Laal Singh Chaddha (2022) Review

Over the decades since Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump was initially released to generally positive responses, many critics dismissed the 1994 Oscar-winning blockbuster had not aged well, particularly if viewed by today’s standard. Prior to attending the screening of Laal Singh Chaddha — the Bollywood remake of the aforementioned movie, I rewatched Forrest Gump the night before. Personally, I find many scenes in the movie still hold up pretty well except for the overly mawkish sentimentality, which could have used a more toned-down approach.

In Laal Singh Chaddha, director Advait Chandan and screenwriter Atul Kulkarni pretty much follow the storytelling beats of the 1994 original (itself was based on Winston Groom’s 1986 novel) but of course, with a few tweaks from the setting to some of the characters and dialogues. The latter even has the iconic “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get” quote appropriately changed to “life is just like a golgappa, your tummy might feel full but your heart always craves more“. The golgappa in question is actually a bite-sized Indian savoury snack typically served with spicy water.

At the heart of the movie is the title character played by Aamir Khan. We first met him on a train instead of a bench at the bus stop seen in Forrest Gump. He begins telling his life story to the passenger in front of him, beginning with his childhood era when young Laal’s (Gurfateh Grewal) mother (Mona Singh) brought him to the doctor to wear the leg braces.

He then meets Rupa during his first day of school and they quickly become best friends. We also learn he is also bullied by the local boys as they love throwing stones at him, resulting in Rupa yelling “Run, Laal, run!” in English subtitles. Laal sure runs pretty fast to the point he loses his leg braces altogether.

Gurfateh Grewal as the younger Laal in "Laal Singh Chaddha" (2022)

The rest of the movie sees Laal’s extraordinary journey as a grown-up adult continues from inadvertently becoming part of the medal-winning running team (instead of American football in the 1994 version) to joining the army, where he meets his fellow soldier Bala (Naga Chaitanya, the role made famous by Mykelti Williamson). But unlike Mykelti Williamson’s Bubba who always dreams of starting his own shrimp business, Bala wishes to venture into the undergarment line. He also has been wanted to marry Rupa (now played by Kareena Kapoor Khan) but just like Forrest Gump where Robin Wright’s Jenny has her own different path of ambition and expectation, Rupa has been dreaming of becoming a lead actress one day.

Frankly, I was initially worried that Laal Singh Chaddha is going to be a lazy shot-for-shot remake. Sure, there are a few iconic shots that are replicated from the 1994 version, namely the famous opening floating-feather scene. But at least they are well-executed. The movie also includes some of the significant events of Indian history playing in the background, covering the Emergency in the 1970s during the tenure of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to the 1983 Cricket World Cup, the 1984 Anti-Sikh riots and the 1999 Kargil War. These moments are well integrated into the movie and so does a charming cameo played by Shah Rukh Khan, which is easily one of the best scenes in this movie.

Laal Singh Chaddha also effectively moves from one genre to another, mixing elements of drama, comedy as well as war and romance. The war sequence is thrillingly staged with enough grit and urgency, particularly in its tense action choreography and sound design.

However, the one thing that somehow bothers me is Laal ends up saving the enemy played by Manav Vij as Mohammad Paaji (he actually delivers a good performance except for the way his character is being written in the movie). It was an unlikely move that is far from watching Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump willing to risk his life to save the injured Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise) from the enemy line. Perhaps Chandan’s version wanted to show Laal for being such a selfless and even forgiving individual, even if he has to save an enemy responsible for massacring his fellow soldiers. Whatever the so-called noble intention here, it’s kind of hard to accept the way Laal reacts in this version. I guess Chandan is better off sticking to introducing a high-ranking Indian army officer that Laal would end up saving him instead.

Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor Khan in "Laal Singh Chaddha" (2022)

The same mawkish sentimentality seen in Forrest Gump remains present in Laal Singh Chaddha, complete with Pritam Chakraborty’s sometimes overpowering score tends to be emotionally manipulative. And yet, I do enjoy most parts of the movie and it probably has to do with Chandan’s overall absorbing direction that sustains my interest from start to end. Even though this remake runs at 159 minutes, which is nearly 20 minutes longer than the 1994 version, it hardly feels overlong.

Equally worth mentioning is the terrific cast. I admit it takes time to get used to Aamir Khan’s somewhat exaggerated bug-eyed expression of a mentally-challenged Laal and the distracting de-ageing effect to make him look younger (the actor himself is already in his 50-plus of age and he’s 57 years old this year). But the more I see his acting throughout the movie, I find myself increasingly invested with his better-than-expected performance as well as his incredible character arc. He even successfully captured the childlike innocence and naivety that the Oscar-winning Tom Hanks did so well in Forrest Gump.

His co-star, Kareena Kapoor Khan delivers a solid supporting turn as Laal’s emotionally-conflicted childhood friend Rupa while Mona Singh equally excels in her role as Laal’s mother. Telugu actor Naga Chaitanya, in the meantime, certainly does Mykelti Williamson proud with his breakthrough Hindi film debut as Bala.

Apart from the aforementioned war sequence, Laal Singh Chaddha is a technical triumph (save for some of the de-ageing effects). This includes Satyajit Pande’s stunning cinematography that showcased some of India’s beautiful landscapes regardless of suburban or urban areas. The soundtrack is just as good, which successfully captured the heart and soul of the movie.

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