Monday, July 9, 2012

100 Crore Club Member Badge No. 1: Ghajini

This making of notes, however, is by no means the making of mere memorandum - a custom which has its disadvantages, beyond doubt "Ce que je mets sur papier," says Bernadine de St. Pierre, "je remets de ma memoire et par consequence je l'oublie;" - and, in fact, if you wish to forget anything upon the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered. - Edgar Allen Poe, Marginalia, 1844

Ghajini (2008)

[You can read my original review from 2008 and a second look in 2010.

And the introduction to the 100 Crore Club is located here.]

When I was in college, one of my friends lived in an apartment where they had a television that - because of lack of money for cable service and an unfortunate mishap with a VCR - could only play the Michael J. Fox time travel film Back to the Future. If they wanted to watch television while eating lunch, the option was… Back to the Future. If they wanted something on in the background during a drinking party… Back to the Future. Hit play to pick it up where another roommate left off and rewind to the beginning when it’s finished. “After you watch it enough times,” my friend explained, “you get really into the characters. Like, who is Doc Brown, really?”

Having only felt the need to see Back to the Future once, I didn’t feel the same curiosity about the disheveled Doc Brown as my college friend but as I sat down to watch Ghajini for what is probably my eighth or ninth viewing of the film* I found my train of thought running very much in that direction. What is Ghajini, really?

Well, for the purposes of this series, Ghajini is the founding member of the 100 Crore Club. And that is no small feat, considering that the industry was in a bit of an identity crisis when the film was released in December of 2008 and Aamir Khan and his six-pack abs emerged like Venus on the half shell from a sea of romantic-comedies, slapstick comedies, self-consciously cool action films, and sober political dramas ready to put the paisa back into paisa vasool. Ghajini wasn’t just another entertainer, it was a full on herogiri film at a time when the viewing public desperately needed one. The horrific terror attacks in Mumbai by the Lashkar-e-Taiba had only occurred a month before and I think everybody had had enough ‘reality’ to last a lifetime.

Reviews called it a return to the Bollywood masala of the 1980s, brainless comfort food for a turbulent time. Looking back now, I think it’s pretty clear they were dead wrong. Ghajini was a bridge but not to the regressive Hindi films of the 1980s; Ghajini linked Hindi film audiences to the creative, smart, and very forward-thinking masala that the South Indian industries had been refining during the years that Bollywood was floundering around making mediocre romantic-comedies set in Sydney and London.

In Ghajini, Aamir Khan stars as Sanjay Singhania – a corporate magnate who has suffered a traumatic head injury that has caused a permanent case of short term amnesia. Basically, Sanjay can now only remember things for fifteen minutes. Sanjay’s file catches the interest of medical student Sunita (Jiah Khan) and despite being warned against taking it up, she begins to investigate. Sanjay is haunted by flashes of the traumatic event that caused both his injury and the death of his lover Kalpana (Asin) and, fighting his fifteen minute memory all the way, he attempts to hunt down the man he believes is responsible - whose name is the only thing keeping him moving forward - Ghajini (Pradeep Rawat). The film flips between flashback sequences of Sanjay and Kalpana’s courtship and the present Sanjay on the hunt for Kalpana’s killer.

Ghajini (2008) is a remake of the Tamil film of the same name from 2005, directed by the same director (A.R. Murugadoss) and starring the same villain (Pradeep Rawat) and the same heroine (Asin.) This story of the origins of the remake may be apocryphal but it pops up in interviews with a few people and I think it’s worth repeating here. Apparently, Pradeep Rawat, who had appeared with Aamir in the 2001 film Lagaan, was still friendly with Aamir and at a Christmas party, told him about his new film - Ghajini. Aamir watched it; Aamir loved it; and Aamir got in touch with A.R. Murugadoss to see about remaking it in Hindi. Whether factual or not, the implication is that the making of Ghajini wasn’t an accident, that this was a film that Aamir wanted to make.

Though Ghajini is often cited these days as the film that kicked off the Southern remake boom, plenty of South Indian films were remade in Bollywood before Ghajini. In 2007, Bhool Bhuliya - a remake of a Malayalam film - had been one of the biggest hits of the year. But there were two crucial differences between Ghajini and the other Southern remakes spinning their wheels at the box office: 1) the recent vintage and style of the film being remade and 2) Aamir Khan. For the last few years, Southern remake meant directors like Priyadarshan lazily remaking their old films with a pile of B-list actors - maybe good for a one time watch but you could almost hear the creaking as the rusty plot wheels turned. Ghajini was different; this was no rusty remake.

Aamir Khan was an important element to the remake in a few key ways. First of all, he was (and remains) one of the few bankable Heroes (with a capitol H) in Bollywood. In the weeks of promotion leading up to the release, fans even lined up to get the distinctive Sanjay “I’m a mental patient” Singhania haircut - this was no fashion trend but a statement of devotion to Aamir. This special bond that fans have with their Hero is something that can’t be manufactured; it has to grow naturally over time.

