Akshay Kumar’s Raftaar is the heroine to Amy Jackson’s heroic Sara

Back in 2000, the same year that Priyanka Chopra was crowned Miss World, Lara Dutta won Miss Universe and everyone thought a new star was born. At least, the crowned beauty and the industry did. The two pageant show winners co-starred in 2003 in their first film, Andaaz, opposite none other than Akshay Kumar. Dutta played the lead, who Kumar’s character is in love with, while Chopra played the supporting lead, who was supposed to be in love with Kumar.

Cut to 2015. Chopra is turning heads as the lead of Quantico, an American TV series. In sharp contrast, Dutta having been forgotten altogether (post flops, marriage and motherhood) makes a comeback in a supporting role opposite the same Kumar. Only now, Dutta is playing second fiddle to a British model and non-actress, Amy Jackson, in Prabhudheva’s Singh is Bliing. Fortune is a fickle mistress, it seems.

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However, Dutta knows how to turn the tables. Her sidekick status is only on paper. Sure, she may not be the face on the posters and she isn’t the heroine whom both the hero and the villain covet in Singh is Bliing. But as far as grabbing the limelight goes, Dutta leaves the film’s official heroine way behind. She finally does what she is here for — to act. Dutta’s previous films, No Entry and Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, had shown some of her potential at comic timing. In Singh is Bliing, they finally come to the fore.

Sporting bright, thick glasses and braided plaits, Dutta is almost unrecognisable as the Goan translator, Emily. Most appropriately, she is addressed in the film as “Imli” … thodi khatti, thodi meethi. She is overweight – just enough to look less attractive than the heroine; but sexy enough to attract two other men in the film. She’s a little clumsy and scheming in a way that could be evil if she wasn’t so thoroughly charming.

Sandwiched between the Kumar’s Raftaar Singh and Sara the Indo-Romanian ninja, Dutta’s Emily makes the most of being the cheesy spread. Bright, floral, pink, pleated skirts; poorly matched yellow tops;navy blue jackets and over the top accessories like hairbands and large earrings may not do much for her sex appeal, but Dutta wears them with panache. Since she’s the via medium for the film’s romantic plot, she’s in almost every frame that Kumar and Jackson share, including the popular and hilarious “Dil kare chu che”. End result: her meaty part is far more chew-worthy than Jackson’s.

Any other actress might have asked for a romantic sub plot to justify her past star status. But, interestingly, Prabhudeva’s film makes no such attempt. Dutta doesn’t need a happy ending. She’s got enough good cheer and gusto to power her through one of the more cleverly written supporting roles in recent Hindi cinema.

She fulfills the comedic requirements with the same ease that she carries her slinky nightie, which is her sleepwalking uniform. Sashaying to gibberish lyrics and a tune that seesaws between the horrific and the comic, Emily is tempting enough to draw two men out of the comfort of their beds.

First, Raftaar’s friend – let’s call him Sidekick 1 – opens the door to see a smiling but blank ‘Imli’ standing at the door, in a sexy short nightie. She turns and walks, out of the house, towards a moonlit beach. Sidekick 1 follows, gleefully. In a beautiful long shot, Imli’s back is seen, sitting next to a small boat. Sidekick 1,hopefully sidles up to her. The camera doesn’t move, but Emily does. She picks up a coconut and slam dunks it, squashing both hopes and a very different variety of nuts. This exact same sequence is repeated with Raftaar’s other friend.

And with that, out goes the metaphorical image of the heroine who may be sexy but is made to sleepwalk through her roles. This Emily is no sex object, which she proves with the coconut used like a grenade.

While for Dutta, the added years have meant that she can show off her acting skills and not grab eyeballs merely because of her looks, the exact opposite seems to be happening with Akshay Kumar.

Taller, leaner, sexier, the 48-year-old Akshay Kumar cheerfully tries to pass off as a 20-something Sikh lad, relying upon colourful turbans, his giant grin and the phenomenal energy with which he dances the bhangra. Here’s the really amazing part: it sorta, kinda works.

In Dutta’s case, she has to downplay her looks in order to prove she isn’t a has-been in Bollywood. Kumar, on the other hand, appears to be doing the exact opposite. Simply put, he’s more endearingly handsome than he’s ever been. Kumar seems to understand that Raftaar is a sillier version of Rowdy Rathore, Prabhudheva and Kumar’s first big commercial, Hindi hit. So instead of trying to find depth or acting sequences, Kumar works with what god gave him. Kumar could make the Sikh attire the new sexy, which isn’t something that too many of us had imagined was likely. It’s purely superficial, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t pack a hormonal punch.

Plus there’s a lightness to his leaner physique and his movements that lend an easy, languid grace to his movements, whether he’s being hit on by a camel or walking a lion. Kumar leaves behind stunts and action to play Raftaar and instead casts himself as something of a marshmallow. He is happy to be beaten up for most part of the film and or stand aside, watching his lady love wear the boxing gloves. There’s even a scene in which Sara literally takes the driver’s seat. It also happens to require her to sit on Raftaar’s lap. The expression on Kumar’s face is better than that of a cat having got the cream.

In a way, Kumar is almost the heroine in the Singh is Bliing, until the end when his lion of Punjab roars and teaches villain Kay Kay Menon a lesson. This is a huge shift for a guy who has been known for being an action hero.

It isn’t until the end that Raftaar has to actually introduce himself in Singh is Bliing, and he says, “Singh, Raftaar Singh.” To which the villainous Mark (Kay Kay Menon, charming as a villain) responds with, “Bond. James Bond.”

And we all laugh, because Raftaar hasn’t exactly been the model of machismo.

Except in a few minutes, he pulls a stunt that would no doubt leave Mr Bond at a loss for words. He sends his steel kara flying like a rustic sudarshan chakra, and knocks out grown men. He charges at an army of armed goons, giving the term ‘going solo’ a whole new dimension. There are things he does with a pole that would make gymnasts gawk. And then there’s the episode with the bullet. Without giving anything away, let’s just say that the National Rifle Association of America may well champion Singh is Bliing for proving their motto that guns don’t kill people.

Singh is Bliing has become Kumar’s biggest Friday opener at Rs 20.67 crore. It seems India likes heroines who can take the mickey out of men and the idea of a hero who can play a heroine’s part.

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