An Indian diamond thief plans a heist at Dubai’s glitziest resort during a massive dance contest
More than just a sip of fizzy fun, this 3-hour comedy is Jeroboam-sized. Farah Khan’s Happy New Year is an ambitious musical, a love story, an Oceans 11-style crime caper and an ensemble comedy destined to reap generous returns for its star Shah Rukh Khan’s production house Red Chillies and distributor Yash Raj Films over this big-ticket Diwali weekend.
The film has broken all opening night records for any Indian film, beating out Hrithik Roshan’s Bang Bang! and even Aamir Khan’s smash Dhoom:3 both in the U.S. and in India.
Farah Khan has long been one of India’s most influential choreographers, and when she turned director with the college love story Main Hoon Na (2004), starring Shah Rukh Khan, she developed a reputation for an action-and-music-packed kitchen sink approach to Bollywood filmmaking marked with striking visuals and a playful aesthetic. Her hit 2007 reincarnation-themed romantic comedy Om Shanti Om, which also starred Shah Rukh Khan and launched Deepika Padukone, was followed by the relatively obscure Tees Maar Khan.
Happy New Year has been promoted over the past months with an unprecedented efforts which included a massive stage show tour in September in which the stars lipsynced and danced to its songs before sold out arenas full of fans who had paid up to $500 per ticket.
Khan's trademark is madcap, silly humor and big-scale emotion punctuated with truly dazzling dance numbers, and she’s famous for zooming in on her heroes and heroines as their gazes smolder and their hair sweeps back, blown by an unseen fan.
Khan also specializes in the big, flashy intro, and this film is no exception: when we first see Shah Rukh Khan, he’s shirtless, wrestling in a mud-pit in extreme slow motion. When he scrapes the mud from his face to reveal that familiar scowl, the audience responds ecstatically on cue.
Chandramohan “Charlie” Sharma (Shah Rukh Khan) and a team of ragtag diamond thieves travel to Dubai to pull off a high-tech heist designed to ruin an evil criminal (Jackie Shroff) who had victimized Charlie’s father many years ago. The thieves schedule it so that the distractions of the huge World Dance Championship obscure their actions — but Charlie and his team will have to actually compete in the dance contest to gain access to the backstage area that leads to the diamond vault.
Happy New Year relies on a few ubiquitous gimmicks that are dangerously close to their expiration date: there’s the meta Bollywood reference (in this case, entire passages of dialogue are lifted from earlier Shah Rukh Khan films for comic effect), and running gags involving gay characters (ace composer Vishal Dadlani and Gangs of Wasseypur director Anurag Kashyap make a cameo in a cringe-worthy sequence involving a merry-widow corset and a feather boa). One character has not only an incongruous and unnecessary speech impediment but also falls on the ground in epileptic seizures at the worst possible time.
Among the cast, Boman Irani is solidly funny as a pudgy, 50-something safecracker; Sonu Sood pokes fun at his bodybuilding image by managing to have his shirt fly off at the wrong moments; and Vivaan Shah, the son of art-house star Naseeruddin Shah, holds his own as a bright young hacker.
It’s refreshing to see the hammy Shah Rukh Khan in an ensemble piece, bouncing off his costars as they come together to plan the biggest diamond heist of the decade in the world’s blingiest city.
But it’s Deepika Padukone and Abhishek Bachchan who leave the most lasting impression: Padukone plays a slightly ditzy, though deadly serious, dance teacher tasked with bringing these thieves up to competition quality, and she aces her solo dance numbers (most strikingly, the erotic “Lovely”) with a riveting presence.
Bachchan can be uneven in more serious roles (Dhoom:3, Guru) but the son of screen king Amitabh Bachchan is developing a reputation as a gifted comic (Bol Bachchan) and he shines here as a drunk, unfocused loser who has to impersonate the brutish scion to a diamond empire, complete with a pink velvet blazer, a sculpted pencil-thin beard and a vulgar American accent.
