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!

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Reshma aur Shera

Reshma Aur Shera is one of my favourite films in any language. I don’t often like romantic tragedies as all too often I feel I’ve wasted my time watching people I don’t care for as they do idiotic things that could have been avoided if they weren’t so one dimensional or stupid. But each time I watch Reshma Aur Shera, despite knowing what is going to happen next, I fall in love with it all over again.

The love story is simple but engaging and Waheeda Rehman and Sunil Dutt light up the screen with their chemistry and brilliant acting. The tragedy comes from the spectre of death in a tribal feud set against the hope for change. Producer, director and star Sunil Dutt and writer Ali Raza created a full context for the lovers and that sense of place and family, the depth of the characters,  makes their predicament feel more immediate and of consequence. It also makes the film entertaining beyond just the romance, and it isn’t all gloom and despair. There is joy, fun and beauty too.

Reshma (Waheeda Rehman) is the daughter of Chaudhury of Pochina and Shera (Sunil Dutt) is the eldest son of his enemy, the Chaudhury Sagat Singh. These families have been picking each other off for years.

They meet at a fair in Jaisalmer, at the Durga Puja (she is also the presiding deity of the story). Shera fancies Reshma on sight and, like a good girl, Reshma coyly avoids him. The fair is wonderful looking, and I had moments of feeling I was watching a documentary rather than a set. There is so much to see with Reshma as she darts around enjoying the amusements, the snacks and the shopping.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ecstatic music of a qawwali brings them face to face again, and in this heightened state a deeper emotional connection forms. I love this picturisation as it takes the viewer deep into the scene, with the vocals conveying the intoxication and pain of love. And it features a very young Sanjay Dutt (who developed his unique sense of rhythm early on it appears).

Once they discover each other’s identity, Reshma asks Shera to sacrifice her at the altar – a blood sacrifice not a marital altar. She wants to protect her brother Gopal (an outrageously handsome Ranjeet), and offers her life in place of his. Shera had already rescued Gopal from his own brothers earlier that day, proving himself honourable if unpopular with his kin and further impressing Reshma. Shera is determined their love will succeed and Reshma wants to believe.  They meet in the temple before leaving for home, and decide that they can have each other and bring about an end to the feud if they are careful.

Back in their villages life goes on, except that Shera and Reshma sneak into the desert to meet at night. Despite the stalker-ish beginning to the romance, it is a passionate mutual attraction and they both have a share in conversations about their future.

Family and friends are an important part of who Reshma and Shera are and why they do what they do. And the supporting cast is so impressive – Vinod Khanna as Shera’s nasty brother Vijay, Amrish Puri as an elder in Shera’s village, Jagant and Sulochana Latkar as Shera’s parents, the dashing Sudhir as the qawwali singer, Padma Khanna as an uninhibited nautch girl, Ranjeet as Gopal, Rakhee in a small but high impact role as Gopal’s wife, just to name a few.

Waheeda Rehman is simply amazing. Reshma evolves from a pretty young thing, giddy with excitement, to a more sombre young woman passionately in love with an enemy.  She realises she should send Shera away for good, but cannot sever their bond. Finally running out of options, Reshma challenges Durga to prove herself by taking on life as a woman on earth and see how that feels. Waheeda is just magnificent as she demands help in return for all the sacrifices to the goddess. And Durga does give her an answer.

Despite a ponderous voiceover at the start of the film extolling the Indian woman’s virtue of sacrifice, Reshma is not a passive sacrificial offering but rather uses herself as a means of creating change. When she makes up her mind, she does it to save Shera and stop the feud from claiming everyone she loves. She is determined and forceful, a far cry from the blushing girl she was at the start. It’s a challenging role and she delivers a beautiful characterisation.

While I initially thought Sunil Dutt looked a little too mature to be Shera, he has a certain appeal and even plays some unexpectedly goofy and sweet moments. He transforms from a lad about the fair to a future leader challenging his own father. His internal conflict is evident – the Rajput sense of honour and the man who wants a happy and peaceful future with the love of his life. Shera seems to benefit from the close relationship he has with his mother and his respect for Reshma, being prepared to think outside the heroic norms. But where Reshma suffers loss after loss and creates a solution of sorts, Shera reverts to type becoming as vengeful and bloodthirsty as his father and brothers.

Chotu (Amitabh) is a mute and is neglected by brothers Vijay and Jagat unless they need his sharpshooting skills. He worships Shera who treats him kindly and seems to be his only friend. Amitabh’s performance is beautiful, quite restrained and very moving. Chotu is a sad and confused young man, following his father’s path. He is ultimately responsible for killing Reshma’s father and brother, and that sets the final train of events in motion. While Sagat Singh takes the boys to a brothel as reward, Shera swears vengeance on whoever the killer was.

Their mother (Sulochana Latkar) emerges as a powerful force. Initially she wants Shera to follow his father’s order and kill Gopal, putting her sons above all else. But once things implode, she takes matters into her own hands to save what is left of her family. She takes Chotu to Reshma’s village and offers him as a sacrifice. The confrontation in Reshma’s home is gut-wrenching. Chotu is traumatised and disgusted at himself, and Rakhee as Gopal’s widow faces a life in ruins. He wants to die, can’t bear the pain of betraying Shera and knows he is doomed. This sequence is the one that gives me a lump in my throat every time. I can identify with the motivations of all the characters, and it seems impossible to reconcile their needs.

