Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Police story”

Posted on September 5, 2014


Recalling the superb writing in ‘Khakee’, one of the great masala movies – it turned ten this year.

I wish I’d thought of this piece earlier, this January to be precise.  That would have marked, exactly, ten years – a nice round figure – since the release of Rajkumar Santoshi’s Khakee, which has been coming up in discussions on my blog, after the recent crop of masala movies. The film was invoked, by me and others, as an example of how to do masala right, with dignity and integrity, instead of simply hiring a big hero and winking ironically at tired old masala tropes, and I watched it again, recently, to see if it still held up. The answer is a thumping yes. A few things haven’t aged well. Some of the supporting actors aren’t impressive. (I’m thinking about the stammering photographer early on.) I felt Atul Kulkarni’s flashback could have been meatier, less generic. I wish Amitabh Bachchan’s respiratory problem (asthma? wheezing?) had been referenced a little more – he’s afflicted by it only during the action scenes. And the songs – Dil dooba, Aisa jadoo dala re– look, today, like speed breakers. (Vaada raha, though, holds up well; it’s vital to what happens later.)

Hosted by

That’s it. We wouldn’t even be talking about these minor issues in another movie, and the only reason I bring them up is because the rest of Khakee works like gangbusters. And though the film is extremely well crafted and acted, its success is mainly due to the writing. I cannot think of a better-written masala movie that came after Khakee – namely, in a whole decade. Rajkumar Santoshi and Shridhar Raghavan share the writing credits, and you can sense from the writing their affection, their respect for the masala movie, their intimate knowledge of its inner workings, and their joy at the prospect of resurrecting it after it practically died from cliché and indifference and neglect. Khakee, too, is based on a cliché, but it’s a Hollywood masala cliché: a ragtag team comes together for a dangerous mission. And this template is fleshed out with flavourful Bollywood masala, the kind where the villain snaps his fingers and the lights reappear in a darkened house. And this isn’t larky masala but the serious kind, the Salim-Javed kind. (Go figure. The story is set in Chandangarh, which sounds like Ramgarh, and here too we have a senior and two juniors – one wisecracking, one dead-serious – trying to outwit a deadly villain, who even has a Kaalia-like sidekick named Kalwaa.)

Khakee knows that one of the most irresistible (and important) aspects of a good masala movie is the character introduction. When we first see Bachchan, he is sleeping on a stage where a gassy politician is giving a speech – and this instantly tells us that (a) he is old, and (b) he has little patience with bureaucracy. Akshay Kumar’s introduction – the actor, seen today, doesn’t seem to have aged at all in ten years; and in those ten years, he doesn’t seem to have gotten another role this good – sets up the character’s sleaziness, his corruptibility, his eye for women. Aishwarya Rai, at first, is mistaken for someone else – and how apt this intro is, given how she’s eventually revealed to be… someone else. And Ajay Devgan – he still had the “a” in his last name then – has a great “villain entry” scene, where he shows up with dark glasses in a photographer’s dark room, bathed in red light. The photographer has done something stupid, and he’s going to be punished. But not by a simple bullet through the head – that would be too easy, too un-masala-ic. So we’re introduced to the photographer’s family, a wife and a daughter who wants to become a singer. Asked to sing, she launches into Har ghadi badal rahi hai… But we don’t hear the last line of the mukhda. That’s left for Devgan, when he steps out and sets off the explosives he’s planted in the house, tunelessly completing the song: “Kal ho naa ho.”

Even better is how Santoshi and Raghavan shape the Atul Kulkarni character, who we think is a villain. He doesn’t say a word for almost half the running time, and then, during an intense verbal showdown between Bachchan and Akshay Kumar, when the tension is at an all-time high, he speaks. This is how you extract maximum mileage from your characters. Kulkarni’s mother, played by Tanuja, is also used beautifully, to emphasise the maxim that, in the masala universe, the mother is the supreme moral authority. Bachchan’s mission is important not because he promises his superior that he’ll bring Kulkarni to court but because he promises Kulkarni’s mother that he’ll bring her son to court, so that the law can take its course. But the writers don’t simply adhere slavishly to the masala tradition – they also tweak it. Bachchan is unable to keep his promise to Tanuja – and this is but inevitable in a story where nothing goes per plan. Compare this arc of the mother (even when she’s not on screen, we feel her presence) to the lazy way a distraught mother is used in Singham Returns, simply to amp up the melodrama.

The characters are from everywhere. There’s a man named Naidu. Bachchan’s wife speaks Tamil. And this diversity seeps into the story’s texture, when we see, for instance, that Bachchan has a personal side too, that his daughter is getting married, and he rues the fact that in the pursuit of duty he was rarely at home. Even the action scenes are textured. Not only are they painstakingly staged, like set pieces (the brilliant Saving Private Ryan-like early stretch comes to mind), we also get a sense of the cost of these exercises, when we learn, for instance, that the police armoury had defective guns and only four bulletproof vests. Unlike Singham Returns, this isn’t a one-note rah-rah ode to the police. Bachchan and his cohorts – a microcosm of the police force, comprising the spotless and the corrupt, the well-off and the middle-class – are constantly disillusioned. And yet, for every criticism of the police (“Yeh log lena jaante hain, dena nahin jaante”), there’s a moment that showcases their undervalued service to society. These “messages” aren’t cordoned off into a crude summing-up stretch at the end, but woven into the narrative throughout.

Most importantly, Khakee really lives up to that title – it’s really about these men in khakee. There are overt references to the uniform, in the numerous speeches delivered by Bachchan and others. (One of these speeches is addressed to another cop, reminding him of his duty.) And there are unstated references to the uniform as well. We see, through their blood-stained khakee shirts, the price these policemen pay, and in the film’s grandest masala moment – during the climactic fight – Bachchan whips out his belt (after showing us the IPS insignia in close-up) and uses it against the axe-wielding Devgan. The next time someone refers to a film as “just a masala movie,” or suggests that you “leave your brains at the door” because it’s a masala movie, you should point them to the entertaining, deeply affecting Khakee, which proves that good, textured, layered writing isn’t just for art films. Ten years later, it’s still a great reminder that masala doesn’t automatically mean “mindless.”

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.