Production: Red Chillies Entertainment
Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone, Abhishek Bachchan, Boman Irani, Sonu Sood, Vivaan Shah and Jackie Shroff
Director: Farah Khan
Screenwriters: Farah Khan, Althea Kaushal, and Mayur Puri
Producer: Gauri Khan
Executive producer: Niraj Pamwani
Director of photography: Manush Nandan
Production designer: Shashank Tere
Editors: Anand Subaya and Tushar Parekh
Composers: Vishal Dadlani and Shekhar Ravjiani
Casting: Aadore Mukherjee, Mehra
Unrated, 180 minutes
Expectations can be a burden, and “Happy New Year” is heavy laden: director Farah Khan and leading man Shahrukh Khan (no relation) have made two prior features, 2004's “Main Hoon Na” and 2007's “Om Shanti Om,” that fall anywhere between “a lot of fun” and “all-time classic” depending on whom one asks, and there are plenty of people one can ask, as both films were enormously popular. Not to mention, Farah's choreography kept Shahrukh from falling off the top of a train in “Dil Se.” For Western audiences unfamiliar with these titles, suffice to say, this director-star duo's reunion is A Very Big Deal. And, as if that wasn't enough, they've been developing, to some degree or other, “Happy New Year” for almost a decade.
While a compelling argument that expecting another “Om Shanti Om” or a work of similarly awe-inspiring scale is setting the bar unfairly high, even resetting all factors to neutral, “Happy New Year” would be a mysteriously sloppy piece of work. Its premise is a tantalizing one given the director's immense skill as a choreographer and visual stylist and deft hand with comedy. The son of a convicted thief assembles a team to exact revenge against the sinister tycoon who framed the father by stealing a set of invaluable diamonds, which requires that the avengers enter a dance competition. The execution of that premise is extremely erratic; there are few movies in living memory that ricochet between shockingly offensive comic business and utterly disarming hilarity as drastically as this one.
It's that mercurial aspect to the comedy that causes hesitation before branding it outright as homophobic or racist. There are mean-spirited straight male gay panic gags side by side with awkward but clearly affectionate normalizing of gay desire. There are truly shocking moments of racism toward East Asians (including a “they all look alike” joke that, although scorned by another character on-screen, is still a “they all look alike” joke in 2014), side by side with a whole subplot about Shahrukh showing how progressive he is by being nice to a North Korean kid.
Almost the entire first half of the movie, until the intermission, is a bit of a disaster. The second half, featuring more dancing and the fruition of the heist plot, is a good deal more fun. The heist sequences are tensely staged, goofily over-the-top convolution in the spirit of “Ocean's Eleven” or Shahrukh Khan's own “Don” remake and sequel, defying logic and even rational linearity at every turn, and quite fun. But it's the dance sequences, featuring cortex-melting costume design and Farah Khan choreography—it's not her best work, but even a slightly off-her-game Farah Khan towers over mere mortals—go a long way toward making the whole enterprise worthwhile.
That the sum total of the enterprise is “a bunch of movie stars goofing off and dancing a bit” shouldn't serve entirely as a dismissal. Abshishek Bachchan is a surprising standout in a dual role as the villain's layabout son—complete with blue contact lenses and a hilariously on-point American accent—and the out-of-control drunk the good guys recruit because he's a dead ringer. Often a fatally stiff actor and atrocious dancer, Bachchan seems like someone opened his physical comedy valve here, giving his loosest, funniest performance in years, if not ever. And as for his dancing, well, the whole point is that the heroes are bad dancers here. Deepika Padukone's role as the professional brought in to whip them into shape is lamentably small and undemanding; hiring a star of her caliber for a role this undemanding is overkill. But that's one of “Happy New Year”'s principal reasons for being: everyone in the movie is a star.
This is not, to put it mildly, Shahrukh Khan operating at the peak of his powers. That Padukone quotes one of his better moments (a motivational speech he delivered to the girl's field hockey team he coached in “Chak De! India”) with the genders flipped, before cutting to an annoyed reaction shot from SRK, says a lot about the movie as a whole. That and other callbacks to his previous glories merely highlight the degree to which he's on autopilot for much of the film here. But, as with the director, even sub-peak SRK is better than most. Where this differs is that there are a bunch of other movie stars visibly trying a lot harder right there in the same scenes with him.
If “Happy New Year” inspires anyone to check out “Main Hoon Na” or “Om Shanti Om,” it will count as a success on that ground alone. On its own merits, it has some wildly fun dance sequences, some funny bits, and an impressive roster of mainstream Bollywood talent. It's a shame that those positives can't entirely outweigh the messy, lazy and dumb stuff that pads out the remainder of the running time.