In the popular imagination, Mumbai has been dying for decades. That pessimism seems to be borne out ever so often when a novel or a movie comes along warning of the apocalypse. The upcoming Netflix series Sacred Games, based on Vikram Chandra’s 2006 novel of the same name, for instance, teases out the possibility of a dirty nuclear bomb obliterating Mumbai – a prospect that some weary residents might just welcome after navigating yet another traffic pile-up or a dug-up street.

In Aditya Bhattacharya’s neo-noir Raakh (1989), Mumbai has already been transmogrified into something even more sinister and unfeeling. Raakh is a low-budget urban phantasmagoria, set in an unnamed city that is unmistakably Mumbai. The police force has been replaced by a paramilitary that assigns numbers to its staffers and kits them out in berets and army uniforms. Crime is an accepted way of life, so when Aamir (Aamir Khan in one of his earliest roles) decides to avenge the rape of his girlfriend Neeta (Supriya Pathak) by offing the culprit, his actions aren’t unusual.

The rapist (Homi Wadia) is the scion of the all-powerful Karmali clan, which has high-ranking police officials over for dinner with qawwalis playing in the background. The gangsters may be crude, but their taste in music is impeccable.

Although Aamir is bursting with anger, he simply cannot transform himself into the vigilante he wants to be. He lacks both courage and a method. His sensei turns out to be suspended badge number 2975, also known as PK (Pankaj Kapur). PK is disgusted with the whole thing, and trains Aamir to point the gun in the right direction.

Aamir Khan and Pankaj Kapur in Raakh. Image credit: Asif Noor.

Aamir’s relationship with Neeta crumbles after she decides to move on after the rape, and he is briefly adopted by Naina (Naina Balsaver), who offers him shelter, clothing and food, in that order. Straight out of a French New Wave movie, Naina appears to be the woman who understands Aamir the most, but he still pines for Neeta, who often pops up in his fantasies. When it appears that the fire in Aamir’s belly has been doused, a dream sequence sets him back on his warrior path.

Aamir Khan and Supriya Pathak in Raakh. Image credit: Asif Noor.

Raakh was one of two important films Bhattacharya directed about the Mumbai underworld. Bhattacharya’s flourish-filled debut, made when he was 23 years old, ran for a few weeks in 1989 before disappearing from view, only to be resurrected at film festivals and special screenings. Bhattacharya dropped a few minutes from the movie and released a mildly altered version, Raakh Redux, in 2011.

Bhattacharya’s finest film, Dubai Return (2005), which stars Irrfan as a minor gangland figure, ran into trouble with its producers and never emerged from the cans except for a few festival appearances.

Both films are important contributions to the Mumbai gangster movie canon for the ways in which they explore the city’s geography and play with genre elements. At a recent screening of Raakh by 1018MB, the film club that organises screenings of popular Indian films in cinemas around the country, Raakh’s vintage was exposed, but so also was its charm.

The movie’s flimsy plot and implausible climax have become less attractive as the years wear on. In the same year as Raakh, Ram Gopal Varma released the fleet-footed urban gangster movie Shiva, and Shiva has aged better due to its narrative finesse and its realistic portrayal of the ways in which ordinary individuals become criminals.

Raakh (1989). Image credit: Asif Noor.

Raakh is on another track altogether. It stands at a remove from the Indian arthouse tradition, and its references are wide-ranging, from 1970s Hindi gangster films to foreign arthouse classics. There is a touch of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) to Aamir’s lonely quest as well as Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984) in the imagination of a city on the brink of annihilation.

Andrew Spicer and Helen Hanson have noted in their study A Companion to Film Noir (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) that Raakh’s “mannered study of the gangster genre… recalls for the cinephile Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967) and Tokyo Drifter (1966) and anticipates Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog (1999).” The cinematography, by Santosh Sivan, and the editing, by A Sreekar Prasad (both making their debuts here) do not follow the rulebook. “The editing accentuates the camera’s meandering, unaccentuated style by linking random spaces together,” Spicer and Hanson write.

Sivan barely moves the camera, capturing the faces of the characters in tight, indelible close-ups. The gorgeous frames, bathed in saturated black, red and golden-hour shades, are a reminder of the richness of the 35mm film stock with which Raakh was made. When the movie springs to life, as it does during a chase or a shootout, the effect is convincingly jarring.

Mumbai is artfully shot to suggest a city marked by squalor and ruin. The road to the Karmali residence is strewn with garbage. Before Aamir takes shelter with Naina, he is holed up in a run-down mill, and the gutted walls and debris provide an artistically distressed backdrop to his exertions.

Sivan transforms ordinary spaces – a cafe, an apartment, the interiors of a vehicle – through mood lighting and the use of reflective imagery (characters looking into and revealed through glass surfaces is a common element). Sivan even finds inventive ways to extend the shadows during daytime, adding to the unsettling quality of the images. In one startling sequence, PK interrogates Aamir in the blinding glare of a spotlight, with the camera weaving dexterously around the characters to create a hallucinatory effect.

Aamir Khan and Naina Balsaver in Raakh. Image credit: Asif Noor.

Some of the stylistic choices, including its synthesizer-heavy background score by Ranjit Barot, mark Raakh as a decidedly 1980s artefact. The characters speak slowly and move languidly, as though in a fever dream, but some of their verbalising is less existentialist than ponderous. Aamir’s success rate is hardly credible, given the supposed clout of the Karmalis. The tight framing cuts out most of the city detail in attempt to give the movie a timeless quality. But the budgetary limitations also prevent the full expression of the urban dystopia that Bhattacharya wants to create. The only location that is dressed up to look like it doesn’t belong in the ’80s is the graffiti-lined police station (though it does anticipate the hipster cafes of today).

The movie’s events are triggered by the violence done to a woman, and another one provides vital assistance. But Raakh is mainly a two-hander between Aamir Khan and Pankaj Kapur. In one of Bhattacharya’s clever reinventions, the teacher, rather than the student, turns out to be the ace in the hole. Kapur is brilliant as the policeman rendered insane by the corruption all around. Yet, PK is not quite the rampaging destroyer in Taxi Driver mould, even though he declares that “this city is not for humans, it makes animals out of us”. Rather, PK is an extension of the vigilante cop figure who steps outside the system to make it better.

Raakh was shot before Aamir Khan’s breakthrough, the tragic romance Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. Khan had appeared in Ketan Mehta’s arthouse movie Holi in 1984 as a part of an ensemble cast, but he was already on his way to becoming a romantic hero. In Raakh, Khan turns out a sincere, if rough-edged, performance. His achingly youthful ardour and adolescent appearance (down to the pimples) work well with his character, and he is well cast as the young man who loses his balance after the rape and then his nerve when he is supposed to become a killing machine.

For all its angst, Raakh is strangely non-nihilistic. Aamir’s fecklessness makes him an unlikely anti-hero, and his tendency to blubber ever so often evokes giggles rather than empathy. Aamir Khan is known for tearing up in his films, and in Raakh, we can see where it began.

Aamir Khan in Raakh. Image credit: Asif Noor.