Dhawan chose his son Varun for the role that made Govinda famous in 1995, but little effort has been made to mark the quarter century since then.
It’s the story of two Bollywoods at Christmas. In Netflix, Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane, representing the modernizing wing of Indian cinema, have imagined the sharp and intelligent meta-thriller AK vs AK. Meanwhile, on Amazon Prime Video, you can watch veteran comedy director David Dhawan renew his intellectual property rights to Coolie No. 1, which was a hit for Sandwell-born comedian Govinda in 1995. Even the latter’s most devoted fans would probably admit that the original still leaves room for improvement, but that’s one thing Dhawan doesn’t seem to care about. This coolie updates some standards, replacing Govinda with the late macho Varun Dhawan – the director’s son – and then surrounding him with old-fashioned players and gamers in a desperate attempt to pretend the last 30 years never happened.
The plot – the humble railway guard (Dhawan) is hired to woo a society belle (Sara Ali Khan) as part of a conspiracy to disgrace her family – remains familiar and predictable. The most immediate contrast to the original is the result of the casting. A seductive protagonist, trained in cardio-vascular art and laughing out loud, Dhawan Jr. appears on screen with youthful enthusiasm but with a persistent note of condescension, and Dhawan Sr. was obviously too busy remembering the best way to squeeze his supporting cast into the gonads to direct. Khan, unfortunately, is stuck in the balconies, fascinated by the anxiety of the men who decide the fate of his character. In this, Coolie 2020 really seems to be from the last century.
The well-paced song breaks – which retain more life and color than the jokes – reveal that this film is bigger than its predecessor. Dhawan now has access to sunnier places and more expensive hotels; the goal is clearly to give us a taste of the hectic life of the cheap seats. But with such fine material, this version seems even emptier: it enters one ear and evaporates before it can exit the other. In 1995, and in the absence of more pressing entertainment options, you could have got away with this kind of candy for two hours without thinking. In 2020, that means it will almost certainly be the most likely unfinished stream of this season, and the competition for this sad distinction has been fierce.