Shahrukh Khan’s reputation, always a strange and nebulous thing, has been under attack lately. He’s facing competition from the resurgent Salman Khan, whose recent volley of hits has broken SRK’s own box office records. His most recent film, Ra.One, made a whole lot of money but was so heavily hyped, merchandised and promoted that the audience seemed to be suffering from fatigue. Don 2, arriving hot on its heels, is in the difficult position of both having a lot to prove and having to seem no-sweat about it. The man couldn’t have known how decisive a moment this would be, but Don 2 is the picture that may determine whether or not audiences still NEED Shahrukh Khan.
This is not the moment to jump the couch.
Because, really, the only person to whom you can compare Shahrukh Khan is Tom Cruise. Like Cruise, Khan is less an actor than a performer. He’s a brand, an ambassador, an emblem. Like Cruise, he’s one of that rare breed of movie stars who, through the sheer force of their eccentricities and bigness, invite armchair psycho-analysis. His films carry a meta-narrative, each acting as one more installation in the hall of mirrors that plays his perceived self against his persona. When Cruise went off the deep-end, his response was to give a forehead-burstingly adrenalized performance in Mission: Impossible 3 that more or less said, “You think you’ve seen CRAZY?” Look no further than Khan’s Om Shanti Om to see a movie star so aware of and reactive to his own public image that nearly every frame is both a tribute to and parody of exactly how famous and untouchable he’s become.
Also, like Tom Cruise, everyone thinks he’s gay.
So once you wade through the gay rumors, the workaholic publicity schedule, the overwhelming PR blitz that can attend his films, the “Muslim problem”, the awards, the seemingly stable marriage/producing partnership, the feuds with former collaborators, once you pick through ALL THAT, you’re left with the movies.
You’re left with Don 2.
Awash in stunts, exotic locales, one-liners and double-crosses, Don 2: The Chase Continues primarily peddles the most valuable, and rare, commodity a movie can offer these days: genuine star power. Anyone can star in a movie these days, it seems, but if you want to watch a born supernova having an indecently good time commanding the screen, look no further. As the titular underworld mastermind, Shahrukh Khan twinkles malevolently at lesser mortals and purrs lines like, “When Don’s enemies are planning their first move, Don has already made his next move!” He absails down the side of a tall building before casting a sly salute to his would-be assassin. He holds a beautiful woman in his arms, but not before drawing her in with his eyes. This is, to be plain, a display of weapons-grade starpower.
It’s muscular stuff in every department, from its brutal hand-to-hand combat sequences to its giggle-inducingly over-the-top car chases. Farhan Akhtar, who directed the first Don (itself a remake of the classic Amitabh Bachchan vehicle), has beefed up his action chops in the five years since. He’s also absorbed a surprising amount of Euro-style. There’s a spareness, a symmetry, a chilliness to much of Don 2 that feels positively French. Gone are the wild festivals and club dances of Don. This is a straight-up heist picture, one that glides from setpiece to setpiece with supreme confidence and style. There’s only one song in it, and it’s a delightful one that starts off featuring the lovely Lara Dutta before Khan simply strolls into it and basks in the adoration of his chorines. Other than that it’s all business, and that may surprise people going in hoping for a dose of masala. There are almost no subplots here; it’s a dynamically focused narrative.
Of course, to discuss that narrative would be to ruin one of the main pleasures of Don 2: you can never exactly guess where it’s going, and when you think you have it pinned down, enough seeds of doubt have been planted to keep you looking for the next betrayal. When a thriller has you guessing about whether characters are double or triple crossing each other, it has you right where it wants you. Suffice it to say that in Don 2, Don has a fiendish plan, one that begins with turning himself over to Interpol and going to jail. Why he does this is not immediately clear, but when he reveals his intentions, the film simulates the pleasing sensation of watching Tetris pieces fall into place, with the same gradual acceleration. By the end, as betrayals pile on top of each other, you may find yourself laughing at the wicked audacity of it all (crucially, though, the script plays fair). Khan’s naked calculation as a performer, sometimes a detriment to taking him seriously, has never been better employed.
The supporting cast are total pros, some with a lot to do and some with not much. Don’s fetching prey/pursuer Roma is again played by Priyanka Chopra, who is asked to do not much but pout and wear outfits that may not be regulation Interpol. A neat third act turn demands more of her, but otherwise she’s there to prop up the dominant romance in SRK’s filmography: the one he has with himself.
Om Puri hasn’t much more to do, but he’s a welcome presence. The most fun to be had among the supporting cast is with Kunal Kapoor, as gawky and appealing as ever, and Boman Irani, who in every scene finds new and amusing ways of looking pissed off.
It all comes back to King Khan in the end. Every character is defined by their reaction to Don. Fear, hatred, desire, fanboy gawking, Khan drinks up all of it with relish. This may be the first underworld kingpin to say, “No autographs, please.” In an illustrative sequence, Don sneaks into a cocktail party by disguising himself….as post-SRK superstar Hrithik Roshan. After a brief, elegant dance and some flashes of those beautiful eyes, Roshan rips off a mask to reveal Khan’s beaming, leonine visage. Ta-dah. It’s that sequence which best reveals Don 2 as less an ordinary movie than a state of the union address. The message is this: “There’s only one King, and the King is back. Relax and enjoy the show.” Don 2 makes it very easy to do just that.