This is an interesting film in that it begins as a solid 10 but gradually loses fractions of points as it bows to Bollywood conventions. If director Vikram Bhatt would have forgone some of those clichéd moves, which seem present only to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and tightened up the film a bit both in terms of its story and its pacing/running time, this could have easily been a 10.
Footpath is the tale of four childhood friends in Mumbai--Arjun Singh (Aaftab Shivdasani), Rahul Srivastav (Emran Hashmi), Shekhar Srivastav (Rahul Dev), and Sanjana (Bipasha Basu). Rahul and Shekhar have a tendency to get into trouble. Arjun has a tendency to hang out with them, and Sanjana, despite being friends with all of them, is always trying to coax Arjun to get on a straight and narrow path.
Throwing a monkey wrench into the works, Arjun's father, a union leader, is killed by anti-unionists at the beginning of the film. Arjun witnesses his father's death. Rahul and Shekhar find out who killed him and urge Arjun to seek vengeance. When Arjun cannot carry it out, his friends do so instead. Arjun is sent away, although Rahul sees him off with a heartfelt oath that they will always be friends, no matter what.
Years later, Arjun is living in New Delhi under an assumed name. The police blame him for the retribution death and may still be looking for him after all of this time (although this might just be a "front"). They catch up to him and propose an odd deal--if Arjun will help them penetrate a ring of drug dealers, enabling them to find out who is the high man on the totem pole, they'll let Arjun go free. To make matters more complicated, the drug dealers are the Srivastav brothers, and the policeman in charge reveals that he has just received an encounter order (a kind of governmentally-authorized hit) on the Srivastavs. If Arjun doesn't cooperate, not only will he be arrested and tried for the long-past murder, his friends will assuredly end up dead.
Although roughly taken from State of Grace (1990) and bearing similarities to Footpath co-writer Mahesh Bhatt's Angaaray (1998), that's a great premise and Vikram Bhatt effectively milks it to achieve tonal similarities to The Godfather (1972) and Scarface (1983), but with more of an emphasis on friendship and complex romances. In the beginning, at least, the direction, script, cinematography and performances all come together to create a taut, gritty and compelling story. The cinematography during the opening is some of the best I've seen from Bollywood yet--it's appropriately gloomy, with interesting angles/set-ups and it's well edited. To make the film even more attractive, Bhatt admirably pulls no punches when it comes to violence and later gives us an unusual amount of sexiness, too (at least compared to the Bollywood films I've seen so far).
But slight problems begin to arise when Bhatt makes concessions to tradition. The first song in the film enters when Arjun, Rahul and Shekhar head to a club that might be some kind of Indian equivalent to a "girlie" club. In this context, the song mostly works--it at least feels "organic" to the film. However, it gets blown up slightly into the typical big production number, which takes away some of the atmosphere of a girlie club.
However, there are a number of later songs that are more typical of Bollywood musicals--in the middle of the narrative, characters suddenly break out into song, and they're suddenly traveling around the country to sing in different locales. And even though this is essentially a film about gangsters and friendships, the songs are still in the context of romances, with characters rambling on and on about not being able to sleep at night, pining for the one they desire, being "tortured" by love, and so on. Every song seemed to include the words "dil" ("heart") and "pyaar" ("love") in every line. Not every film needs these types of songs, and especially not every film needs romance songs. The romance subplots, sans the songs, are fine. There are two of them, and they both work well when they're done in a dramatic mode. But the songs simply break the mood of the film, and what was an excellent, tight and gripping gangster flick becomes generic clips on an Indian variety television show. I subtracted a point for this, but would have subtracted more if the film weren't otherwise so excellent.
The other point I subtracted for a combination of two things. The first is what I call "sprawl". Somewhere in the middle, the narrative begins getting a bit loose--not enough to lose one's attention, but enough to amplify how streamlined and focused the beginning of the film was in contrast. It seems like this might be another bow to convention--Bollywood films traditionally run between 2 and 3 hours, tending closer to 3. But not every film needs to be that long. Footpath could have used some trimming. The other problem was that a few scenes towards the end of the film are a bit overacted and overdirected. Bhatt is trying to amplify the emotional impact of these scenes. But they would have played better, and been more impactful, if understated instead.
The above is more nitpicking than specifying serious structural problems. Overall, Footpath is a very good film, but it had the potential to be quite excellent. It would not have needed to be unprecedented to be an excellent film. The technical elements are mostly superb. The performances and direction are mostly superb. The story is beautifully gritty, enthralling and relatively chance-taking. It's important for Bollywood filmmakers to know that for at least some of their audience, bowing to conventions is hurting more than helping. There is great artistry in Bollywood films, and no need to put a veil over it by squeezing the artistry into a template.