There are plenty of movies that should be adapted into other cultures. Die Hard would do well in any language. Before Sunrise too. The opposite of those films is Forrest Gump, a movie so seeped in American culture that I thought any attempt to remake it would be disastrous. So props to Bollywood for at least attempting the unadaptable. And dya know what? Laal Singh Chaddha avoids most of the disastrous pitfalls trying to replicate the magic of the 1994 Baby Boomer American nostalgia trip. Props!
If you know the plot of Forrest Gump, this movie doesn’t stray from it too much. For those who don’t know, Laal Singh Chaddha (Aamir Khan) boards a train with a box of gol gappes, messily eating them to the minor horror of his train mates. Friendly but not the brightest tool in the shed, Laal introduces himself, and starts recounting his life. And what a life it is, as Laal ends up in important places in Indian history from the 1980s until 2010s. Laal also introduced his new train mates to important people in his life: his mom (Mona Singh), Balaraju Bodi, or Bala (Naga Chaitanya, the Bubba character from Forrest Gump), Mohammad Paaji (Manav Vij, the Lieutenant Dan), and most importantly, the love of Laal’s life, Rupa (Kareena Kapoor).
It’s kind of amazing how well India’s history from the 1980s to 2010s has moments that mirror American history from 1950 to 1980. If you’re not from India and want a brief history lesson on some of the big events there, Laal Singh Chaddha was quite informative. So with one minefield of pitfalls avoided, now comes the harder part: supporting character adaptation. How do you transform ultra specific American characters like Bubba, Lieutenant Dan, and Jenny and place them into a more Indian context? Writer Atil Kulkarni makes some daring, interesting changes to facilitate a decent cultural transition. The best of which was Mohammad Paaji. Initially I was fearful, because they gave the Lt. Dan backstory to Laal instead. However, Mohammad’s backstory in Laal Singh Chaddha is as interesting at Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump, and his character arc is as satisfying as Lt. Dan’s was. The changes to the other characters however aren’t as successful, because they place more of a barrier between Laal/the audience and the character. For example, Rupa has a tragic backstory for sure, but it’s much more implied in India’s adaptation, so we don’t feel hurt like Robin Wright made audience’s feel with Jenny.
Which brings us to Laal himself. This is the biggest gamble of all, because it is a tightrope of a character. Stray too heavily into Laal’s simple mindedness, and we have a Simple Jack on our hands that is frankly, unwatchable and abhorrent and torpedoes the entire film. Plus, Forrest Gump kind of only works because Tom Hanks was at the peak of his acting powers, and through his acting magic kept the audience from really thinking about how crazy the movie’s premise was. Thankfully, Aamir Khan is as brave and talented as Hanks. His take on the character flirts with the abhorrent line, but Khan almost always dials it back when things get weird and picks a couple simple strange but not condescending acting choices for Laal: big unblinking eyes and a strange walk/run mostly. He does well enough with the big character moments (though the biggest one Hanks runs circles around him), probably mostly failed by the subtitles, which wash away the Hindi dialect wholesomeness I assume he’s giving the character.
In spite of my fears, because the right people were in the right place in time, Laal Singh Chaadha gives us some of that movie magic Forrest Gump tapped into in 1994. My congratulations to Aamir Khan, who took a character I thought was unadaptable and somehow made it work in a completely different cultural context. I want to see him next as Jules in Pulp Fiction. Won’t THAT be something crazy for Bollywood? Ha!