Khal Nayak

Khal Nayak poster

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.

Khal Nayak-Fruitbat

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!


As it seems has been the case with many other people, my path to Bollywood addiction started with Shah Rukh Khan. A late night chance viewing of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge on TV and I was instantly hooked. So I was slowly working my way through his older films (and loving pretty much all of them) when we had a discussion in Hindi class about films that were so bad they were good (you know exactly what I mean here!) and the subject of Rakesh Roshan’s Koyla came up. So of course after hearing the description, this became a must see film, and despite all the violence, gore and trashy OTT characters it’s fun and quite frankly an addictive film to watch. Koyla is certainly not my favourite SRK film, but hidden amongst all the craziness there are some really wonderful moments, particularly in the songs where Madhuri also shines.

But of course the main reason for watching is this:

And a bit of this:

Where to start with such a crazy film? Shah Rukh Khan is Shankar, a mute slave to the incredibly evil and megalomaniacal Rajashahib (Amrish Puri). Shankar is introduced running with the dogs he has trained and the implication is clear that Raja regards him as just another one of his well-trained animals. Leaving aside the fact that Shankar has a truly terrible mullet, as does Raja himself, there is also the very questionable decision to make Shankar wear such immense shoulder pads. It’s hard to believe this film was made in 1997 and not the mid eighties considering some of the fashion choices in this song:

Raja is obviously a bad man with his bad hair and a ’mark of evil’ mole. He also has an even more sadistic and quite insane brother Brijwa who, in trashy bodice ripper novel style, tries to drag off every young woman he encounters.

Despite an intimate relationship with his secretary Bindya, Raja is hungry for another young woman, and eventually tricks Gauri (Madhuri Dixit) into marriage. We first see Gauri frolicking around the fields with a gang of children all high after eating cannabis laddoos. Possibly this is supposed to show how innocent she is, but it’s really just very ‘what the?’ instead. She’s easily tricked when Raja sends a photograph of Shankar instead of himself as the potential bridegroom. A sadistic tyrant Raja may be, but at least he is somewhat aware of his own shortcomings as a potential groom. After a sham of a wedding, Gauri tries to escape but she’s a typical wishy-washy heroine and doesn’t manage anything effectual. Although perhaps fainting is understandable when she tears off the grooms veil to show Raja instead of Shankar! Compare and contrast:

Bindya is displaced in Raja’s affections and ends up as all fallen women do as she is disposed of into the local brothel. This treatment of Raja’s former lover starts to open Shankar’s eyes to the depravity of his owner – it’s taken him 20 years but it’s a start. When he discovers the deception behind Raja and Gauri’s marriage he feels compelled to protect her and when finally Raja kills Gauri’s brother Ashok (Mohnish Behl in a very brief guest appearance) Shankar finally escapes with her into the jungle.

So how do you pursue your wife and slave when they have run off together? By helicopter of course! There is plenty of First Blood style action and Shankar does manage some amazingly intricate traps for a man on the run with no obvious resources. Finally Raja manages to catch up to the fugitives and cuts Shankar’s throat before sending him to his death over a cliff. Amazingly, Shankar just happens to be discovered by a local healer who sews him back up again and restores his voice as a useful side benefit. Gauri meanwhile is destined for the brothel (Raja is not a man of novel ideas), where she finds a protector in Bindya. Because of course, the impure fallen woman has to come good before she is killed in any proper Bollywood film.

There are explosions, plenty of revenge killings and bucket-loads of blood, but finally Shankar does prove that good will always win over evil, especially when good has such an excellent (and frequently used) hero run.

The story has plenty of holes and yet it all makes sense if you just ignore the questions of why and how. There is a flashback to explain exactly how Shankar lost his voice in the first place and why Raja rose to his current level of power. The end ties everything up with the greedy exposed and everyone important and still left alive is redeemed in the end, even Ashok Saraf’s irritating Vedji. This is one of the first films I saw where Johny Lever’s character had a more serious role to play and he pulls it off very well, with only one or two dips into irritating comedy as Vedji’s son and Shankar’s friend. This is probably the best song of the film featuring the two with Shankar’s friend supplying his ‘voice’.

What really does work well in this film is the slowly developing relationship between Shankar and Gauri. There is plenty of chemistry between the two, as there always seems to be with SRK and his leading lady, and they have some very heart-felt scenes particularly when Shankar has no voice and SRK is relying on facial expressions and body language alone. This is one time when SRK’s tendency to overact works very well in his favour and his emotions are excellently expressed. The gradual maturation of Gauri from frightened girl into a woman who helps fight back at the end is well handled. And of course any time Madhuri is dancing she is entrancing. The songs by Rajesh Roshan (lyrics by Indeevar) are the high points of the film and Saroj Khan has done an excellent job with the choreography in each.

But the rest is just plenty of OTT wonderfulness and a surfeit of blood and gore with a healthy helping of revenge. The violence is too cartoonish to be difficult to watch, although there is a dark undercurrent as much of the violence is directed against women. Thankfully though, all the bad guys get their comeuppance and there is always a good song just when the death count is in danger of getting too extreme. It does have an 18 rating which I presume is as a result of the number of attempted rape scenes and general adult themes throughout, although it’s really not as suggestive as many Hollywood films. The bush surgery is excellent and I did particularly like the casts for Shanka’s broken arm and leg which imploded with no apparent ill effects when he started running. Of course he was back to full health and fighting fit in a very short time like all true heroes should be. And perhaps it’s that heavy vengeance burden that explains those shoulder pads earlier!

Koyla is not a film for the faint hearted and I wouldn’t recommend it as a must see film for everyone. But if you like your BW to have the baddest villain and the most extreme trials for a hero and heroine, then it’s definitely a film you should see. 3 stars.