The new Coolie No. 1 is bait, which I will not be taking. There will be no 3,000-word essay about how the Govinda film is a cultural touchstone. Coolie No 1 was a Telugu film first, with Venkatesh and Tabu in the lead. The 1995 Hindi remake by David Dhawan was sweet and dumb, but it didn’t matter. Govinda was at the height of his comic powers then; he only had to open his mouth and audiences would start giggling. Ever wondered how bad those Dhawan films of the ‘90s would be without Govinda in them? Now you know.
If there was an assemble-a-Hindi-movie-star kit, I imagine the result would look a lot like Varun Dhawan. He’s cheeky but non-threatening, has the right kind of jaw and the requisite number of abs, can dance and clown around and fight. He has everything except personality, the one thing that Govinda—whose jawline wouldn’t cut butter—had in spades. It shows in his repeated adoption of accents and personas through this film—now Bachchan, now Mithun. Govinda was so singular a being it didn’t matter who he was playing—the character was Govinda. Dhawan is a blank slate looking for something to mimic.
David Dhawan, Varun's father, resurrects his 1995 film almost scene-for-scene. Raju (Dhawan) is a coolie at a Mumbai railway station. One day, a photograph of Sarah (Sara Ali Khan) sails into his hands, and he’s in love. As luck would have it, the person whose hands the photograph flew out of is a matchmaker, Jai Kishen (Javed Jaffrey), who’s looking to get back at Sarah’s status-obsessed father (Paresh Rawal) for rudely rejecting a boy he proposed. They conspire to pass Raju off as Raj, scion to a business empire. There is ready irony here, for Dhawan is a scion of sorts, who’s play-acting at being poor, whereas Govinda was performing the same scenes as someone who came from very little making fun of the super-rich.
Paresh Rawal is no Kader Khan, but not to the extent that Farhad Samji is no Kader Khan. By now inured to Samji’s rhyming tendencies, I only winced a little when Rawal exclaimed “Heaven on the docks, whiskey on the rocks”. This was followed a while later by “Heaven on the docks, the door (inaudible) has locks”; “Heaven on the docks, I am the lomdi and I am the fox” (fox is lomdi in Hindi); “Heaven on the docks, have you packed your small frocks?”, when he’s pimping his other daughter out to what he thinks is Raj’s identical twin. There are four more instances, once again with 'frocks' and the rest with ‘box’.
In one scene, Dhawan does decent impressions of Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Ranveer Singh and Amitabh Bachchan, and gets complimented by Jaffrey. I wonder if Dhawan ever watched Timex Timepass or Videocon Flashback as a kid, shows in which a mercurial Jaffrey switched between characters and accents like a pan-Indian Robin Williams. He’s delightful here, adopting a heavy voice, wig and glasses to pass off as Raj’s secretary. That the film drops him for the last hour is both crazy and in keeping with the hundreds of other inexplicable decisions that make up this infantile comedy. Let me end by saying: for Christmas, I did not ask for Varun Dhawan in a pink nurse’s uniform saying, “Very shitty policeman, I like your cap.”
This review was published in Mint Lounge on 25 December 2020.