I really love this movie. It was one of the early films I saw, one of the first movies I watched where I was told “this is an actual good movie”. And it is! It is an actual good movie! Not just a fun romance with something deep down below, but deep straight through.
This was not something that was supposed to be a good movie. Or, rather, it wasn’t supposed to be a good movie in the way we have them now, with the top of the line cast and big star director and massive budget. It was a first time heroine, a star lead, a bunch of experienced character actors around him, and a director known for remakes of earlier Indian or Hollywood films that were either moderately successful or total flops. Even when it was being promoted, everyone thought it would be remembered just for the “Khandala” song and nothing else. Just like Rani Mukherjee was supposed to be “just” the cute Khandala girl and nothing else. And then both Rani and Ghulam surprised the audience, turns out they had a lot more to them than just a catchy song.
Looking at this film, and the artists behind it, and the stories about it, it becomes more and more clear that what made it special was one thing: Aamir Khan. Aamir insisted on doing his own singing for “Khandala”, Aamir came up with his look, and (most likely) Aamir ghost directed the film.
Everyone knows Aamir ghost-directs. He doesn’t take the camera away from the director, or the credentials away from the director (usually), but he is in charge on set. He will give his own ideas as to how he thinks scenes should be filmed, the focus the film should have, all of that. If you look at the tone of, for instance, Rangeela, Ghulam, Sarfarosh, and Talaash, there is a lot more in common between them than just a lead actor. The last three all have flashbacks woven into the film which inform the motivation of the lead. All four have a lead character who is smart and internal, and going through an emotional period that he only reveals to the heroine at the very end. And they were all made by directors whose other work just doesn’t quite look the same. Not necessarily better or worse, just different. The common thread here is Aamir Khan, more than the usual “stars tend to have films written towards their persona” connection.
I don’t think it is all Aamir. He is what elevated the film and made it something different, but the director Vikram Bhatt was the one who provide the solid base for that special thing. Vikram is a good workmanlike director, especially of thrillers and crime dramas. He can shoot confrontations and shoot outs and keep a twisted plot held together and clear. He does a good job with this movie. And the rest of the cast does a good job too, Rani in her first film acquits herself well. Her voice was dubbed, but you can see in her non-verbal moments that start of her talent. And the rest of the cast is that kind of talented hardworking actor that transitions between small movie roles, TV roles, non-Hindi films, and plays and can surprise you with their quality. The same Rajit Kapoor who surprised me with his ability to do comedy in A Gentleman is here surprising me with his ability to do drama. Dipak Tijori, the familiar “hero’s best friend/brother foil” in most films here does a surprisingly good job playing the amoral motorcycle gang leader.
And then of course there is On the Waterfront, the original film that provided the skeleton of the plot. Only it really is a skeleton. The brother conflict, and a bit of the romance, are brought over. But the main driving force in the original is barely mentioned, and a new central motivation for our lead character is added. Most of all, there is a complicated message about community and responsibility in this film. That’s why I love it, the message. And it is the same message that Aamir’s other films from the same era bring with them.
Ultimately, Aamir’s art is humanist. There may be one truly evil person, or one truly selfish act, or one truly terrible tragedy, but the people around it are trying to do the best they can with what they have. In Ghulam, a movie that was originally about standing up against social pressure, about “good” versus “bad”, becomes about everyone trying to do the right thing in terrible circumstances. The flashback added to the film brings that message to the fore, that sometimes the right answer is too hard, that people will take the wrong way, and we have to learn to forgive them and move forward. That is what makes the movie so special, even now. In the end, Aamir’s hero isn’t fighting in order to “show” people the right way, he is fighting because they all know the right way, he is no better than anyone else, he just happens to have the tools to help in this particular moment.
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This film, along with everything else, is a classical bildungsroman in the Indian style. Our hero starts out feckless, relying on his family for support, with no job and no ambition. He falls in love, which creates a change in him that starts him growing up. He confronts his family/the patriarchy in defense of his love. And finally at the end of the film, he and his love are triumphant over the rest of Indian society.
But to get to that ending, this film takes a winding path that considers the overall responsibility of our hero towards greater society. Aamir, the hero, is a young man who dreams of being a boxer. His brother/father figure Rajat Kapoor is an accountant for the local mobster, Sharat Saxena. His brother tries to protect him from everything, from the mob life and from his own confused memories of their father. Aamir is a grown man, but truly still a child. The only one in his life who pushes him towards adulthood is his lawyer, Mita Vashisht.
