Sunday, October 23, 2011

Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi

First, an overdue announcement: the wonderful site Without Giving the Movie Away (WOGMA) is holding a blogging contest in honor of its fifth birthday. The gist is that you should write something about your favorite film, however you wish to define the term. Click here for details.

[This post contains a significant spoiler about the end of the film. I'll warn you again when it's imminent.]

For those of us who did not grow up watching Hindi films (and maybe even for those of you who did, depending on how closely an adult monitored what you were watching when or after this film came out), there is a particular threshold that each of us must cross in our filmi-life's path. That threshold reveals itself to each of us at a different time—I like to think at the exactly right time—and affects us in particular ways. But there is one commonality in the experience: after this line it is crossed, there is no returning, no backtracking, no un-knowing. You can never un-see Rekha and Akshay Kumar frolicking in a pool, drizzling each other with chocolate sauce, and wrestling in the mud while Sumitra moans about naughty girls needing love.
Inspiration from Samantha Fox, Laura Branigan, and Madonna all in one song! And note the hilarious user comment on this video: "this is advantage to have friendship with experienced ladies."
What sacrifices our hero makes.
Having been told repeatedly that Rekha's performance in Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi is amazing above and beyond the, er, notable song above, I decided I needed to see for myself what in the world could possibly have spawned it.

Before getting to the aspect of it that interests me most, I want to praise Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi for offering excellent entertainment value. Its masala mix is much more heavily slanted towards action than my general fare, but thanks to Akshay Kumar's fluid moves and general likability, I even enjoyed most of the fight scenes and only fast-fowarded through the final one. His songs in the film are equally fun and/or impressive.
The backup dancers have their jackets tied around their waists with the most hilarious and enhancing possible placement of the knots.
Production checklist: after shooting, return costume to Dexy's Midnight Runners.
Vampire face that, much to my delight, turns out to be a foreshadowing of a later costume.
The romance between Akshay and Raveena Tandon is cute; I could have used more of it, but I'm not sure how the film could give it more time without cutting down on either the action sequences (which were surely a big attraction at the time) or Rekha (lord knows I don't want that!). The only ingredient I disliked was the horrible acting in the more light-hearted bits by the hero's friends, but of course this is to be expected in at least half of all Hindi films made since 1983.* Given the comic bent of the hero and heroine's romance, I'm not sure why the friends' attempts to be funny were even necessary.

A brief aside about comedy: having lived in Toronto for two years, I could not stop laughing at how often the characters mentioned being in America when they so clearly weren't.
That's right! In fact, you're going to...
 See this?
CANADA!
This giant landmark (the tallest structure in the world for over three decades) that is very hard to avoid in almost any view of downtown Toronto?
If I have my geography correct, this is the Gardiner Expressway, and hiding under it is not exactly recommended since it tends to shed chunks of concrete. For friends who remember 1990s Toronto, there's another shot showing the giant roadside Panasonic sign.
THIS IS NOT IN THE UNITED STATES. Why didn't the writers just change "America" to "Canada" and be done with it? Did the Canadian government not want them to sully their good name by depicting Toronto as a hotbed of lethal wrestling and a corrupt chief of the amazing all-Hindi-speaking police force? On the up side, this gave me a chance to relive last summer's IIFAs.
The songs that teleported to Russia were also amusing simply because of their unusual yet unremarked-upon locale. The Soviet Union's long love of Hindi cinema is well-known, but it's not a setting I've seen very often, certainly not without some kind of "Hey, here we are living in St. Petersburg!" talk like in Lucky.
Love the Mosfilm truck.
Raveena had a lot of bad boots in this film.
But no matter. Who does not love a song teleport!

