence of “Forrest Gump” (1994) is encapsulated in one of the film’s most iconic sequences. The protagonist, a differently-abled simpleton from Alabama named Forrest (played by Tom Hanks), embarks on an endless run across the length and breadth of his country. As he continues running, people begin to take notice and speculate about his motives. Is it for women’s rights, climate change, poverty, or perhaps world peace? Reporters, activists, and ordinary folks all attach their causes to his journey, turning him into a subject of intense debate. Other runners join him, and what started as a solitary endeavor soon grows into a movement. Then, one day, Forrest abruptly stops and mumbles, “I’m tired.” His words leave everyone puzzled. After a three-year-long marathon, is that all he has to say? He simply walks away, and just like that, it’s over. In many ways, this moment was designed to be prophetic, conveying the film’s underlying message: Regardless of how you interpret me in the years to come, I am merely a parable about the capriciousness of destiny. This apolitical stance felt cunning, especially for a story that would become a monument to the values of small-town America.

However, when this sequence unfolds in “Laal Singh Chaddha” – director Advait Chandan’s heartwarming Hindi remake of “Forrest Gump” – it takes on a different significance. Forrest’s words, “I’m tired,” invite deeper contemplation. As an unwitting Sikh hero who captures the imagination of a nation marked by Hindu-Muslim conflicts, his story becomes a symbol of traditional democracy itself. Laal Singh Chaddha (Aamir Khan) grows up in proximity to Pathankot, a town bordering both Pakistan and Jammu-Kashmir. He falls in love with Rupa D’Souza (Kareena Kapoor Khan), a half-Catholic girl. He enlists in the Indian Army and forges a deep friendship with Balaraju Bodi (Naga Chaitanya), a man from Hyderabad. Most importantly, he becomes a war hero by not only rescuing his wounded comrades but also an ‘enemy.’ This act transcends the inherent conservatism of “Forrest Gump.” His Lieutenant Dan equivalent, Mohammad (Manav Vij), a presumably Pakistani fighter, is given a fresh lease on life through Chaddha’s idealism. In essence, Laal Singh Chaddha runs to all corners of India and beyond, both literally and metaphorically. And, much like the film itself, he is halted not by borders or limits but by the culmination of his journey.

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Atul Kulkarni’s writing, and his talent for translation, subtly suggest that Chaddha’s mere presence carries political weight. His innocent exploration of religion, rooted in his mother’s euphemistic description of communal violence as “malaria” to keep him indoors as a child, is inherently political. This perspective is echoed in the lyrics of the theme song, ‘Kahani’: “Or is there wisdom in ignorance?” Even his reluctance to engage in politics and his desire for simplicity hold political significance. While Forrest Gump’s heroism extended from his national identity – be American, and success will follow – Chaddha’s heroism is an indictment of his cultural identity: Be human, and history will remember you.

The background landmarks serve as Indian Easter eggs – a radio announcement marking the end of the Emergency, young Chaddha’s dance moves influencing a future superstar, the telecast of the 1983 World Cup final and the 1994 Miss Universe pageant, the 1990 Ayodhya Rath Yatra, the origin story of a famous underwear company, the controversial Milind Soman-Madhu Sapre photo spread, and the Swachh Bharat campaign. While one might expect a John Lennon-style moment with someone like A.R. Rahman and a famous track, the imagination fills in the gaps. Ultimately, it’s the events in the foreground that reveal India’s complex relationship with peace and humanity. Laal finds himself in Amritsar during Operation Blue Star and, along with his mother, gets trapped in Delhi during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Tragedy befalls him while he’s involved in a war (clearly inspired by the Kargil War). Rupa’s story draws from the Monica Bedi-Abu Salem alliance, emblematic of the Bollywood-Dubai nexus of the 1990s. The 2008 Mumbai attacks and the image of Ajmal Kasab play a role in Mohammad’s ‘cleansing,’ Laal’s friend and business partner.

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It can be argued that Laal’s bond with Mohammad reinforces the stereotype of the noble Indian rescuing a Pakistani from himself. It’s written somewhat carelessly: The longer Mohammad stays in India, the more bitter he becomes about the hatred instilled in him by his own country. However, this can also be seen as a reminder that the reverse holds true, tying into the film’s PK-style commentary on the futility of organized religion. The lengthy disclaimer at the beginning of Laal Singh Chaddha and the omission of the 2002 Gujarat riots (or any conflicts post-2014) serve as evidence of the film’s message. Governments change, but the irony persists. It still takes an outsider or an adult with a naive mind to expose a nation’s collective loss of innocence. While PK (2014) holds a mirror to our current reality, Laal Singh Chaddha looks in the rearview mirror at moments that are closer than they appear.

Aamir Khan, the producer, deserves credit for recognizing “Forrest Gump” as a film that needed reforming rather than remaking. He also backed Advait Chandan (Secret Superstar, 2017), a director blessed with the narrative manipulation of Rajkumar Hirani and the visual flair of Anurag Basu. These quirky montages and well-placed voiceovers complement a natural affinity for music. Pritam’s soundtrack oscillates between nursery-rhyme simplicity and brooding ballads, mirroring the protagonist’s black-and-white emotions. Unlike Forrest Gump, which was continually elevated by Hanks, this film succeeds despite – and not because of – Aamir Khan, the actor. Ahmad Ibn Umar as young Laal is exceptional, but his performance is nearly overshadowed by what follows.

Khan portrays Laal Singh Chaddha in a peculiar mix-and-match manner intended not to offend anyone: not the Sikh community, not the differently-abled, not the autistic, not Indians, not even wide-eyed extraterrestrials. His performance is excessive, akin to a parody of everything and nothing simultaneously. He employs a strange humming quality while speaking, which often resembles a teacher interacting with an infant (or the audience, in his case). He reacts better than he acts, particularly in scenes with Rupa and Mohammad, where Chaddha’s uncomplicated silence serves as an antidote to their inner turmoil. Rupa, positioned at the intersection of dreams (showbiz) and darkness (the underworld), is a character with agency, even in her lack of choice. This, in turn, presents Laal Singh Chaddha as less of a male savior and more of a hopeless soulmate. Kareena Kapoor Khan’s portrayal is not overdone; she plays Rupa as someone who – in stark contrast to Laal – is so desperate to make history that she becomes consumed by it. The opening shot of a feather drifting across a railway station and landing at Laal Singh Chaddha’s feet beautifully encapsulates her journey: Rupa is the breeze that mistakenly believed she was a feather.

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It has been a while since I’ve enjoyed a Hindi cinematic experience like “Laal Singh Chaddha.” Much of this can be attributed to the film’s fusion of intellect with emotion. The cerebral often transitions into an emotional experience. The writing frequently carves a path through the political landscape to reach the personal, and it’s this fable-like dimension that acquires fresh context. In “Forrest Gump,” the journey of an underdog unintentionally succeeding at life is portrayed as an ode to unhealthy coping mechanisms – where the pain of heartbreak becomes the cornerstone of greatness and fame. However, “Laal Singh Chaddha’s” seamless embrace of sentimentality transforms this journey into a more grounded metaphor: Even the most inconspicuous individuals ultimately hold significance and shape someone in their quest to survive. Even the most ordinary among us leave an indelible mark on the windshield of time. After all, life can only happen to those who are busy making other plans – or simply running because they feel like it.