Why the flops ‘Dil Se’ and ‘Johnny Gadaar’ were game-changers for Bollywood

In an excerpt from a collection of 50 significant Hindi film titles from 1995-2015, a seasoned film critic makes the case for going beyond the box office.

Dil Se, starring Shah Rukh Khan and Manisha Koirala, bombed at the box office, but created a couple of significant shifts in Bollywood with its excursion into a troubled territory overrun by armed insurgents and the Indian Army, and in the creation of a female lead who is the antithesis of a goody-goody, plastic-pretty heroine… It travels to the north-east (for a mainstream film, that was a first), to the insurgency-hit jungles, where our hero Amar (Shah Rukh Khan as an All India Radio executive in another of his handful of ‘realistic’ roles) is in Assam on assignment, gathering on-the-ground impressions about the state of the nation. He manages to reach an extremist leader for an interview, and we get a few constructed but revealing glimpses of one of the most long-drawn, vexed conflicts in the country.

I have a sneaking, abiding fondness for Dil Se, despite its flaws: to me it will always be a magnificent failure which speaks to me every time I watch it.

Amar spots a girl on a dark, rainy platform, her cowl blowing back in a gust of wind. The sight of that face, tight, controlled, waiting not for a prince charming but, as is later revealed, for a member of her rebel group, is riveting. Not just for the very struck Amar, but also for us. There are a series of striking images in the movie, very much a Mani Ratnam trait, and sometimes those images are meant solely to create an intake of breath at the pure gorgeousness: he is the kind of film-maker who asks that we sift through those images to get to the point he’s making.

Satrangi Re from Dil Se.

Koirala proves that a leading lady doesn’t always have to be a simpering doll. Her mysterious Meghna is a beautiful woman, not entirely impervious to a lover’s overtures, but who is already spoken for. She is not wedded to another, but to a cause. She is a member of a ‘terrorist group’ working to strike a blow against ‘India’, which is seen as a violent aggressor in her native north-eastern state. Her interactions with Amar ricochet between desire and dread, creating a few of the most passionate scenes between a man and a woman in Hindi cinema.

The other female lead is played by the debutant Preity Zinta, in the first of her several ‘bubbly girl’ roles. She gets to play a Malayali, which is a stretch for her to execute and for us to believe. But as just a young girl, fun-loving, open, frank, Zinta was a fresh-faced delight, with the best line in the film: Are you a virgin? she asks her fiancé, played by Shah Rukh Khan. He splutters into this teacup. And we laugh out loud.

The set-up is impressive. Shah Rukh is good. Koirala is believable, even though Mani Ratnam has her dance in the arid vastness of Ladakh with SRK, both wrapped in miles of flowy drapes. But the tension it manages to create unravels, and the climax is a cop-out: the suicide bomber (based, presumably, on the female suicide bomber who killed Rajiv Gandhi) is detected, and deflected by her true love. It ends with the lovers being blown up while encased in a tight embrace: if they cannot live together, they will die together.

A braver film would have taken it to a more chilling conclusion. But Ratnam needed to play safe to keep the CBFC happy: an anti-India character with ill intent towards the ‘unity and integrity’ of the country could not be allowed to get away. Which is why the end is less a bang, as my review says, and more a whimper.

And who can forget SRK and Malaika’s impossibly agile waist swaying on a train to the strains of ‘Chhaiyyan chhaiyyan’? That one spectacular song-and-dance, if nothing else, is the lasting legacy of a film whose epitaph could well read ‘it failed, but at least it tried’.

Johnny Gaddaar (2007)

A character in Johnny Gaddaar is shown reading a James Hadley Chase novel. The book is both a notifier and apt metaphor. It tells you exactly the kind of film you are getting into: the universe is something Chase would have recognized right off the bat – the lights are neon, the characters are suitably lowlife; the feel is, as I said in my review, grimy, grotty. These little people do not have big ambitions. They are after some money, enough to fit in a suitcase. They have small-time jobs. Basically, they are small-time crooks who get by planning and executing small-time scams. These are not characters you find centre stage in Hindi cinema, even though there may have been an early precedent, Dev Anand’s small-time gambler in Guru Dutt’s Baazi (1951). But you are never left in any doubt that Anand’s character is a hero, even if a little soiled around the edges. He occupies the screen fully, and our attention.

Small-time cons in Bollywood are mostly fringe people. They are not full-fledged mobsters. They play small parts, lurking on the sidelines, waiting for the spotlight to fall on them. Bollywood doesn’t pay them much attention because they are not heroes. They are not noble. They are not mythical. They are not powerful. They are lowlifes with dirt under their fingernails, lurching from one dodgy ‘job’ to another, playing footsie with the fuzz. They fly by night; during the day they have jobs which are poised on the cusp of respectability. And they are neither handsome nor pretty, or they would have been in an Abbas–Mustan film (like Race), in which the characters are all uniformly greedy or vile, but they are so good-looking that you know they exist merely to decorate a film.

Neil Nitin Mukesh in Johnny Gaddaar.
Neil Nitin Mukesh in Johnny Gaddaar.

Johnny Gaddaar is a thriller, yes, but it is not like any familiar Bollywood thriller. It is not gangster. It is not a murder mystery, though there is a killing which gets it going. It refuses to be boxed into a single recognizable category – crime-caper, noir and pulp. It borrows elements from all of these. Its characters are con men: calling them goons would be a stretch. The closest I could come, off the top of my head, for a sort-of-similar flick, would be Stephen Frears’s The Grifters, which also revolves around cons and cash.

Director Sriram Raghavan isn’t shy about his inspirations. It isn’t just James Hadley Chase, whose slender paperbacks, with those distinctive covers with underclad women, were so popular in the 1960s and ’70s. Raghavan also borrows from Parwana (1971), in which Amitabh Bachchan plays a killer with an ingenious plan, in getting Neil’s baby-faced baddie to create an alibi for himself, just the way Bachchan’s character does.

Raghavan’s penchant for the dark and twisty found expression again in Badlapur, in which revenge is served ice-cold. (An in-between misstep was Agent Vinod, a self-serious, deadly dull spy expedition starring Saif.) But Johnny Gaddaar remains my favourite of his films: it is pulpy, squelchy, deliciously depraved, and sure-footed all the way.

Excerpted with permission from 50 Films That Changed Bollywood 1995-2015, Shubhra Gupta, HarperCollins India.

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