Some six years after a stubborn Amrish Puri finally relented and let his daughter go – with the words, " Jaa Simran jaa" – we had another blockbuster where a stubborn Amrish Puri finally relented and let his daughter go: in effect saying "Jaa Sakina jaa." Both DDLJ and Gadar were blockbusters, and yet one film is still revered today while the other… not many talk about it, let alone write books and make documentaries about it. At least by the establishment, Gadar has generally come to be dismissed as a product of its time – but watching it again shows how powerful it is, how fresh it is. For one, how many films show the hero as a bloodthirsty Muslim-killer in his very first appearance? Later, his Muslim wife says, "Tum bhi to musalmaanon ko maar rahe the na - to mujhe kyon chhod diya?" And he realises that hatred and rage can grip you when your relatives and friends are massacred, but love sets you free. Hence the unusual title, Gadar: Ek ‘Prem Katha’. It’s an action film, but it’s built on a love story.
Now, consider the other side, after Sakina lands up in Pakistan and her parents refuse to let her go back to India. She says she cannot live without her son. Her mother reminds her that she, too, is living without her son – that is, Sakina's brother, who was butchered in front of her eyes as the family was fleeing to Pakistan. Gadar is filled with rock-solid masala moments, and the pinnacle is not the hand-pump scene but what happens just before that, when our hero is asked to embrace Islam if he wants his wife back. "Tumhe Islam qubool hai?" he is asked, and I recall how – upon the film's initial release – I expected him to burst into Sunny Deol-ian rage. It's a screenwriting masterstroke to subvert those audience expectations and have him say, very calmly… "qubool hai", and later agree to even say "Pakistan zindabad." But – and here's what good masala writing is about – there’s a point that becomes a deal-breaker, and that’s when he’s asked to say, "Hindustan murdabad." That is something Tara Singh won’t do. Again, because this is a ‘prem katha’, he chooses love. He has it in his heart to love Pakistan and wish its people well – but not at the cost of hating India and Indians.
Sunny Deol and Ameesha Patel return as Tara Singh and Sakina in Gadar 2, directed, again, by Anil Sharma, and written, again, by Shaktimaan Talwar. The two decades between the films have not been kind to masala cinema, as the art died slowly at the hands of people making movies for a more, um, “sophisticated” audience. Even Pathaan, which I quite enjoyed, is more “homage masala” than the real deal – and my main curiosity about this sequel was whether it would bring those older beats back. It does, and – to a large extent – in exactly the same way. One of the most time-tested methods of making a sequel is to tweak the formula but not necessarily reinvent the wheel. Which is why we laugh in Die Hard 2, when Bruce Willis's wife wonders, after the terrorist attack, "Why do these things keep happening to us!" It's a knowing wink at the audience. In Gadar, the wife was stuck in Pakistan, and Tara Singh had to go and get her back. In Gadar 2, their son gets stuck in Pakistan, and Tara Singh has to go get him back.
The first half is just wonderful. In the most classic way, it both reminds us of the earlier film and lays the path forward for the new one. We get reruns of Uttam Singh's blockbuster songs, 'Udja kaale kawaan' and 'Main nikla gaddi leke' – the first to establish the ongoing 'prem katha' between Tara Singh and Sakina, and the second to reinforce the 'prem katha' between the parents and the son, Charanjeet. Ameesha and Sunny play their parts exactly the same way – the former with an alphabet-level arsenal of expressions (she's essentially the Punjabi version of the gajar halwa-serving maa), and the latter with the secure knowledge that we never really went to a Sunny Deol movie to watch him act. Does he still look like he can uproot a hand pump with a bellow that can make the residents of the neighbouring state look up and wonder if it's going to rain? Yes, he does. End of story.
The surprise is Utkarsh Sharma, who, from some angles, resembles Vijay Deverakonda. He has a soft face, which the film is quick to acknowledge: a line talks about his "masoom chehra". But he brings across the love for his parents, and a much-needed vulnerability that makes you root for his safety. He also gets a sharply sketched-out love angle with Simrat Kaur. This angle helps the story along, and takes the basic premise (“love knows no borders”) to the next generation. Manish Wadhwa takes over the Pakistani villain duties from Amrish Puri. The late actor's character arc is convincingly brought to an end, and the new villain is also someone whose hatred for India harks back to 'prem': his family was butchered during the Partition. Plus, Tara Singh made a fool of the Pakistani army by killing 40 soldiers in the earlier film. All of this gives him enough motivation to refocus his hatred of a nation onto a single person. Manish Wadhwa gets lines like "Reham ki koi keemat nahi hai mazhab ki bazaar mein", and he snarls them out with enough spittle to make you want to set Tara Singh loose on him. In other words, mission accomplished.
The story lays out all these narrative and character beats incrementally, so that by the interval point, we are fully primed for Tara Singh's invasion of Pakistan. But what's surprising is how emotional (as opposed to bombastic) both the pre-interval and post-interval portions are. Pre-interval, we get a plot point from Randhir Kapoor's Henna, which sets up the reason for Tara Singh to go missing for a while. In other words, we get a worried son. And just after the interval, we get a worried father. The emotion behind Tara Singh's foray into Pakistan is not that of a hero but that of a parent. We get one of Mithoon's lovely songs, Khairiyat, where Tara Singh makes a plea to "do jahan ke malik", a god of two countries, two religions, to keep his son safe. Speaking of music, the film, set in 1971, uses a number of genres to colour its backdrop, from a thumri to soft jazz to the humming that opens a song from Aradhana.
The second half turns, expectedly, into a Sunny Deol show. But again, because the son is also involved, we get interesting diversions like a reversal of "love jihad", where Hindu men are accused of seducing innocent Muslim girls. The scene where Tara Singh reveals himself is solid: "sambhavami yuge yuge" echoes in the background, as Tara Singh holds up a cannon wheel that makes him look like Krishna with the Sudarshana Chakra. (The Gadar films are pan-religious.) But the last quarter of Gadar 2 gets repetitive and isn't as inspired as what came before it. We smile at the nod to the hand-pump moment, but when Tara Singh begins to uproot bigger and bigger things, it quickly becomes ridiculous (though still fun in a campy way). Also, the constant separations and reunions of father and son become tiring – though it's nice, after ages, to see the trope of the family song bringing family members together.
The main problem in the film’s last quarter (where the masala flavour transforms to "mass" flavour) is the over-the-top action, which is clumsy and should have been staged much better – given that there's so much of it. The relentless slo-mo gets very annoying. And the simpler patriotism of the earlier film is replaced with a more strident voice, with Vande Mataram chants and so forth. But the core of the 'prem katha' is never forgotten. We get the Good Muslim in a beautifully written scene involving Charanjeet and a Pakistani woman who gives him shelter. It's just emotional enough, without getting too sentimental. And there's a superb reimagining of the traditional Hindi-cinema "bidaai scene", where the bride is sent off to her in-laws' – but in the midst of great danger. All said, Gadar 2 works, and Tamil viewers will know what I mean when I say I left the theatre with the feeling of having watched a damn good 198os Vijayakanth movie.