TALKING FILMS

‘Raakh’ revisited: From the ashes of time, a cult movie starring Aamir Khan as a lone hitman

Aditya Bhattacharya’s debut feature from 1989, set in an unnamed city that is unmistakably Mumbai, is filled with stylistic flourishes.

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 The police force has been replaced by a paramilitary that assigns numbers to its staffers and kits them out in berets and army uniforms.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 is 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 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.
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 (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 starling 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.
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.
Aamir Khan in Raakh. Image credit: Asif Noor.
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.