Creative versus destructive energies underlies much of the character interactions and is often divided on gender lines.  Not that the women are all about popping out babies and nurturing – I mean that their energy seems more focussed on preserving their homes, and on renewal and regeneration. They might destroy something or someone, even themselves, to achieve it but they have a positive goal rather than just aiming for obliteration of an enemy.  The action in the film may generally follow the men but the women are making choices that drive the story. It’s also a film rich in symbolism and visual themes. The motifs of fire and circles reinforce the cycles of destruction and rebirth.

The cinematography is beautiful, and S Ramachandra captures the harsh light, the muted earth tones and the vibrant fabrics of Rajasthan. The costumes and jewellery are stunning, and the buildings look real and lived in, with glimpses of details in kitchens and bedrooms. Plus – lovely music by Jai Dev, choreography by Gopi Krishna (assisted by one Miss Saroj Khan), and playback singers Asha, Lata, Manna Dey.

My DVD is missing about 20 minutes of the complete film so there are a couple of large gaps, one of which probably shows the killing of Reshma’s family. It’s so frustrating but the story is still clear and you can fill in the gaps.

The first time I watched Reshma aur Shera I was stunned. I immediately wanted to watch it again but as with any decision about true love versus a passing fancy, I decided to give it some time. Love it is. It is such a captivating film, and a beautiful work of art. I cannot recommend it highly enough. 5 stars!

Katherine at Totally Filmi is coordinating a month long celebration of women in Indian cinema. Links will be collated at Delicious so keep an eye on that page for lots of other articles and blog posts to be added throughout March.

Kaala Patthar

Kaala Patthar is a total masala package that has something for everyone, plus a dollop of social justice. The essential characters are present – heroes, anti-heroes, spirited heroines, eye candy, villains. The main players are outsiders who find themselves caught in the conflict between profit and humanity played out in a privately owned coal mine. There are no surprises in the plot, but some excellent performances give the drama added substance. And director Yash Chopra also provides fights, songs, romance, bromance and dodgy science to complete the masala formula.

Amitabh is recognisable from the first glimpse of his tall figure and loping stride. Vijay is an enigma, full of smouldering anger and despair as the man trying to escape his past and perhaps make his future a short one. He is educated, and has an uncanny ability to wear white trousers in a coal mine without getting too grubby. The mines were a place to hide as he served his largely self-imposed punishment. A former ship’s captain, he made the wrong decision in a moment of stress and paid the price, although how a private shipping line captain could be court-martialled is never explained. Vijay was with the workers but didn’t consider himself one of them, constantly speaking of their struggle and their lives. He was friendly enough, and is seen to have a smile and a laugh in several scenes, but it is clear this is his own personal purgatory. Time and time again he risks his own safety to prove to himself that he is not a coward. Amitabh’s performance is outstanding, convincing even as he utters the most pompous dialogues. He plays Vijay with compelling restraint and brooding energy.

Sudha (Rakhee), the company doctor, is drawn to the educated, articulate miner and he is attracted to her integrity and dedication. They have strong chemistry in their understated scenes alone together even though at times she looks more like his Ma – but perhaps that’s just the caretaker in her character coming through. And Rakhee does look like a mature woman, not a fluffy girly heroine. Sudha and Vijay appear as adults weighing up a future relationship, not kids chasing each other around a park. Sudha seems to have a greater capacity for forgiveness, or at least the understanding that we need to let ourselves off the hook sometimes.

Ravi Malhotra (Shashi Kapoor), the new engineer, is all shiny and action oriented, a stark contrast to the weary and bitter Vijay. Ravi is concerned about the miners but doesn’t seek to be one of the masses, just to manage them in a more humane way. He isn’t all talk – he buys new machinery and makes changes to try and improve worker safety, and forces management to pay a promised bonus. The people rejoice!

I like that the ladies dance neatly in lines and are mostly segregated from Mac Mohan and the rest of the miners who seem to prefer a freestyle approach.

Ravi’s popularity and success irks money hungry boss Puri Dhanraj (Prem Chopra). Ravi is charismatic and the role is a good fit for the charming and articulate Shashi. He has a light but not frivolous energy that helps keep the moralising from bogging the story down.

Anita (Parveen Babi) is supposedly an investigative reporter, but if she ever investigated anything more complex than choosing a lipgloss I will be very surprised. She is very pretty but it’s not always enough. Anita writes an article that is highly critical of the privatised mine, and while this annoys Dhanraj, it pleases Ravi which might be Anita’s priority. Although Anita’s character was interesting, Parveen’s screechy acting in the more dramatic exchanges was painful so I was relieved when she reverted to flouncing around the countryside with Shashi.

