Coolie No 1 review – David Dhawan's comedy remake is bigger but not better

Mike McCahill
·2-min read

It’s a tale of two Bollywoods this Christmas. Over at Netflix, Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane, representing Indian film’s modernising wing, have engineered the sharp and knowing meta-thriller AK vs AK. Here on Amazon Prime Video meanwhile, you can watch veteran comedy director David Dhawan renew his IP rights on Coolie No 1, previously a hit 1995 vehicle for the Sandwell-born funnyman Govinda. Even the latter’s most devout fans would probably concede the original left room for improvements, but that’s something Dhawan appears unfussed about. This Coolie updates a few reference points and replaces Govinda with latter-day hunk Varun Dhawan – the director’s son – then surrounds him with antiquated players and playing, part of a frenetic attempt to pretend the last 30 years never happened.

The plot – lowly railway porter (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 with the original is a result of the casting. Rather too obviously a handsome, cardio-trained leading man schlubbing down for (not many) easy laughs, Dhawan Jr bounds onscreen with boyish enthusiasm, but trails a lingering note of condescension – and Dhawan Sr was evidently too busy remembering how best to smash his supporting actors in the gonads to direct anyone. Khan, sadly, is stranded on balconies looking fetchingly concerned while the men below determine her character’s destiny. In this, Coolie 2020 really does seem so last century.

The well-populated songbreaks – which retain more life and colour than the jokes – reveal this a bigger film than its predecessor. Dhawan now has access to sunnier locations and more expensive hotels; the aim is clearly to give those of us in the cheap seats a sniff of the high life. But with the material as thin as ever, this version seems even emptier: it goes in one ear, and vaporises before it can emerge from the other. In 1995, and in the absence of more pressing entertainment options, such candyfloss might have passed two hours mindlessly enough. In 2020, this means it will almost certainly be the streaming premiere most likely to go unfinished this season – and competition for that sorry distinction has been fierce.

•Released on Amazon Prime Video on 25 December.