Friday Classics: Khalnayak, Watching Sanjay is Like Watching a Baby Lion Hiding Among Cats

Oh my gosh is this an entertaining movie! I had forgotten how ludicrously ridiculously fun it is. Really, you should watch it! And it’s on Netflix!

I was just talking in another post about the triumvirate that runs the plot of all Indian films, hero-villain-heroine. Which roughly translates to protagonist-antagonist-love interest. The difference is that the first trinity has a moral judgement in it, while the second is simply about narrative structure. This film plays with that difference, the narrative structure puts a character at the center as the protagonist who, according to the moral values of the plot, is the “villain”. The “hero” by way of moral values is the antagonist in terms of plot. And the “heroine” is still officially in love with the hero but it is her relationship with the “villain” that drives her screen time.

Image result for khalnayak poster

The reason Indian film has such a strong hero-villain-heroine triangle goes back to long pre-film traditions. If you look at the Ramayana, the ur-narrative for south Asian culture, it has a really interesting interpretation of the hero-villain connection. Raavan came first, then came Ram. Raavan was brilliant, devout, a great leader, built a fabulous civilization. But he was proud, and flawed. And therefore there had to be Ram, a perfect hero sent to earth in order to defeat him. And Sita, Ram’s consort, sent to earth in order to love Ram and tempt Raavan. All created around the villain.

The other way of looking at it is that Ram had to be so amazingly perfect and brave and talented and Sita had to be so amazingly wise and beautiful in order to be slightly better and stronger than the already amazing villain, Raavan. The strength of the villain indicates and measures the strength of the hero. The villain is created in order to prove the hero.

And this is how films are structured. We’ve all seen this over and over again, the film starts by introducing the big bad scary gangster. He’s torturing a witness, or killing a cop, or whatever. And only after we meet the big scary gangster, do we meet our fresh innocent hero and start to get excited by the strength the hero will inevitably reveal as he defeats him. Sometimes we jump right in to seeing the big scary gangster being tempted by the beautiful heroine, and her beauty and the gangsters temptation all serve, again, to get us excited about how amazing the hero will be once he appears.

This film takes that whole idea and flips it slightly. Like usual, the hero will defeat the villain, the heroine will escape the villain, and the strength of the villain serves to make them both look better. But instead of attacking this narrative from the side of the hero, the film attacks it from the side of the villain. We see why the villain believes his acts are justified, why he falls in love with the heroine, his plans to defeat the hero, and so on and so forth. And meanwhile the time spent with the hero feels like it is extraneous to the plot, his romance with the heroine is small and simple, his motivations are straight forward, and on and on. Thus the title, “Khalnayak”.

This isn’t the first time Subhash Ghai investigated this idea, the bad guy being the one with the backstory, sympathy, center of the plot, and so on. But those films, the point was that the “bad guy” wasn’t actually bad after all, he really was a hero. Thus the title, “Hero” (for example). And those movies also provided another even bigger villain, and did not provide an additional protagonist to play the “hero” role, meaning by the law of conservation of movie characters, our “bad guy” really was the hero after all.

This film doesn’t make any bones about it. Sanjay Dutt is the villain, the primary villain. We can sympathize with him and understand him, but he is a bad dude. But at the same time, he is the person we are spending this movie with. And in order to enjoy spending this movie with him, we have to find him fun to watch, we have to enjoy watching him. And boy-howdy is that ever the case!!!!!

If you ever looked at Sanjay Dutt and thought “really? Him? He is a movie star?” this movie is your answer. He is riveting in the role, and brilliant. It’s not just the raw strange electricity he has had on camera his whole life, it’s the way he plays it. Every gesture is slightly odd, every head tilt, every hand flip. The essence of “not hero” pervades every part of him, nothing he does is the way it should be done. And yet, he is so much more interesting than the “hero” character, the one with the suits and the perfect hair and the straight forward way of walking and being, Jackie Shroff. He’s sexy, yes, but it’s more than that, there is something about him that is just different, like seeing a baby lion thrown in with a bunch of house cats.

And then there’s Madhuri. This movie has shockingly strong female roles. Madhuri, and Raakhee, both with big blow the roof off scenes that must have been very fun to play. But really, Madhuri. Everyone remembers “Choli Ke Peeche” but her role is so much more than that. Her introduction scene is amazing, and she goes toe to toe with Sanjay for most of the film and easily matches his charisma and drives it higher. If Sanjay is a baby lion thrown in with house cats, Madhuri is the confident little kitten that pounces on him and tries to get him to play.