And then into the life of this ambitionless young man comes a woman to challenge him, Rani Mukherjee. Rani’s character could easily have been the troubled pretty rich girl, the one he has to “win”. But the film is slightly better than that, and Rani’s performance is slightly better than that too. She inspires him to do his initial feat of bravery and get her attention (the risky train chicken challenge). But after that, it’s all easy. She doesn’t make him keep doing things, she just loves him. And her love and faith are what gives him the confidence to look at other areas of his life, just as his love helps her look at her life. Rani isn’t the usual pitiful “poor little rich girl”, her family problems are real. Her father is an alcoholic and abusive, and her big brother left home years ago and won’t talk to them. She has nothing and no one to give her strength, to give her unconditional love, until Aamir appears. There is a doubling effect in place, Aamir lost his flawed father and struggles every day with understanding and forgiving him, but has his brother to give unconditional love. Rani lost her brother and misses his love, but her father is alive and she can continue to struggle with him and understand him better day by day.
After that, there is no “plot” as such. A couple of things happen, but in the course of an almost 3 hour movie, they don’t amount to much. Aamir and Rani fall in love, Aamir picks up a job threatening a Cricket player over a loan, Aamir keeps flashing back to the death of his father, Aamir befriends a social worker who is new to the area and trying to get the people to testify against Sharat Saxena. It’s all just stuff, detritus of events floating around, until it leaps into focus and comes together at the end. Aamir invites the social worker to meet him on a bridge, at the request of his brother, so Sharat can talk to him. Sharat kills him instead while Aamir watches. Aamir is lost, nothing left to lean on, and goes to Rani to find his balance. Only to learn that the social worker was her brother, he does not even have her. Aamir has betrayed the woman he loves. And then has to betray his own community when his brother forces him to take a dive in a fight, despite the local folks betting on him and cheering for him. Aamir feels he cannot change, he has nothing. Everything he was at the beginning is stripped away. Until he reaches the heart of his guilt, his father. The flashbacks that played through out the film, despite Aamir trying to forget them, come together. His father raised him to be honorable, fearless, always following the right path. And then one day an old friend of his father’s appeared and revealed that his father did not follow the right path. He was a freedom fighter who betrayed his companions, lead them to imprisonment and torture. And confronted with his guilt, Aamir’s father killed himself.
For Aamir, there is no hope of redemption or forgiveness. You choose right or wrong, and you cannot go back. He has chosen wrong so many times that it seems impossible to ever choose right.
And this is where the film, in a completely unexpected way, shows that choosing “right” even once is something. Aamir when talking with Rani, trying to gain her forgiveness, is ambushed in the street. His brother tries to save him and is killed, Rani goes running looking for anyone who will help him, and Deepak Tijori and his motorcycle gang appear. Aamir confronted them and fought with them for selfish reasons, to impress Rani. But then when Deepak was trapped on the train track during their race, Aamir risked himself to save Deepak’s life. It was one small moment of selflessness, the film moved on and that moment was seemingly forgotten, just there as a meaningless thrill and a reason for Rani to love him. But now it comes back. Aamir did that one selfless act, and now at his lowest moment, having lost his brother who always stood by him, his own actions come back to save him. Deepak and his gang save Aamir in turn, not because of who his brother is, not because Rani loves him, not because he is a great boxer, but simply because of that one moment of goodness he showed.
That is the message of the film. It doesn’t matter how far you have fallen, how hopeless it all appears, you can be redeemed. Everyone can be redeemed.
You need that hope, that faith in yourself, before you can take a step onto a better path. Aamir and Rani both gain that hope. Rani moves out of her father’s house (a lessor film would forget her story, but this film remembers that she has her own choice to make). And Aamir, finally, confronts Sharat Saxena. Because it is something he can do, it isn’t everything but it is something. And everyone can, and should, do what little they can instead of feeling bad that they can’t do more, instead of thinking it is too small to matter.
The end of On the Waterfront is a powerful moment when Marlon Brando has confronted and defeated the union enforcer, and the great door of the waterfront warehouse is opened and the men are told “let’s go to work”. Brandon, one man, did one thing. And now one great door is opened and the men, as one, move inside. This film does something different. Sharat ordered that all the stores of the neighborhood be shut, dozens of gates are slammed down one by one. Each man choices, individually, to obey the order. When Aamir fights and defeats Sharat each store owner, individually, opens their shops. Aamir alone just started the change, it was up to each of them to continue it. We can each do something, no matter how small, to make the world a better place, to stand up to tyranny. Maybe we aren’t the perfect hero with no blemish on our past, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be better in future.
So Aamir, if you are reading this and made it to the end, be better! Thugs was bad, PK wasn’t much better. But that doesn’t mean you give up, that doesn’t mean you stop trying. Do better, be better, hope doesn’t end until your life is over.