With the release of each new Subhash Ghai movie, we’re aware of its distance from his older ones, and it’s no different with Kaanchi, Ghai’s first heroine-centric saga. As long as he was making macho epics, centred on outsized male protagonists, Ghai was an entertaining filmmaker. A sensible one, too. Like all good masala moviemakers, he knew that Nature invented thunder and lightning for a reason – with all that noise and heat, we cease to think and we respond with our most primal emotions. And he chose his actors carefully. Shatrughan Sinha, Sanjeev Kumar, Danny Denzongpa, Amrish Puri, Dilip Kumar, Raaj Kumar, Anil Kapoor, Jackie Shroff, even Sanjay Dutt – these actors knew masala cinema and they knew that there was only one right way to play their parts, and that was to channel their inner werewolf and howl at the moon. (The din that Laxmikant-Pyarelel served up as background scores was perfectly in sync with these exertions.) Then Trimurti, which Ghai produced, bombed. The failure of the film must have been hard to take, for it was essentially an incremental reworking of Ghai’s Ram Lakhan – instead of a mother getting revenge with the help of two sons, we had a mother getting revenge with the help of three sons. (And who knows, had Trimurti clicked, Ghai might have gone on to make Char Dham, about a wronged mother with quadruplets named Badri, Dwarka, Puri and Rameshwar.) Ghai decided, then, that the Indian audience was no longer worth wooing. He turned his sights towards the Diaspora. He made Pardes. He’s never been the same since.
Kaanchi is yet another attempt by Ghai to prove that his big-top ringmaster days are behind him, and that he is now a subtle and sophisticated filmmaker. And again, these two instincts – the old and the new, the innate and the acquired – are at war. On the one hand, we have a closing quote from Rabindranath Tagore. On the other, we have Jhoomar Babu (Rishi Kapoor), a corrupt industrialist who, after seeing unflattering news about him on TV, picks up a pistol and shoots the screen. Afterwards, he lies on a bed with red satin pillows and strums a guitar, while surrounded by big-bosomed women in animal-print wraps. On the one hand, Kaanchi is a contemporary movie about Young Idealistic India overthrowing Old Corrupt India. On the other, there’s the smarmy old-world villain played by Mithun Chakraborty, whose stuffed cheeks suggest botched dental surgery. If Kaanchi is watchable at all, it’s due to all the schizophrenia on display, this battle of the Ghais.
With Taal and Pardes and Yaadein, Ghai showed signs of having his heroines do more than just dance on top of pianos and hint at the bounties in their blouses. The women in these films were more than just archetypal accoutrements in a man’s world. There was, suddenly, an attempt to get into their minds, their hearts. In Kaanchi, Ghai goes a step further. In a sense, this is a return of sorts to the revenge dramas Ghai used to make, but this heroine (Mishti) doesn’t need to wait for her sons to grow up. She swears like a sailor and is described as a sherni. The hero (Binda, played by Kartik Tiwari), meanwhile, is reduced to a sex object – he gets the bathing scene.
Would Karz or Karma have worked had the polarities been reversed, had the women – Tina Munim, Nutan – taken up the task of bringing down evil? It’s hard to say, because we’ve rarely had masala movies – save the odd Ashanti, the ghee-fried version of Charlie’s Angels – where the heroines did what Dharmendra was doing at the time. Perhaps, as Khoon Bhari Maang demonstrated, the key to these films is to have a big star at the centre, someone with the gravitational pull to ground everything around her, and Mishti, whose voice, in the upper registers, is charged with a childish twang, is certainly no Rekha. But even Rekha might have found it difficult to make Kaanchi seem any less ludicrous. The basic skills that Ghai used to have – the ability to construct dramatic showdowns, the ear for rousing dialogue, the eye for glittering song picturisation, the scent for emotional continuity – have deserted him. Who knows if he even has it in him to make a Karz or a Karma anymore?
The setting, in Kaanchi, is an idyllic mountainside village in Uttaranchal. The storytelling, too, is as old as the hills. Kaanchi and Binda, who are from this village, are good-hearted and pure, just as Sushant (Rishabh Sinha), hailing from Mumbai, is the incarnation of evil. Sushant falls for Kaanchi. She prefers Binda. Many scenes later, she’s in Mumbai, wrenching the hands off a giant clock and hurling them at a villain, as Ghai keeps cutting to a rock concert. Kaanchi is flabby and punishingly long, and it perks up only in the Kambal ke neeche song sequence. Yes, it’s a desperate attempt to cash in on our Choli ke peeche memories, but at least for these few minutes, we remember who Ghai was and not who he’s become, the grandfather who greets you with a “Yo!”. Someone should tell him that after Singham and Wanted and Rowdy Rathore, the time is right for him to pitch a tent and stage his circuses again. If all that energy doesn’t recharge his batteries, perhaps nothing will. Put differently, instead of launching a nationwide hunt for his next heroine, who will be rechristened Madhulika or Mehrunnisa, he should simply buy a brunette wig and blue contact lenses and coax Sonika Gill out of retirement.
* macho epics = see here
* Trimurti = see here
* Char Dham = see here
* Pardes = see here
* dance on top of pianos = see here
* hint at the bounties in their blouses = see here
* sherni = lioness
* Ashanti = see here
* Kambal ke neeche = see here
* Sonika Gill = see here
Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.