Mangal (Shatrughan Sinha) is an escaped criminal who has taken refuge in the anonymity of the mining camp. I don’t think of Shotgun as a particularly subtle actor and this performance didn’t change that perception, although it is very enjoyable. Mangal swaggers around camp, stirring up trouble and trying to be the top dog. He is bad through and through, until he comes good when it counts. His final scene is totally unbelievable, he overacts wildly, and I don’t think his decision could really have been that helpful, yet it is a perfect masala redemption.

Channo (a radiant Neetu Singh) makes a living selling ornaments and trinkets to the miners and their wives. She is boisterous and bright, and even Vijay responds to her warm personality. She and Mangal have an unconvincing romance and I got the impression that Channo picked him more because he was new blood rather than any real attraction in the first instance. Channo has a couple of significant scenes, and one decision is pivotal. There is a very suspenseful scene where Channo is pursued and almost raped by some ne’er-do-wells from the camp, saved in the nick of time by Mangal. It seemed odd that a girl who knew the area so well would take a lonely path she was clearly a little nervous about, no matter how big her hurry. So while it was dramatic and Neetu was very convincing, it jarred and I wondered if there was a better way for the plot to turn.

Neetu is more than capable of handling the emotional range Channo requires. And her presence means at least one of the female cast can dance!

The supporting actors are excellent. Well, Prem Chopra played the usual Prem Chopra type sleazy villain with no redeeming qualities but he does it so well and he is pretty much the yardstick for that kind of role.  Mac Mohan as card sharp Rana and Parikshat Sahni as Jagga stood out, and it was nice to see Iftekhar in a fleeting appearance. While there is an impressive cast of supporting artists, most of the extras are an anonymous backdrop of the unacknowledged masses. There are some moving scenes of miners waiting in silent vigil outside the house of a dying colleague, or waiting for Vijay as he has treatment. They bide patiently, watching everything and waiting their turn.

The music by Rajesh Roshan is excellent and while there are only a couple of big song and dance moments, the songs are all integrated into the story and do reveal much about the characters and the environment. Shashi’s entrance to Ek Rasta Hai Zindagi perfectly expresses his nature and the different world he is coming from. Ishq aur Mushq has a bittersweet tone that matches Sudha and Vijay’s burgeoning relationship.

Yash Chopra is a talented story teller, and Salim-Javed’s script is excellent especially the dialogues. The mine is a bleak non-glamorous backdrop that allows the people to dominate. It’s a visually dark film, with lots of scenes in the tunnels or at night, so the performances draw the eye rather than fancy sets or costumes.

I have some issues with the decision making in the final scenes (I suspect that in real life, it would not have been a happy ending if people did what they did but you know, filmi physics and all that), and the set construction team relied a little too much on papier mache but these are small quibbles. You can’t beat Kaala Patthar for excellent character focussed vintage masala,  with the bonus of a fabulous cast. 5 stars!

Heather says: Kaala Pathar is vintage Yash Chopra from the days before he got tied up in NRI romance stories and when he was still producing films that were both novel and entertaining. It’s a great story full of action, melodrama and issues of social justice which speeds along to an exciting conclusion. The characters are compelling, and the female actors make up for their limited time onscreen by their impact on the story – softening their male counterpoints enough to allow more insight into their personalities.

I love the way the two leads Vijay and Ravi are introduced, and that their respective characters can be deduced after just a few moments in their opening scenes. Instantly the coal begrimed Vijay is established as anti-authority with heroic tendencies as he ignores the company line and charges into the mine to rescue some trapped workers. It’s Amitabh in his ‘angry young man persona’ and it’s no surprise to learn later on that he harbours a dark secret or that he believes pain is his destiny.  Ravi on the other hand, is immediately recognisable as a ladies man when he first appears via a song, wearing a jaunty cap and sporting a rather fabulous scarf with a motif of large white daisies. Happy and with a more relaxed attitude to life Ravi is idealistic with more socialist views and really not my view of a ‘typical’ engineer. But then again I’m rather prejudiced since I know so many engineers. Ravi’s drawing which demonstrates exactly why mine shaft number 4 is so dangerous is classic Bollywood engineering at work, and his skills in this area may explain why Ravi is working in such an undesirable job.  Shatrughan Sinha turns in a great performance as the escaped prisoner Mangal and allows yet more melodrama to be added to the story.

The various romances are handled in a subtle and subdued way which works well within the disaster movie format and I appreciate the restraint shown here. Rakhee Gulzar is beautiful as the doctor working under such difficult conditions while Parveen Babi gets a chance to show some teeth as the more feisty Anita, and Neetu Singh gets the best moves.  I even like Prem Chopra’s unrealistic and totally villainous mine owner who has no redeeming features whatsoever. It’s all very Dickensian and melodramatic, but so much fun. The story is generally well paced, although rather long, and I felt that the scenes of the inevitable disaster at the end did drag on a little. The mine walls were also a little shaky and I’m sure everyone could escape more easily, if not as spectacularly, if they’d just push the walls aside. Despite the occasional dodgy effects and rickety sets, the disaster theme is well depicted and I was interested to learn that the mine disaster portrayed here was based on real life events at Chasnala. A must see film for sure – 4 ½ stars.