Words by Siddhant Adlakha
Forrest Gump seems like the last movie that could benefit from a cross-cultural remake. The 1994 Robert Zemeckis classic—adapted by Eric Roth, from the novel by Winston Groom—was specifically and quintessentially American in its nostalgic jukebox retelling of 20th century history, made during a period of economic boom. However, its long-delayed Hindi language remake, Laal Singh Chaddha, from original distributors Paramount, proves effective both through its broad similarities, and through its commendable departures. The specifics may have been tweaked, but the core tenets remain, both as the remarkable life story of a mentally challenged man loving his way through darkness, and as a broad reflection of national identity.
Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan—of Lagaan, Rang De Basanti and 3 Idiots fame—plays Laal, Forrest’s Sikh stand-in, sometime in the mid-to-late 2010s. Directed by Advait Chandan, and written by Khan’s Rang De co-star Atul Kulkarni (his first screenplay; quite a challenge!), the remake features the exact same structure as its American counterpart, and many of the same highlights, to the point that Roth is given official credit. At the outset, and through its trailers, Laal Singh Chaddha appears to be just another beat-for-beat Indian remake, swapping out Forrest’s box of chocolates for golgappas, a savory streetside delicacy, and his bench at a bus stop with a crowded train, as he regales fellow passengers with anecdotes from his past. Like Forrest, Laal witnesses and partakes in several historical events, as the movie substitutes the Vietnam war for India’s 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan, Bubba Gump Shrimp for a prominent underwear brand (which Laal co-founds with the sweet, sympathetic Bala, played by Telugu star Naga Chaitanya in his Hindi debut), and the American countryside, across which Forrest runs for several years, with the most picturesque parts of India’s landscape, from the beaches of Kanyakumari to the snow capped peaks of Ladakh.
If you’ve seen Forrest Gump, and are at all familiar with recent Indian history, you can likely predict the film’s chronology. However, what is deeply surprising about Laal Singh Chaddha is the minor changes it makes as it moves through this backdrop—changes which have larger implications. It might sound blasphemous to fans of the original, but some of these departures make Chandan’s version more emotionally effective, at least during the initial act. The story Laal narrates begins in 1977 just as India emerges from its extended Emergency, a two-year period of great constitutional overreach. The decision to make Laal a Sikh character (played as a young boy by Ahmad Ibn Umar, and shortly thereafter by Khan) has immediate ramifications for a film that begins under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, but it doesn’t skirt around the ugliness that would follow. Laal and his family don’t just hear about the 1984 prolonged military operation at the Golden Temple—a holy site for Sikhisim—but they bear witness to it firsthand while visiting family in Amritsar. When the Prime Minister is assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards months later, the family is nearby, in New Delhi, and is forced to escape the subsequent pogrom against their religious minority. In Forrest Gump, history happens around the main character, but in the first act of Laal Singh Chaddha, history happens to him, imbuing his story with gravity and immediacy.
The specifics may have been tweaked, but the core tenets remain, both as the remarkable life story of a mentally challenged man loving his way through darkness, and as a broad reflection of national identity.
The aforementioned violence towards Sikhs brings to mind more recent pogroms, like widespread attacks by Hindu nationalists on New Delhi’s Muslim communities in February 2020, by which time filming was already underway (notably, both the actors who play Laal, Khan and Umar, happen to be Muslim, so the imagery feels especially potent). This isn’t the movie’s only echo either: the 1992 demolition of a prominent mosque, and the subsequent bombings in Mumbai (then Bombay) feature in the story’s backdrop too, forcing Laal’s mother (Mona Singh) to concoct excuses, like a malaria epidemic, that force him to stay indoors, far away from the brewing religious conflicts. The frequency with which Laal fears the spread of malaria is both amusing and a dispiriting reminder of how often Indian headlines have been dominated by communal violence over the years, and how normal terrorism feels in some major cities.
However, it’s also worth noting that most of the violence depicted, while religious in nature, unfolded during the leadership of Congress party Prime Ministers, rather than the currently-in-power Bharatiya Janata Party, or the BJP, a right wing Hindu nationalist party. A similar major event which the movie notably doesn’t feature is the 2002 riots in Gujarat, where—under the state leadership of Narendra Modi, India’s current Prime Minister—inter-faith violence unfolded, with Modi being accused of condoning attacks on Muslim citizens. Khan has been vocally critical of Modi and the BJP in the past, but Laal Singh Chaddha seems to skirt around any explicit critiques, opting mostly for metaphorical ones. Whatever the reasons—in the movie’s defense, there has been a chilling effect against dissenting voices since Modi’s 2014 election—the result feels occasionally lopsided from a political standpoint.
Granted, by the time the 2010s roll around in the film’s timeline, its focus is largely emotional, following Laal dealing with grief, and with his “will they, won’t they” romance with would-be actress Rupa (Kareena Kapoor), the Jenny equivalent, who becomes the center of a particularly bizarre and disconnected subplot. However, the movie doesn’t entirely ignore the current climate, despite its trepidations. As Laal takes a break from daily life and runs across the country, he’s eclipsed, in one scene, by an enormous political poster of a newly-elected Modi, whose imposing presence seems to loom over the film even beforehand, despite the near-total absence of him, his administration, and any criticisms against them.
