Laal Singh Chaddha: a Bollywood Forrest Gump

This remake of Robert Zemeckis’s iconic 1994 film is an Aamir Khan vehicle that adopts a mantle of popular musical entertainment to make some all-too-unpopular points about unity.

Laal Singh Chaddha (2022)

Advait Chandan’s Laal Singh Chaddha is a handsome version of Robert Zemeckis’s 1994 film Forrest Gump. Actor-turned-writer Atul Kulkarni largely follows the beats and the events of Eric Roth’s Oscar-winning screenplay, sometimes right down to the already iconic details: the floating feather is present and accounted for, as are Gump/Laal’s leg braces and the box of chocolates (now a box of savoury street food golgappas), and ‘My mama always said’ homilies abound.

Any star-studded Bollywood adaptation of a hugely popular Hollywood film is bound to invite comparisons to the original. It is the detailing, however, that pushes the film past mere surface Indianisation. The film’s main narrative begins a few years after Forrest Gump’s, and takes in some of the more distressing events in Indian history in the last fifty years, including the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984, the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque by Hindu activists, and the subsequent terrorist attacks on Mumbai in 1993, 2008 and 2011. Such events left deep scars on the Indian psyche and helped fan the flames of Hindu nationalism, which was once an avowedly right-wing position but has now been mainstream for years.

Through all the film’s sociopolitical cataclysms, Laal, played by Bollywood A-lister Aamir Khan, who is also one of the film’s producers, is largely a passive observer. The only time he is inserted, Gump-like, into proceedings is when he is accepting a medal for bravery in army service from then-President K.R. Narayanan. Laal, then, simply by being decent, serves as a catalyst for good. One of the screenplay’s masterstrokes is substituting Lieutenant Dan Taylor, whose life Gump saves in Vietnam, with Mohammed Baaji (Manav Vij), a militant from across the border whose life Laal saves during the Kargil War of 1999. Mohammed eventually learns the value of friendship and peace, without the film becoming overtly preachy about delivering its message.

As an actor, Khan channels the cadences of his performance as PK, the titular alien from Rajkumar Hirani’s biting 2014 satire of organised religion, but makes his performance even broader – all the better to reach a mass Bollywood audience. This has been the actor’s wont throughout his career: subtlety doesn’t really work for the film’s core market.

Since obviousness isn’t considered a shortcoming in the language of Bollywood storytelling, the film ultimately fulfils its aims. Arriving at a time when India is deeply divided along communal and religious lines, Laal Singh Chaddha adopts a mantle of popular, sentimental, musical entertainment to make some all-too-unpopular points about unity.

► Laal Singh Chaddha is in UK cinemas now.