Like Khoon Bhari Maang, there are also many wonders to be found in Rekha's costumes, not only because they are dramatic and, um, "interesting" but because they fit so well with her character. She's Madame Maya, and all the accoutrements are part of the illusion/facade/projection. Even better, nobody comments on her ever-changing hair. She's not judged for wanting to look a certain way. Granted, she's already the villain, but there's no sniggering or eye-rolling, no accountant asking her if her wig budget really needs to be so large.
Click for a bigger version. Do check out the top center picture to investigate Rekha's striped eyebrows (perhaps drawn on with a very rigid mascara brush?) and all of the humdinger dialogue in the middle row. Oh, and Akshay's chest hair (center left).
I'm hopeful Akshay's vampire get-up here is the reason for the bloody mouth in the picture in the discussion of songs (above), but that might be a stretch.
Now for the meat of why I enjoyed this movie so much: REKHA. REKHA REKHA REKHA. In his post on this movie last year, Bollywood Deewana mentioned that Rekha is a "heroine who fought hard against playing motherly roles when she was deemed to be past it by many, even if it meant she played ridiculous characters." That's a very good point for two reasons. One, there is a lot of WTFery in this film, and almost all of it is centered on or somehow related to Rekha, meaning that she bears much of the weight of the ridiculous, no small task in a film that has multiple WWE-style fights, tons of lunk-headed beefy bodyguards who should never have tried to speak a line on camera, the wig parade, and The Song. She has a dignity, a style, a presence that not even this movie can crush.

Two, at approximately 41 when this movie was filmed, she still looks ageless, and, much more importantly, she has the acting experience and gravitas needed to make such an exaggerated, imperfectly written character in a contextless setting work. Contrast her with Gulshan Grover, the other main villain (King Don), who is no more menacing than Joey Tribbiani doing his best example of a daytime soap opera villain. In addition to being unimpressive, King Don isn't even fun. He's just some guy in big suits using a weird voice. Rekha, on the other hand, clearly put a lot of thought and effort into this performance, making the best of what was given to her, and she absolutely sells it. She shows the imperfections in Maya's steely persona at exactly the right time to give them maximum impact and, I must admit, evoke my sympathy. Even in her plainest dialogues, she's working to give them some bite, some animation, some oomph. Maya may be ridiculous, but Rekha is not. What a fine line that is—and how well she walks it.

Madam Maya is a fascinating character. On one hand, she is confident, powerful, and successful in her profession and operates in a world entirely populated by men. No character seems to doubt her place and ability in that world. I don't think there's a single line about "What does a woman know about fighting?" or "Let the men handle it." She is unquestionably awesome in the life she has chosen for herself. But on the other hand, she is given a few emotional arcs that I think most male villains probably would not have, and of course these are both her undoing and her ultimate salvation. However, they also give Maya texture that is interesting to discover and provides Rekha more to work with. Female villains of this caliber are so unusual that I don't know what to make of this one having such a strong conscience.

While Maya is shown at various times to have a heart—and to deeply resent the times in her life that emotional happiness was taken away from her—she is not at all religious. We're so accustomed to seeing non-heroine female characters behaving piously that it's a surprise to see one who doesn't give a rat's ass. This makes her strength more impressive for being presented and conceived of as entirely internally derived and driven...and, for story-telling purposes, makes the contrast with the hero's devotion even more delicious. I think it's significant that other fierce females, Kali and mostly Durga, are required to defeat Maya's henchmen.
*** spoiler alert! *** Maya herself is brought down by women as well, both her sister's pleas to her better nature—and I think the film is implying that that good side is her true self, one that has been lost over the years as she has raged against the world in order to provide her sister a better life**—and her own hand. *** end spoiler *** I have to love that this woman was never defeated by a man and that what finally conquered her was conscience, not violence. Maya is so in control that she chooses her own demise.

And as I type that, I'm wondering if a female character has to be a villain in order to have that kind of freedom? Hmmm. HMMMM.

Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi is silly, entertaining, and interesting. Everyone but the three leads is pretty dreadful (and had little by way of a quality script to work with), but their performances were charismatic enough to carry me through the predictable back story and the side characters I didn't care about (namely Akshay's brother, his girlfriend, and his gang of dimwitted friends). I realize I've hardly mentioned Raveena Tandon as Akshay's girlfriend/Rekha's sister, so here you go: she was fine in the little she had to do and seemed to enjoy bopping around with Akshay in a few fun songs. Even if you don't care about fight sequences, this is one to watch simply for Rekha's performance in an unusual and intriguing role.

To close: a sign of the times
and a snake for Liz!
This snake appears in the last song, which is set in a huge cavernous temple-ish structure (I say "temple-ish" just in case it is in any way offensive to call a structure like this a temple, but it is certainly being used for worship). (And speaking of worship, doesn't this look for all the world like a church that's temporarily moved out its pews and lecterns [can you tell I was raised Presbyterian?] in order to make way for one of the film's many WWE-sytle fights?)

* It occurs to me that perhaps the likelihood of the comic side plot being irritating increases the closer to the present day a film was made. For example, I am almost never annoyed by Agha or Rajendra Nath but always want to punch Satish Shah and Johny Lever.
** At least, that's what the subtitles say. All I feel the film shows of Maya's criminal existence is that she likes working the fights and the lifestyle that comes along with that wealth. She does not seem to have any bone to pick with society at large, any particular institutions, any person in her past who did her wrong or led her to a life of crime, etc. There's no indication of her doing anything useful for her sister (Raveena Tandon) or protecting Priya's "values and culture" (another doozy from the subtitles) other than putting her up in the palatial "American" house and fussing at her for having a male visitor. 

8 comments:

batulm said...

Beth, I must see the film after this review. I think I've only ever watched bits of it. Rekha does deserve to be house favourite. The comment that she did these ridiculous roles to avoid weepy, mother ones is interesting. Gives me a new perspective on her career. And of course, she could carry it off with her looks.

sam said...

I didn't enjoy this film a lot when it came out, though I really enjoyed the fact that Maya is a criminal, well, because she is. Too often women are given a backstory full of atrocities and evil committed against them (usually including some sort of rape) to justify their misanthropy and shunning the laws of society, while men are free to be evil if it so strikes them. While I'm not above enjoying a little backstory and proper motivation in my antagonists, this time I thought this worked simply because the script chose not to give her a sad background.

memsaabstory said...

I'm with Banno on this one, I wouldn't think of seeing it but for your superb review :)

bollywooddeewana said...

Great Write up Beth, as usual you've delved into the skin of her character, totally makes me want to rewatch the movie again

jennyketcham said...

Oh My Gosh. The mud wrestling! You warned me, but my eyes...my EYES!!! Got to get to a shower... oh, no...now I'm thinking of the shower. You're right. You can't unsee it!

bollywooddeewana said...

Beth what's the Samantha fox reference in the song I'm well aware it rips off Laura brannigan and madonna but i don't get the Samantha Fox connection

Mette said...

Banno and Memsaab, you spoke my mind... I thought this was just one of these ridiculous and boring films, but it turns out it's a ridiculous and funny film!
Still... is this really your favorite film, Beth?

Beth said...

Batul and Memsaab - I really am surprised how much I liked it. I was NOT surprised how much I liked REKHA - because of course she is REKHA. But I was impressed by her in addition to just being in my usual awe of her REKHANESS. :D

Sam - I love your point about the lack of a sad and victim-based backstory!

Bollywooddeewana - Hee! And your writeup inspired me to think a lot about Rekha's character and performance :) The Samantha Fox reference - at least to my mind - is in that opening bit of dialogue in the song "Even naughty girls need loooooove."

Jenny - TOO LATE! TOO LATE! So, how do you feel now that you have SEEN? How many showers did you take? Except the trouble is showers are also kind of ruined, aren't they? Oh dear.

Mette - Dear me, what did I say to give you the impression this film is a favorite? REKHA is a favorite, that's all. :)