Don't you hate it when the
blackjack dealers cheat and gloat?
If you were to judge solely by watching their movies, you might get the idea that India is probably not a very fun place to live. Recently we have tried to educate ourselves on Bollywood's output. Nearly every Bollywood film, even the more light-hearted ones, revolves around violent criminals, corrupt and/or incompetent police, and the poor people caught in between. The fact that this subject matter is interspersed between escapist music numbers just makes it that much more disturbing. Most of the movies play like The Godfather, if it had musical numbers from Singing in the Rain inserted every fifteen minutes.
This brings us to Khalnayak. Released in 1993, it is considered a minor classic of Indian pop cinema. It has an attractive cast and some great music numbers. It also has zero respect for the audience.
What is the Hindi for "Fabio"?
Khalnayak begins with Balu (Sanjay Dutt) assassinating a political leader. Balu is captured at the scene by officer Ram (Jackie Shroff). Police also visit Balu's girlfriend, who (surprise!) is a club dancer. This allows for the first musical number of the film, with the girlfriend clad in a silver brassiere and dancing to a song about "Khalnayak" (The Villain). A little bit later there is scene where she writhes around on the floor with some photos of Balu, but beyond that, she is a completely pointless character.
Balu is sentenced to prison for 20 years. Once in prison he makes a nuisance of himself to the head of the prison (whose part plays as comic relief) and the other guards. He sings a little ditty about himself as a khalnayak while threatening to escape. He also attacks the guards at every opportunity. To stop this, Ram visits the prison and tries to beat some sense into him. In India, a police officer is apparently responsible for keeping the people he apprehends in jail.
"Okay, but next dance I get to lead."
Nothing gets through to Balu, so Ram visits his girlfriend Ganga (Madhuri Dixit). Ganga is also a police officer, and a guard at a women's prison. But while Ram is away, Balu kills a guard and escapes. The newspapers have a field day with this because Ram (get this) was away visiting a woman to whom he is not engaged.
In an attempt to set things right, Ganga vows to recapture Balu. Her plan for doing this (and please note, we are not making this up) is to go undercover as a belly dancer and perform at various places. She hopes that Balu will show up at one of her performances, and she will be able to join his gang.
Even more incredibly, this works! Balu is a fugitive, and his sponsor, a master criminal named Roshan, is trying to move Balu and his gang to Singapore. Why Singapore? We're not sure. Singapore is not usually known for it's laid-back attitude towards criminals. Balu and his pals take a break from a hard day of living the fugitive life to take in a show. This is not to say that Balu is reckless. He wears a disguise, in the form of an eye patch and a hat. This disguise would fool just about anybody, provided that they were a character from a Marx Brothers' film. After the show Balu sneaks into Ganga's dressing room and asks her to go on the run with him.
"I rock the party, I rock the house!"
At this point, the movie is asking a lot from us. When we first meet Ganga on the job, her behavior was so bizarre we assumed she was an inmate in an asylum. Imagine our surprise when she turned out to be a guard. And then we're supposed to believe that on the side, she's a world class belly dancer.
The one saving grace of Ganga's character is that she is played by Madhuri Dixit. Even by the standards of Bollywood actresses, Dixit is a gorgeous woman, and a charismatic actress. She's also a pretty darn good dancer, as evidenced by the big aforementioned belly dancing number, "Choli Ke Peeche."
When watching Hindi films on DVD, you may run across a little oddity. Many of the subtitle tracks don't bother to translate the songs. To some extent this isn't a problem, because most of the musical numbers are pretty obvious in what they signify. For the edification of people new to Bollywood cinema, we provide this guide to the lyrics of nearly all Hindi musical numbers, as demonstrated by the following screencaps from "Choli Ke Peeche":
"Look at my breasts."
"Look at my pelvis."
"Look at my breasts."
"Look at my pelvis."
(Or possibly, "Lentils.")