On top of that there is the fun play with the Ramayana story, a whole series of great songs, colorful Rajasthani saris, Neena Gupta, Anupam Kher doing comedy in a wacky wig, a noble old Muslim man, and on and on! Just, watch it!

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We open with Sanjay assassinating an honest politician. He is captured by the police before he can escape. He taunts the officer Jackie Shroff who interrogates him, and when presented with another member of the gang who was beaten into testifying against him, he kills him with his bare hands as the police watch, stunned. In the middle of this case, he goes off to see his girlfriend prison police officer Madhuri at a wedding.

He proposes and almost marries her (after her aunt points out that people are talking about their long relationship without marriage) but is interrupted by word that Sanjay has escaped. Jackie’s job is in trouble, and his media is after him when it comes out he was visiting his girlfriend instead of working the case when Sanjay escaped. Madhuri, wanting to help, goes off on her own and starts doing dance shoes around the region, looking for Sanjay. She finds him, and Sanjay (thinking she is a simple dancing girl) offers to pay her to come along with him and his friends into hiding. She goes with them, charming them all, and leaving clues along the way to help Jackie find them. There is one dark moment when it looks like a drunken Sanjay might rape Madhuri, but before it comes to that they are interrupted. And then Jackie catches up and has them surrounded, and Sanjay uses Madhuri as a human shield and escapes. Afterwards, he reveals to Madhuri that he has known she is a police officer all along, he kept her in case he needed a hostage. And now she is trapped traveling with them until he can escape the country.

This is already juicy enough, but the second half gets even juicy. Raakhee, Sanjay’s mother, has been wandering around being miserable and guilty. And finally, in the second half, we learn how it all went wrong. Sanjay was raised in a poor but honest family, and the evil new drug dealer came by the house and offered gifts of candy and firecrackers. Sanjay took it, his father yelled at him, his mother protected him. He grew up alternately spoiled and alianated by his parents, finally taking a job from the drug dealer. His sister, noble social worker (another strong interesting woman!) tried to stop it and the drug dealer killed her. Now without any moral center, Sanjay assassinated a man. When his father found out, he killed himself. Sanjay came back home and Raakhee turned him away. That’s sad and dramatic, but even more sad and dramatic is when Jackie sees a photo of Raakhee and realizes she was his school teacher and Sanjay Dutt was HIS BEST FRIEND!!!!! Jackie is now even more determined to catch him, alive, and possibly save him for the sake of his mother and their childhood friendship.

Meanwhile, Madhuri is stubbornly furious at her capture. Until they travel through a small town where goons are trying to affect the local election and Sanjay is drawn in to fighting on behalf of the people, and injured. Madhuri is touched by the bravery he showed and the humanity in his reaction to the gratitude of the people. While he is sick from the gunshot wound, rather than escaping she goes off and brings back a doctor. He tells her the story of his childhood while he is healing and she is increasingly sympathetic. Finally, the cops catch up with them and start shooting to kill, and Madhuri leaps in front of Sanjay to save him.

Thanks to her actions, Madhuri is arrested and accused of working with Sanjay. Jackie continues to look for Sanjay and finds him through Raakhee, who he comes to take with him when he leaves the country. Sanjay escapes, but after talking to Raakhee and Jackie he is increasingly turned away from his evil boss. He ends up confronting him (after his boss tries to kill both him and Raakhee on a boat, it’s confusing). Jackie is there to arrest the boss after Sanjay weakens him, but Sanjay escapes again. He is now positioned to take over the gang, escape the country, be happy. But Madhuri is on trial. Finally, at the last minute, Sanjay breaks into the courtroom to declare and prove Madhuri’s innocence. Madhuri is freed and reunited with Jackie, Sanjay is forgiven by Raakhee, and then goes off to jail.

It’s a ridiculous plot. But it works because about 70% of the movie is Madhuri and Sanjay moving around each other, and all the plot backflips serve to make that better. In Kalank, their new movie together, the Madhuri and Sanjay relationship was dull and confusing. Until they finally had a scene together, and then suddenly it all burst into clarity. What Kalank had for 10 minutes, this movie has for about 140 minutes.

