One of the ways I measure the strength of a masala movie is in the amount joy I derive in watching the villains fall. By that standard, Agneepath is a phenomenal film. It brings not one, but two detestable villains to screen and it is a delight to watch them both meet their downfall at the hands of the iconic Vijay Dinanath Chauhan. A remake of a remake of a remake, like a game of chinese whispers, the story of Agneepath bears little resemblance to Brian De Palma's Scarface which originally inspired it. In the hands of Karan Malhotra, it undergoes a formidable transformation resulting in a final product that is gutsy, intelligent and bold.
For standing up against a land grabbing feudal lord, Kancha Cheena (Sanjay Dutt), Vijay's father is framed and brutally executed for a horrific crime he didn't commit. Driven out of their home in Mandva, his mother (Zarina Wahab), sister and he find shelter in the slums of Mumbai where he comes under the tutelage of sleazy child trafficker and drug lord Rauf Lala (Rishi Kapoor). Fifteen years later, as Rauf Lala and Kancha Cheena are locked in a gang war, Vijay quietly awaits his time for revenge. When the chips are finally set in place, he puts his plan in motion to exact a bloody revenge from Kancha.
Agneepath is skillfully executed by Karan Malhotra. He demonstrates a solid eye for detail in scene construction and tells the story with remarkable gusto and conviction. He focuses on the raw emotions to pack a visceral punch in several key scenes. The death of Dinanath Chauhan, the songs Shah Ka Rutba and Deva Shri Ganesha are particularly masterfully executed. His characters are well drawn, complex and rich. He effectively pays homage to the original at key points. However, he does well to steer clear from imitating it. The production design and cinematography are breathtaking. From the slums of Mumbai and their celebrations to the hellish remains of Mandva, each frame is saturated with colours and is alternately & equally, gorgeous and haunting. Of course, given the time setting, there are several anachronisms. But it's easy to overlook them. Ajay-Atul's score may not be a chartbuster but it fits the situations and the mood of the film very well.
The film also benefits from a strong ensemble. The casting is perfect. Sanjay Dutt is menacing as Kancha Cheena. Hrithik brings a youthful ferocity to his take on Vijay Dinanath Chauhan. This is easily his strongest performance since Lakshya. Priyanka Chopra finally returns to form as the lovable Kaali. Om Puri is perfect as Gaitonde. The supporting cast also consistently delivers competent performances. However, the true stud of the film is Rishi Kapoor. As Rauf Lala, Rishi Kapoor delivers a fearless performance, outshines everybody and emerges as a force to be reckoned with. It is heartening to see the veteran actor grow and experiment in films like this and Do Dooni Chaar at his age.
Unfortunately, the film is not without its flaws. Chetan Pandit's Dinanath Chauhan is nowhere nearly as effective as Alok Nath's. While the first half of the film is perfect, the second half is significantly weaker. The pace slackens especially after the introduction of Shiksha, Vijay's sister, with a barrage of songs. The over extended, unrealistic climax and the use of tacky special effects don't help things. Also, Malhotra recklessly drives the film into unnecessary melodrama in these portions resulting in emotional overkill.
Overall, Agneepath is a well executed, powerful film for the most part. It is a great throwback at the grand masala movies we grew up on like Khuda Gawah, Hum, Saudagar and Tezaab. At the same time, Malhotra reinvents the formulas of yore for a modern audience and succeeds unconditionally until the final hour. Nevertheless, Agneepath offers a well plotted, violent, gripping yarn of vengeance that will most probably feature in my year's list of best Hindi films.