Subhash Ghai’s Khalnayak is a fairly predictable cops and robbers story twined with references to the Ramayana which adds depth and resonance. There are some excellent performances, stylish visuals and excellent music. But at a shade over 3 hours, the pace is stately to the point of plodding and there is too much emphasis on the meaning, and not quite enough on the drama.
Ram (Jackie Shroff) is assigned a case to bring down a terrorist organisation. Ballu (Sanjay Dutt) is the poster boy for Roshida’s (Pramod Muthu) gang. When Ballu escapes from jail, Ram is accused of neglecting his duty to go spend time with his girlfriend Ganga (Madhuri Dixit). When what looks like every policeman in India is put on Ballus’ trail with no success, Ganga finds a way to infiltrate the gang. She sees that Ballu is not quite as bad as he seems, although he is far from being misunderstood. Eventually the police close in, and Ganga is caught between Ram, duty, and her empathy with Ballu.
Madhuri looks stunning and delivers a strong and engaging characterisation. There is nothing simpering or weak about prison officer Ganga. When she sees an opportunity to help Ram restore his reputation, she asks for his support. Then she does it anyway. When she sees Ballu needs medical help, she just goes and gets a doctor because it is the right thing to do. Madhuri does some wonderful deliberately bad acting when Ganga, having captivated Ballu, joins the gang and goes on the run.
Then in Aaja Sajan Aaja she is simply incandescent as she dances for her Ram. Madhuri was also lucky as Ganga dresses in Indian attire, not the hideous synthetic 80s gear that Ballu wears when he tries to impress.
Sanjay Dutt is so very good in some scenes that it makes me angry at how bad he is for much of the film. He adopted a range of bizarre grimaces and physical tics that I think were meant to emphasise the animal side of Ballu, but just made him look ridiculous and clumsy. When he dropped the exaggerated mannerisms and just channelled the emotions, he was compelling and raw. While asserting his ownership of Ganga, Ballu accidentally defends democracy and becomes a Nayak for those people. His awakening to being respected and enjoying that feeling was nicely done, even though there was a lot of literal flag waving to make sure the point didn’t escape unnoticed.
Jackie Shroff is perfectly competent as Ram, and only tries to tear his clothes off once so that was good. For my money Ram is the least interesting character. He knows he is right, everyone knows he is right and he is not averse to using extreme force against Ballu to prove how right he is. While there is an interesting dynamic between hero and villain, there is minimal character development for Ram. A relationship between Ganga and Ballu would be a Very Bad Idea but I thought marrying Ram could be a bit suffocating.
The Ramayana elements were more obvious to me on a recent re-watch than when I first saw it, particularly the twists on that narrative. I couldn’t help but compare this with Mani Ratnam’s Raavanan (which I greatly prefer to the Hindi Raavan). In Raavanan, Ram revealed his darker side and could become as Ravana but Khal Nayak seems to say rather that Ravana has the potential to be Rama. I liked that the question of what makes a hero or a villain was articulated and that this was more than a glorification of Rama. Ganga didn’t sway from her beliefs when she was frightened, and kept her faith in Ram. Ram wanted to believe Ganga but society and the law demanded she was still put to trial. I was annoyed that she had to have her virtue validated by a thief and murderer, a man so despicable in the eyes of the law that he had besmirched her just by his proximity but whose word was still worth more than hers. I know she is Sita and he is Ravana, but still. The film plays with some of the conventions especially around the notion of hero and villain. Ram is also helped by Ballu’s testimony, his reputation restored by the hand of a sinner.
Ghai doesn’t quite go the whole hog but he does use a range of staple masala ingredients and has a lush visual style. Ram and Ballu have bloody fights that crash through walls and take to the treetops. There are long lost childhood friends and dreary paeans to motherhood. There are coincidences, speechifying and tearful reconciliations galore. The evil mastermind Roshida has a nasty disposition and lots of cats who do a fabulous job of reacting to stuff.
Rakhee gets a lot of screen time as Arti, not all of it crying. Neena Gupta makes an impression as the striking Champa. Ramya Krishnan is charismatic as Ballu’s girlfriend Sophia, and also gets both versions of the title song. What a waste to have her in such a small role, but how great to have so many powerful actresses in one film. The female characters are strong and quite distinct, but Subhash Ghai stays firmly within the conventions of 90s masala so none of them break the mould of Ma, the friend, bad girl etc. Oh, and Anupam Kher does his customary shtick as Pandey the prison warden.
There are interesting observations about the conventions of parenting and filial behaviour. Ganga tries to evoke Ballu’s sentimental side by talking wistfully of how much he must love his Ma and how hard it must be for him to live on the run. He calls Ganga out on trying to manipulate him through sentiment, but he rejects that as unimportant to him. Question – If a villain shouts ‘Ma!’ in his sleep and there is no one to hear it, does he have feelings?
Mind you, when Ballu is beating Ram up because why not, Arti hits Ballu for assaulting Ram, Ballu shoves her so Ram belts him for hitting a Ma, then Ballu fights back and Arti comes back at him to stop him using violence. A move straight out of the Nirupa Roy Filmi Ma Manual.
The songs are extensions or amplifications of the narrative as well as being beautiful and usually pleasingly melodic.
I am not so fond of that title track, although it does epitomise early 90s style and Ramya Krishnan works that beaded gear for all it’s worth.
I had to pity choreographer Saroj Khan. Between Dutt’s own ‘dance’ style and the outfit given to Ballu in the final song, he looked more like a demented fruitbat. Seeing Ballu and the boys try their seductive dance moves on Ganga was highly amusing. But she choreographed some beautiful dances for Madhuri. I went to see the Temptations Reloaded show up in Sydney last year, and the roof nearly came off when the opening bars of Choli Ke Peeche played.
The first hour of the film could be condensed to around 20 minutes with no great loss, but things get much more interesting once events are set in motion. While it is a visually strong and often darkly dramatic film, the pace suffers from Ghai’s concentration on symbols and stylised elements rather than closely following the emotional arcs of the characters. Very much worth watching, but some patience is required. 3 ½ stars!