Our friend Jyotika (who, despite her best attempts to hide it, is Indian) would probably object to this interpretation, on the grounds that we are trivializing a proud art form that has roots going back centuries, and that our continually in-the-sewer minds are leading us to find purient sexual imagery where none is intended.
Did we mention that "Choli Ke Peeche" translates roughly as "Behind my Blouse"?
On the run, Balu and Ganga have many adventures. This film is three hours long, so we're not going to go into all of it, but suffice it to say all of these things happen, some more than once:
Ganga tries to tip off Ram to where they are going.
Ganga realizes that Balu might not be such a bad guy, his being a murderer aside. Sometimes he does this by murdering people. (We're still not making this up.)
Balu seems to fall in love with Ganga, but is intimidated by her innocence.
Ram finds Balu and a fight breaks out.
"Look, I didn't spend all that money
on these clothes to tangle with the
Indian Five-Oh. You guys go steal
something from Bruce Wayne's mansion!"
This goes on for a while. The most noteworthy scene occurs when Ram tries to use Balu's mother to draw Balu out. She ditches Ram and begins looking for her son. She wanders into a church where she asks the priest if he has seen her son. He asks her what her son look like, and she points to a portrait of Jesus! The movie apparently contains many parallels to Hindu religious texts, but director Subhash Ghai probably should have left Christianity out of it, especially if he thinks that Jesus is somehow comparable to an unrepentant murderer.
As it shakes out, Ganga helps Balu escape one final time. She is arrested for aiding a fugitive, while Balu hooks up with Roshan and vows to become the greatest villain of all time! What he actually does is dance around in a bizarre outfit that looks like a cross between the wardrobes of the Joker and Cruella De Vil. Nothing much villainous there, unless you count the theft of some of Jack Nicholson's dance moves from Batman (1989). Then, on the last leg of the trip to Singapore, Roshan proves he can't control his own evil urges, and tries to kill Balu's mother for no reason. A big action scene results. We were a little confused by exactly what was going on here, because the final confrontation seemed to be taking place in a tunnel, but various characters were shown being thrown off of the parapets of some kind of fort. Editing is not Bollywood's strong suit.
"Oh c'mon, take a look at Life's Little Instruction Book."
In the end Ganga is put on trial, and Balu shows up and takes some hostages during the sentencing phase and vouches for her honor. Somehow this lets her off the hook. (Does Ganga's honor really have anything to do with the fact that she really did help Balu escape from the police?) Then Balu turns himself in, and he is lead away to the applause of everyone present. He even takes the opportunity to make some flippant remarks about how he's going escape from prison, and everybody laughs! Ha ha, don't you wish all cop killers were this much fun?
On the plus side, the story moves fairly quickly for a three hour film. Some of the subplots do drag a bit, but we have seen Indian films this long that only had one plot. The cast is uniformly excellent: Madhuri Dixit, as we mentioned above, is gorgeous, even if she is threatening to turn into the Hindi version of Regis Philbin. Sanjay Dutt has specialized in macho roles, as in Jung, and he does a good job of portraying Balu no matter whether he is a grungy fugitive or a super villain. Too bad the script never gives him a chance to explain why he goes through these transformations. Jackie Shroff (also in Jung) does his best with what turns out to be a not very important role. Apparently he managed to convince the producers to let him give the singing and dancing a miss. He still looks embarrassed when musical numbers happen around him.
What isn't so good is that the movie plays like a romantic fantasy most of the way through, with the musical numbers reinforcing that impression. There is even a Capra-esque ending. But all of this is at odds with the more serious political and moral dimensions of the story. Would cops applaud a cop killer, just because he rescued a woman's honor? Not on planet Earth. Not even in India. And how did Balu go from wanting to be the world's greatest villain to sacrificing his freedom for Ganga? We'd like to think it had something to with profound embarrassment about that checkerboard outfit, but we doubt it. It's more than a little frustrating to see every character in a film, even whole crowds of extras, stop being characters and become tools of an unlikely happy ending.