The story of Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp is, to quote the lyrics from a song from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, a “tale as old as time”. It is, perhaps, the most famous of all the stories from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, a Middle-Eastern medieval folk tale that has persisted and undergone numerous retellings and screen adaptations, including a 1952 version directed by Homi Wadia and starring Mahipal and Meena Kumari (Aladdin Aur Jadui Chirag), a 1979 Tamil version starring Kamal Haasan (Allaudinaum Arputha Vilakkum) as well as the 1992 animated film Aladdin from the Disney studios. Amongst the more recent literary retellings is a 2005 version by Philip Pullman, he of the His Dark Materials trilogy fame (The Golden Compass – also made into a film — The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass).
I mention the Pullman book because the author’s introduction to it is worth thinking about. In it, he tells us why the story of Aladdin is, for him, such a beloved tale. It has everything, he says, “comedy, drama, fantasy, magic, and a terrific plot.” Pullman considered it a great privilege to be given the opportunity to be able to rework such a classic tale; he also considered it a responsibility – the retelling must respect the original story, must be true to it. But, Pullman says, it’s also important, in retelling a story, “to add something new as well. If you can’t bring something of your own to a traditional tale, leave it in the hands of those who can!”
This brings me to the latest offering in the Aladdin pantheon: director Sujoy Ghosh’s Aladin, starring Amitabh Bachchan as Genius (the genie), Sanjay Dutt as the Ringmaster (Ghosh’s version of the evil sorcerer from the original tale), Riteish Deshmukh as Aladin, and newcomer Jacqueline Fernandez as Jasmine.
In a recent interview, star Amitabh Bachchan stated: “Aladin is the old fable and that’s the connection but that’s where it ends. There are just I think three things from the old fable which can be associated with the film today, the name Aladin, the lamp and the genie. But it is a contemporary form of Aladdin, it’s modern times.”
In fact, Mr. Bachchan is not quite right – this Aladin has a little more in common with the traditional tale. Ghosh’s version keeps the bones of the story intact: we have our hero, Aladin (with one “d”), his love interest , Jasmine, the genie of the lamp who wants to serve its owner, and a villain – in this case, a former genie bent on recovering his powers. Oh, yes, and as Mr. Bachchan notes, the lamp itself.
That said, Ghosh’s story strays a long way from the original; and this is not the Aladdin of the classic tale. The writers (Ghosh along with Suresh Nair and Ritesh Shah) give themselves an out – this Aladin is merely named after the literary character, and carries the burden of his famous name, being mercilessly teased as a result. This Aladin is the child of adventure-loving parents who believed that Aladdin’s lamp really did exist, and, in the film’s opening moments, set off to look for it, with their small son in tow.
Something happens on that expedition, with the result that Aladin is left an orphan with a fate known only to the Ringmaster and, of course, the genie Genius.
College-student Aladin is still at the mercy of Kasim (Sahil Khan) and his gang, who still taunt him and tease him. When the beautiful Jasmine, an exchange student, turns up at the college, Aladin is immediately smitten. This, of course, provides even more fuel for Kasim – on Aladin’s birthday, he suggests that the present Aladin would most like to receive from her would be, of course, a dreaded lamp.
And Jasmine does give Aladin a lamp – a lamp that sets Aladin’s destiny in motion. Along the way, he makes his three wishes (badly, wasting them, according to Genius), discovers the truth about himself, his parents and Genius. Finally, he must battle the Ringmaster, who is bent on using the power of a rare comet to restore his lost powers, allowing him to take over the world.
If I have any quibbles with Aladin, they are less to do with the story itself, and more to do with the film’s pacing and how the story actually plays itself out. The first half of the film tends to drag at times, most particularly in stretching out the issue of Aladin’s wishes and his romance with Jasmine. However, the film’s opening moments set up a mystery that raises many questions and makes us want to watch what unfolds to learn more. How the film eventually answers those questions, and how it lays out the mystery of Aladin and his fate – well, mostly it does so in a satisfying way, especially once the second half of the film begins and the confrontation between Genius and the Ringmaster sets much of the film’s later action in motion.
Technically, Aladin is a spectacular treat to watch, from the costumes (designed by Narendra Kumar Ahmed) to the cinematography (Shirsha Roy) to its sound and its music (composed by the team of Vishal-Shekhar). Special mention must be made of the special effects, produced by EyeQube. Aladin is the second project undertaken by EyeQube – the first was last year’s Drona, and they are currently working on the upcoming film Veer. But the Visual Effects Supervisor for Aladin is none other than EyeQube CEO Charles Darby – who has worked in the past on films such as The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as well as two films in the Harry Potter series (The Goblet of Fire, The Prisoner of Azkaban). Aladin‘s effects are pure spectacle and a large part of the joy of watching the film. They create atmosphere; more importantly, they give us an imaginary universe that we can absolutely believe in. If they flag at all (and they do, occasionally) it’s only because they do a little too much, for a little too long. An example: Aladin rubs the lamp given to him by Jasmine. Smoke begins to stream from it, and wends its way around the floor, around the people gathered in the room – it’s a terrific effect, but it carries on just a bit too long, diminishing rather than increasing the suspense we feel waiting for the genie’s appearance.
But these are, truly, quibbles, and for the most part. The special effects serve the story admirably, rather than getting in the way of it.
Amitabh Bachchan‘s Genie is deliciously over-the-top, often a prerequisite of “genie-ness” (I am reminded of the genie in the Faerie Tale Theatre television version of Aladdin, played to delightful excess by American actor James Earl Jones). The role of Genius is one that clearly allows us to see that at 67, the man still (to paraphrase the Vishal-Shekhar song “Genie Rap”) has it going on, most especially in the film’s second half, when things take a darker turn and require the kind of depth and emotion that Mr. Bachchan is more than capable of offering up.
Sanjay Dutt‘s Ringmaster is playfully malevolent. Selfish and power-hungry, he will stop at nothing to regain his genie’s powers (taken away from him when he used them for his own purposes instead of to help others). I absolutely enjoyed watching him every moment he was on screen, even as I wanted him to be defeated.
Aladin’s heroine may owe her name to her Disney counterpart (note that the Princess Jasmine appears first in the Disney version), and newcomer Jacqueline Fernandez brings spunk and an infectious smile to her portrayal. It is unfortunate, I think, that she is given precious little to do, especially in the first half, where she serves primarily as Aladin’s love interest. She exudes a confident, impetuous spirit that is finally allowed to show itself more near the end of the film, but it’s all rather too little, too late.
Riteish Deshmukh holds his own against the veteran Amitabh Bachchan, and their evident chemistry contributes greatly to the charm of the film. Having said that — the film is called Aladin for good reason, which is that it is squarely the story of Riteish Deshmukh’s hapless loner. Deshmukh is, in a word, terrific. His Aladin is tender, funny, earnest, and charming. We are invested in his story from the first moments we meet him, running through the streets of Khwaish trying to escape Kasim and his gang – we want him to succeed, to defeat the bullies, to win Jasmine over – in short, we want him to win.
And Ghosh’s story? May be flawed, slightly, but it gives us comedy. And drama. As well as fantasy and, of course, magic. It retains the core of the fairy tale, and adds a new dimension to it. Most importantly, it gives us an Aladin we believe in, that we care for.
Ghosh may not have created a great film, but he has made a good one. However, in Riteish Deshmukh, he has given us one absolutely terrific Aladin.
And that is, perhaps, the most important thing a viewer could wish for. Happily, in Aladin our wish is granted.