A few days ago the news of a possible remake of the 1990s Govinda-Karisma Kapoor film Coolie No. 1 made me think about the whole business of remakes in a new light. The concept of remakes is far from new or newsworthy, definitely not this one that possibly might feature current teen idol Varun Dhawan—son of filmmaker David Dhawan who directed the original and might also helm the remake—and Sara Ali Khan, an up-and-coming newcomer who also happens to be the offspring of actors Amrita Singh and Saif Ali Khan. More than the cast, it was the thought how the remake would address the internet misogyny and the rampant sexism of the original plot. Or, would it at all?
A remake of the 1991 Telugu film by the same name, David Dhawan’s Coolie No. 1 features at the heart of it a matchmaker, Shaadiram Gharjode (Sadashiv Amrapurkar), who in order to avenge his humiliation at the hands of a landlord, Hoshiyar Chand (Kader Khan), gets a coolie—Raju (Govinda)—to pretend to be a rich man and manages to get him married to Hoshiyar’s daughter Malti (Karisma Kapoor).
Malti comes to the town with Raju to live in his haveli. Both Shaadiram and Raju carry on the charade by convincing Malti that Raju’s father has thrown him out of the house for marrying someone below their class. By the time Coolie No. 1 released, Govinda was the biggest box office star and his partnership with David Dhawan had spawned a string of hits. Most of Govinda’s films, like standard mainstream Bollywood of the era, got away with misogyny, double entendres and what-have-you simply because of the actor’s excellent ‘comic timing’ or believe-it-or-not, in the name of innocent fun.
Watching Coolie No. 1 nearly 20 years later is an all-together different experience. When seen in the light of social movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, the film fills you with such contempt and you begin to wonder just what kind of toxicity was merrily promoted by films and endorsed by the public at large. It would not be completely incorrect to say that films such as Coolie No. 1, Raja Babu, Dil, Deewana Mujhsa Nahin, Andaz, and Saajan Chale Sasuraal, to name a few, were a result of years of institutionalised sexism of an industry that supplied noxious concepts as well as ignored or reacted defensively to any such charge.
The Coolie No. 1 remake, ironically enough, comes at a time when Indian cinema is believed to be entering a so-called golden phase where content is king, screenwriters are treated with respect and ‘women-centric’ films are no longer a genre discussed in hushed tones. Yet to expect that a Varun Dhawan as Raju coolie would be different from the Govinda of yore would be akin to daydreaming.
Ideally speaking, a teen idol such as Varun ought to be careful in picking up roles, but then again, had that been the case he would have thought twice before a film like Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya. Bollywood loves a successful film and many believe a rehashed yesteryears’ hit is a guaranteed hit and as a result, why would it not commit the same (mis)take the second time around?