By refusing to comment directly on contemporary India, the film becomes an inadvertent cipher for what sort of criticism is permissible. Ironically, there have already been calls to boycott the movie sight unseen, owing to comments which Khan made all the way back in 2015, about the nation’s rising intolerance. Another notable departure (one best left unspoiled) is what the movie does with its equivalent of Lieutenant Dan, the character Forrest rescues in Vietnam. It’s a massive, jaw-dropping swing, and in the context of this growing intolerance, a genuinely risky decision, given how it ends up dovetailing into the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks (the equivalent of Forrest having witnessed 9/11). On one hand, despite this subplot speaking to how love and understanding can defeat hatred—a simple, childlike moral, but one that seems baked into Laal’s DNA as a character—it’s a decision sure to ignite the furor of those already branding Khan an “anti-nationalist” (a term used frequently to squash dissent). But it may also rightly invite criticism from those who see it as a half-measure or an empty gesture towards tolerance of different faiths, without much rigor as to the underlying political reasons for an intolerant India. There is, perhaps, no winning for a for-profit studio product like Laal Singh Chaddha, one forced to straddle the line between explicit and implicit social critique, owing to the climate of instant nationalistic backlash in which it was birthed.
Isolated from all this context—as much it can be viewed through such a lens—the movie still proves emotionally deft. Khan’s work, though it takes a while to settle into (given his distracting, borderline-offensive tics when playing up Laal’s disabilities), is as vulnerable as Tom Hanks’ landmark performance, which won him an Oscar (though it’s unlikely the Academy will repeat the accolade for an Indian remake, since Indian cinema is seldom on their radar). Khan’s approach to the original’s more difficult material, whether confessions of love or moments of intense self-doubt, conjures a devastating and moving honesty. Khan, now 57, is digitally de-aged and slimmed down for much of the movie, but his eyes remain captivating no matter how well or poorly these effects are rendered.
Chandan, for the most part, has a light and unobtrusive visual touch, letting emotions and landscapes largely speak for themselves, but he ensures that several key moments from the original retain their rousing impact, via dreamlike formal flourishes like slow-motion and a painterly use of sunlight. Apart from the movie’s opening scene—which follows a feather floating gently on the wind—he never seeks to imitate Zemeckis. The music takes a zippy, jazz-inspired approach for more comedic scenes (courtesy of composer Tanuj Tiku), and it also includes several moving songs by artist Pritam, which play over dramatic montages like a Greek chorus. These are a far cry from Alan Silvestri’s wistful strings in the original, but while the two films can be delineated stylistically in many ways, where Laal Singh Chaddha most stands apart is in its thorny complications.
While the two films can be delineated stylistically in many ways, where Laal Singh Chaddha most stands apart is in its thorny complications.
In Forrest Gump, whether the protagonist helps shape American history or experiences it up close, the film’s approach is largely nostalgic. Its sense of nationalism is a pervading background fixture, despite its near-constant presence. It’s a given, always assumed and rarely questioned. The remake, on the other hand, seems to wrestle much more overtly with ideas of national identity, even when it might not mean to. It turns Laal’s army enlistment into a matter of lineage—his father, grandfather, and great grandfather all died in battle—and its Kargil scenes are an overt departure from the film’s otherwise satirical, tongue-in-cheek fabric, where Laal is none the wiser to what’s really happening around him. Instead, these war sequences play up the jingoism. The film tries, in some ways, to reclaim what nationalism means, between its rejection of majoritarian violence wrought upon minorities, and its adoration for a nebulous “Indian-ness” captured through gorgeous landscapes and notions of militaristic pride, with romantic scenes set against India Gate, the famous New Delhi memorial to fallen soldiers.
This doesn’t always work, given that these reclamations are largely symbolic, rather than being rooted in social, political, or religious specificities. What Laal Singh Chaddha rejects is usually specific, but who and what it chooses to embrace is left to the imagination.
However, this does inadvertently yield scenes that question what India, and Indian-ness, even mean anymore, when violence remains the go-to lingua franca, whether in punishing dissenting minorities, or in imbuing an alternative sense of pride and togetherness via militaristic missions against foreign enemies. This dichotomy is fundamentally disconnected, in a way the movie might not intend—these notions are, ultimately, fuel for the exact same fire—but this thematic dilemma inadvertently elevates Laal himself. He’s a man whose understanding of the world is so kind (and perhaps naive) as to be binary, because while violence unfolds constantly in his peripheries, righteous or otherwise, he himself would seldom, if ever, resort to it. History happens to him in the first act, but he remains a passenger to it for the remainder of the movie, an adult who doesn’t meet the violence wrought upon him with violence in return, even if it means he has little to no hand in subsequent events. And while this leads to a lack of propulsion compared to what came before, it also separates Laal from Forrest in a vital way. Where Forrest felt like an intrinsic fixture of American culture, impacting everything from its music to its politics, India has always been too complicated for Laal to understand or meaningfully influence.
It can be difficult to turn a cross-cultural remake into something that works in a brand-new context, but Laal Singh Chaddha is an effective (if messy) adaptation that not only localizes the specifics of Forrest Gump, but translates its relationship with its setting, swapping the self-professed peace and prosperity of ’90s America for the more volatile and nationalistic climate of modern India, where the country’s image of itself remains in constant flux. Watching and comparing the two is a journey not only across countries, but across time, where it feels increasingly like society rests on a knife’s edge—and like kindness is in desperately short supply.
Published on August 9, 2022