This is one of those films that the real life story has become part of the film. Madhuri and Sanjay were in love at the time of filming (despite his marriage to another woman). And Sanjay was a drug addict who, it was widely accepted, had become an addict because his mother indulged him and his father was distant (personally I think that is a load of hooey and armchair psychology, but that’s what people thought). And just as this film released, Sanjay was arrested under the Terrorism and Disruptive Activities law and thrown in jail. The “Khalnayak” music, the images of Sanjay handcuffed and taken to jail, Madhuri being punished for her connection with him, it was all terribly real.

But on the other hand, I watched this movie for the first time without knowing all that backstory, and I had a great time watching it. I watched it this time trying very hard to forget the context, and I still enjoyed it! Forget about the “Choli Ke Peeche” censor debates, forget about the Madhuri-Sanjay affair, forget about the TADA arrest, pretend these was a movie that had the smoothest easiest release possible, and it is STILL super super fun. Really, watch it!

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12 thoughts on “Friday Classics: Khalnayak, Watching Sanjay is Like Watching a Baby Lion Hiding Among Cats

  1. In most of Madhuri’s films it she seemed as if she’s in a relationship with the camera rather than the hero. So it’s nice to see her give her proper attention to the hero or antihero for a change.As for Sanjay,it’s always interesting how an actor’s real life persona influences his film choices and vice versa. He was always more believable in his negative roles (Saajan being an exception). It could be a coincidence that he gave the first clap (if that’s the right term) when he was a toddler to his father’s film ‘Mujhe Jeene do’ where Sunil Dutt played an anitihero, a dacoit to be exact -which proved to be a major hit.Both father and son seemed to enjoy playing dacoits and other sundry anti-heroes even when they were at the peak of their careers. I’m really interested at seeing him play a dacoit again in Shamshera.

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    • It was odd seeing him play the serious respectable role in Kalank. It will be kind of a relief to see him as a bad guy in Shamshera.

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    • I really think you would like it. I wouldn’t recommend this film to everybody, it’s kind of over the top and cheesy. But you have a high ability to enjoy cheese. And good luck on the trip!!!!!! Feel free to ask Miss Briganza for tips.

      On Sat, Aug 3, 2019 at 11:38 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. I saw this last year, so it’s a little fuzzy now, but I remember wanting to see more of Madhuri and less of the relationship between Sanjay and Jackie. Difficult not to when she’s burning up the screen in Choli Ke Peeche!

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    • I would say more that I want to see less of Jackie! If he is opposite Madhuri, he is interesting. If Sanjay is alone, he is still interesting. If he is opposite Madhuri, he is amazing. But if Jackie is opposite anyone but Madhuri, I am tempted to just fastforward.

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      • That’s a good point! I’m usually drawn to the heroes, which Jackie would be, but in this case he isn’t terribly compelling. I’m def willing to give him another chance, though, because he was really funny in his Koffee with Karan episode.

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  3. I’ve never liked Sanjay. He kind of freaks me out. It’s his dead, dead eyes. They remind me of a poster I saw when I was a kid – Boris Karloff in Frankenstein.. It gave me nightmares for weeks. The heavy, half closed lids…https://wdef.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/boris-karloff-as-the-monster-in-frankenstein-1931-universal-620-3-1.jpg
    I’m probably being unfair and I realize that Sanjay’s look may have resulted from drug use. Still – I find him repulsive. http://fplanet.weebly.com/uploads/7/9/4/1/7941975/4841497_orig.jpg

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    • Sanjay’s eyes are fascinating, aren’t they? Partly it is just that they are so naturally deepset and different, you can look at photos and see that his father’s eyes were similar. But then the drug problems in his prime gave them this glossy effect, and as he aged his face puffed up around them (again, you can see the same in his father) and now they are just odd. And different.

      This movie leans into that, he is supposed to be monstrous and fascinating and different. But on the other hand, you do still have to look at Sanjay for 3 hours and if you just can’t stomach that, best to skip it.

      On Mon, Aug 5, 2019 at 4:43 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I’ve already seen it – sometime last year. The song featuring Sanjay in a black and white zoot suit made my skin crawl. He reminded me of a demented Warner Brothers cartoon character. I did like his hat since it helped cover his remarkable mullet.

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