‘ABCD 2’ is an inauthentic mess that demonstrates how not to tell an underdog story.
Director: Remo D’Souza
Starring: Prabhu Dheva, Varun Dhawan, Shraddha Kapoor, Dharmesh Yelande, Lauren Gottlieb
In his 2008 book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be world-class in any field. The hidden truth behind most success stories, he says, is that the subject is often privileged enough to be able to put in those hours at an early age, free from the constraints that limit the success of their less fortunate peers—lack of money or access to the best training, an unstable home environment and/or lack of parental attention and support, lack of time due to having to work to support the family.
These constraints constitute the typical obstacles the protagonists have to overcome in that necessary fiction of the free market: the underdog story. (I use “fiction” not to suggest that such tales don’t exist in real life, but because these rare occurrences are a convenient construct to support the myth that talent, courage and hard work are all it takes to succeed in the big, bad world.) Hollywood churns these tales out by the dozen, these fables of misfits and nobodies being trained by the veteran seeking vicarious success after having failed to make it himself, putting in the hard yards—usually in a montage—and overcoming societal barriers and personal issues to defeat the evil, entitled champions in the big game at the end.
These are powerful stories because they are inspirational. No, not in the conventional feel-good follow-every-rainbow way; that impact has been lost by sheer repetition. But these stories demonstrate the transformative potential of sports and the arts, and show what is possible with a level playing field. “We overlook just how large a role we all play—and by ‘we’ I mean society—in determining who makes it and who doesn’t,” Gladwell writes. After all, the narrative arcs these stories follow, where raw talent is given the same opportunities to reach its potential as their privileged opponents, should be the norm, not the exception. “To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages today that determine success…with a society that provides opportunities for all.”
The narrative arcs these stories follow, where raw talent is given the same opportunities to reach its potential as their privileged opponents, should be the norm, not the exception.
ABCD: Any Body Can Dance, “India’s first dance film”, was a powerful, if not particularly subtle, story for this reason. It was a believable underdog story that dissected what it takes to be a successful underdog. With memorable characters you could empathise with, a narrative that tied in compelling personal stories with the systemic issues it wanted to highlight, built around some stunning dance routines, it was much more than just a rip-off of the Step Up film franchise.
Dhongri Dance Revolution, a troupe of working-class dancers, possessed ample talent but lacked training and direction. Vishnu (Prabhu Dheva), a veteran choreographer, enabled them to achieve their potential, engendering discipline, trust and cohesive action in his team through actual training exercises—that weren’t glossed over in a quick montage—which revealed the filmmakers’ love for, and understanding of, dance. Both the struggles involved in dedicating that much time and energy over what is considered a trivial pursuit as well as the consequences of letting go of this modicum of structure in their chaotic lives were explored, and in Kay Kay Menon’s fantastic portrayal of Jahangir Khan, the perfect villain to represent the privileged insider, diametrically opposite to our heroes in wealth and stature. Even the dance form DDR performed, hip-hop, was oppositional to the status quo, the antithesis of the classical style Jahangir’s students practised.
On the other hand, ABCD 2, the sequel to this 2013 film, is an inauthentic mess that demonstrates how not to tell an underdog story. Part of the blame lies with the performances of the three leads—Prabhu Dheva couldn’t deliver a line of dialogue to save his life, Varun Dhawan shows he can dance but can’t act, Shraddha Kapoor might not be able to do either—but the greater blame must go to the terribly constructed story, which very soon begins to resemble a filler to keep you distracted between dance routines.
The film’s biggest weakness is a gross lack of tension, an utter inability to cast our heroes in anything resembling genuine conflict, which in turn causes an absence of anything resembling character development. Obstacles appear when required, and disappear when inconvenient. Vishnu Sir is the only character to be carried forward from the first film, which means a new troupe of working-class characters must be established as characters the audience can get behind. Their internal conflicts, however, are rarely touched upon; they are generic nobodies, ciphers instead of flesh-and-blood figures.
ABCD 2 begins with our heroes’ fall from grace, after a performance on a dance reality show is revealed to be plagiarised, leading to their shaming on national television. It’s a promising start—the plagiarism is understandable, since they don’t have an actual choreographer, and shades of grey are just what a film like this needs. But the charge is never addressed, the motive behind it never articulated, the implications not explored beyond the usual shunning by all and sundry. (I can understand that it would get them disqualified, or even barred from future competitions, but a guy refusing to pay for pizza ever again just because the delivery boy was part of a cheating dance troupe? Really?)
The plagiarism charge, however, doesn’t douse our protagonists’ can-do attitude, and Suru (Dhawan), the big-dreaming leader of the troupe, finds out about a World Hip-Hop Championships happening in Las Vegas that they can participate in. That, of course, brings its own problems: they need a choreographer, a full troupe, money to register and travel abroad. Suru meets Vishnu Sir in the bar he works in, and he just happens to be an excellent dancer and choreographer looking for a team to take to the World Championship. The rest of the troupe is too disheartened to participate, meaning they have to conduct auditions, which nets them two fantastic dancers before the old crew inexplicably decides to return. The organisers at the auditions won’t let them participate, but they take the stage anyway, and a hammy speech about second chances by Vishnu convinces the judges. They qualify, but when Suru’s boss refuses to hand over the money he promised, they find another relative who just happens to have the money they need.
The film’s biggest weakness is a gross lack of tension, an utter inability to cast our heroes in anything resembling genuine conflict. Obstacles appear when required, and disappear when inconvenient.
Vishnu starts acting shady just before the interval, teasing some nefarious purpose in taking the group to the US. “I won’t ask you where you go, and you don’t ask me,” he tells the guys once they’re there. But no, there’s no dark what-happens-in-Vegas subplot here; his sneaking away with everyone’s money is just a lame attempt at forcing some tension. Vinnie (Kapoor) gets injured before the big contest, but of course these hicks who’ve never been Stateside before happen to know a professional dancer of Indian origin who just happens to be shooting a music video in Vegas at the time! Vinnie’s injury, I presume, is an excuse to get her out of the dance scenes, rather than a way to get Lauren Gottlieb into the film—surely the troupe could have had two females instead of one. This inevitably leads to some lazy love-triangle plotting, whose only purpose, in turn, seems to be a Dhawan-Gottlieb dance number overlooking the Grand Canyon that works to justify the substantial 3D budget. But even that doesn’t cause the overwrought conflict you’d expect—though I’m not sure whether that is a bad thing—as everything works itself out very easily.
Bereft of obstacles for his characters to overcome, probably conscious that the audience has not felt anything but admiration for the dancing (which really does look great in 3D; the added perception of depth gives you a much better idea of the cohesive movements and degree of difficulty involved) and boredom at the story, which goes on and on, Remo resorts in the end to petty nationalism, with the defining conflict of the film being not between our heroes and a world that has no place for them, or their own limitations, but with the German team, generic nasty foreign heels whose only crime is being rude to the Indian Stunners for no reason at all. The ending isn’t as terrible as I feared, but pretty bad, and even the climactic performance, featuring a human pyramid with Suru waving a tricolour on top, seems tame compared to the ones that come before. It’s hard to be impressed when the big finish is the same as your Class X Sports Day drill, only in more ridiculous uniforms.