I watched Dabangg twice within a few days, and after the glee of the growling, flying, and silliness has worn off, the well-structured and -paced story remains. The second time through, what I noticed most was how the story shifted focus or a new arc appeared before I realized I was ready for that happen but without lurching or short-changing any ideas or characters. There's a brevity that, for me, kept tricks like Salman's line delivery, the heartless shouting stepfather, or yet more Matrix-y stunts from bloating into annoyances. The world of Dabangg is satisfyingly murky, setting up a hero of sorts that is so much more engaging than some of the perfect police-wallahs of masala of yore the film connotes (sorry, Shashi). Nobody in this film is perfect, and they provide an important relatability that supports all the dubious deeds and CGI trickery. For every time he is blunt and thumping, Chulbul turns around and learns a lesson, does something with real heart (standing by his mother, working to make his lady-love smile, forgiving his brother), or slays you with a flash of emotional turmoil.
I also loved how the villain's true nature was revealed slowly, starting with just a minor ego clash with our hero to classic criminal to political player to full-on evil just when it counted most. And as someone who doesn't particularly care about fight choreography, I was grateful that the brawls and chases were evenly spread throughout the film - and often mixed with humor that worked for me, most notably Chubul stopping mid-clash to shimmy to a baddie's cell phone ring. Bravo to the writers (director Abhinav Kashyap, who also worked on the enjoyable 13 B and dark and careful Manorama Six Feet Under, with a story assist from Dilip Shukla of Andaz Apna Apna), I say (with one caveat I will get to in a minute)!
I'm no particular fan of Salman Khan, but my goodness is he hilarious in this movie. I haven't seen enough of his filmography to know with certainty that this is self-parody, but his performance was full of winks at film heroes. He parlays his considerable screen presence to out-swagger an enemy who towers over him.
Sonu Sood is taller, shinier (SO SHINY), more handsome, and maybe even more sculpted, yet he loses. Welcome to Chulbul's world, b*tch.
And Inspector Tight Pants really sold the moves, too. I often find Salman's dancing a little stilted by his overbulked frame, but here it worked brilliantly - Chulbul Pandey absolutely would not know how to dance like Hrithik or Shahrukh and would do funny little moves that paralleled his funny little dialogues. Even head over khaki-clad teakettle in love in "Tere Mast Mast Do Nain," his lilting shuffle seemed perfect, full of that tiny spring in your step you just can't control when you're really happy.
If the fact that I loved Dabangg makes you wonder if a pod person is typing this, the following will sound refreshingly familiar: once again, I ask the writers "WHERE ARE THE WOMEN?" Nirupa Roy would be proud of Dimple Kapadia's turn as a Maa whose love for her sons leads her to bad decisions, but she was the only female character of sustained interest. Sonakshi Sinha's Rajo is quiet in an interesting way rather than a whimpering weakling and expresses herself when it counts,
but her fate in the film is more a factor of the men in her life deciding for her than her own will, and she basically disappears from the plot as the action ramps up towards the climax. Mahie Gill's character also does nothing but react to what her father and fiancé decide, and in her case it's hard to understand why she goes along with any of it since her love interest is such a dolt. I almost wonder if some early scenes of their love story were cut, so blank are both her character and the tone of their romance.
Prompted by Temple to explain where I think more female characters could have appeared, I propose an awesome female police colleague, someone like Tabu channeling Rekha - she could have gone undercover as Munni to trap the criminals! Or, maybe even more interesting, a sister for our 70s-style brotherly hate and love plot, a lazy pampered baby whose devotion to her father is stretched to fascinating ethical limits just as Makhanchan's was. No one would expect a Dil Se-style female mango-carrier! Even one major female player in the story would do little to dilute this testosterone-flooded film, so anyone who loved this mostly for its macho shenanigans would have little to fear.
Update to post (January 2012): I've just discovered a review of Dabangg that restates precisely what I don't like about how the women in this film are depicted. The author and I come to the film from different places and I am thrilled to see someone else, especially someone who is not demographically and cinema-background-ly identical to me, pin down the problems so well. Read Ashwin Pande's take on the film here.
Another quintessentially Beth-like complaint: Salman's love interest is 22 years his junior (literally half his age!)* but the actor playing his mother is just 8 years his senior. YUCK.
Those are really the only things I didn't enjoy in Dabangg. The music works so well**, down to the snatch of "Emotional Attyachar" at the wedding; the Mexican western style theme and "Hud Hud Dabangg" pack particular wallop in the context of the film, perfect for Chulbul's macho-with-heart persona. The cast is a delight down to Amitosh Nagpal as Rajo's similarly sad and quiet brother and Chulbul's various silly colleagues. Even though Om Puri and Vinod Khanna are probably under-used, I wouldn't have given their characters more screen time at the cost of anyone else. And how funny is Sonu Sood? I haven't yet seen him in any of his amazing-sounding cartoony villain roles from southern films but clearly I must. All he has to do is stand there in a scarf and sunglasses and I laugh. I have a hard time getting past how much he looks like young Amitabh Bachchan, and in this film that similarity was smartly channeled into an angry young man gone very, very bad.
He paints Chedi Singh with that sort of disarming casualness that the truly psychopathic sometimes have, completely detached from the destruction and suffering they cause. The town itself is fascinating, full of nooks and crannies for discovery and open landscapes for reflection and peril - and how could I forget the lane of lanterns and neon lights to mirror the fireworks of romance?
Maybe my favorite thing about Dabangg is that all of this is done not only with characters and situations more complex than I expected but also with the kind and amount of self-awareness that I love. "These are the tools of our trade and we're going to have a blast playing with them," the filmmakers seem to say. And to my eye, they seemed to do so with a lot of thought towards what would make more interesting and satisfying experience for viewers than simplistic hero worship, parody, or re-hash/re-heat of R(ecommended) M(asala) A(llowance) of standard ingredients (Maa, family reconciliation, retribution of evil). Dabangg does all those things and ends up making something more. I can think of no better example of this kind of appreciative, joyful, exalting meta- than the Shirt-Off in the final brawl. In a victorious position, Chedi pauses the action to rip off his own shirt. The camera gazes upward adoringly at Sonu's remarkable torso as the actor holds his weapon in his teeth and then beckons at almost-defeated Chulbul to get up and continue fighting.
All I could think was "THIS CANNOT BE. SALMAN WILL NOT BE OUT-OFF-SHIRT-ED!" And of course he was not. Proving Chulbul's moral high ground even as he hovers near defeat, his muscles bulge out of his shirt and the winds of righteousness whip away the last symbol of constraint.
Post-modern hero zindabad!
* There is nothing Salman-specific about this complaint. It was gross in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi and Sawaal (Shashi opposite Poonam Dhillon), too.
** My opinion on the Self-Aggrandizing Item Number of 2010 Debate falls as follows: I prefer "Munni" for how it works and appears in its film (picturization and plot), execution of choreography, lyrics, and its gloriously lower and earthier female voice, but "Sheila" squeaks ahead as something to listen to outside of its film (singing and dancing to while doing dishes, that kind of thing).