Aamir’s bond with his fans as the thinking man’s Hero combined with the added glamour that comes from being one of the Three Khans, surely made Ghajini seem more legitimate than other South Indian remakes in the public eye. But it’s not just Aamir’s persona that would have contributed to the buzz, Aamir is notorious for being a perfectionist in all of his films and for expressing his opinions on all aspects of the production. Director A.R. Murugadoss himself credits Aamir with rewriting the final confrontation sequence between Sanjay and Ghajini. If Aamir was involved, viewers could rest assured that time, care, and thought would be put into every aspect of production.

In this most recent viewing of Ghajini, having seen quite a few more South Indian masala films since 2008, three things really stood out for me. The first is Aamir’s performance as Sanjay Singhania. Sanjay may have no short term memory - or long term memory - but he is very clever and very good at reading people. There is one sequence in which Sanjay is chasing Sunita through a mall and Sunita is doing her best to wait out the fifteen minutes so that he forgets what he is doing. She hides out in a cosmetics store and when she hears his timer go off, she walks up to him and acts as if they had just been shopping together instead of on a high-speed chase. The way Aamir and Jiah play this scene is just fantastic. You can see the wheels turning in Sanjay’s head as he constructs his present reality from the facts before him (they are both sweating and breathing heavily, Sunita’s nervousness...) while he also allows himself to doubt what he sees because of what Sunita is telling him (that they are friends). Two sharp performances in just one of many clever scenes like this.

When we see Sanjay in the flashback sequences, that skill of reading people is still there, though he doesn’t have to construct reality anew every fifteen minutes. We see both small moments like Sanjay figuring out that two white tourists speak French not English and large characterizations points, like Sanjay’s accurate reading of Kalpana’s strong sense of self-reliance. Kalapana’s self-reliance has hardened into a real hesitance to open up and trust people. She spins a tale of her father getting cheated in business, which hints at the deeper pathologies of her character.** Kalpana blithely accepts Sanjay’s friendship but keeps him at arm length to a certain extent. Sanjay accurately reads this and tries to keep in her comfort zone - never offering to buy her things or to take care of her. Kalpana doesn’t want to be dependent on anybody and Sanjay doesn’t want Kalpana to feel obligated to him. We, the audience, know Sanjay loves her because of Aamir’s wonderful performance. The expression on his face when he proposes to her sticks with me more than anything else in the film. That the love will get twisted into rage just a few minutes later in the film just makes it that much more touching.

Since I’m speaking of Kalpana anyways, I’ll turn my attention to the second point that I really noticed this time around - the unusually strong female characters and their relationship to Sanjay. Considering that Ghajini is a herogiri film, it is definitely worth pointing out that both Kalpana and Sunita are smart, capable women whose lives and stories are not driven by romance and family, though they are both tied to Sanjay. Kalpana through friendship and Sunita through a professional interest. Kalpana has a line late in the film, delivered to Ghajini with all the hate she can muster, that men like him are the reason women are afraid to leave their homes. Kalpana wasn’t afraid and she was targeted and killed. Sunita wasn’t afraid and she was targeted but Sunita lived to fight another day. The difference was Sanjay using Ghajini’s own violent tactics against him to help Sunita.

Other than the lesson that powerful men can be real douches to women and children - coincidentally or not, also the strongest running theme of Aamir’s new television show Satyamev Jayate - I think it’s worth pointing out that Sanjay’s pursuit of violence ends up destroying him, even as he does get a catharsis of sorts. But we also see how the institutions set up to help powerless women and children have failed them completely. After a big display of force, there is just nothing. It is that way with the soldiers in the train car who help out Kalpana and it’s that way with Sanjay after the climatic fight. In the end, it’s just clever, caring Sunita left to pick up the pieces.

The third point I wanted to touch on was how Ghajini seemed to really take place in the streets of Mumbai and among everyday people. Like I’ve mentioned a few times before, I’ve watched more than a few South Indian masala films since I first saw Ghajini and watch caught my eye this time was seeing Sanjay and Kalpana and Sunita just out and about in the city, surrounded by regular people, not fancy people at the club or white business executives.*** One of my favorite things to pop up in South Indian masala film is the Hero Introduction song, where we see our hero commune dance around with residents of Bangalore or Chennai or Hyderabad as he extols their virtues. I’m not from Chennai and I’m certainly not an aam aadmi but, strange as it may sound for a 32-year old white lady, I can’t help but cheer along as the hero gives our city and people a place in the spotlight - whether it is Bangalore or Chennai or Hyderabad or Bombay. Though there is no Hero Introduction song in Ghajini,**** that South Indian masala sense of the being part of the city is still there, coming through with the students and goondas and chai wallahs and bus drivers and all the other wonderful everyday people who live in the city.

And this brings us back around to the idea of the South Indian remake “boom” as the foundation of the 100 Crore Club. The way I see it, the desire for these kinds herogiri masala films never left the Hindi market, it’s just that the Hindi market stopped providing quality ones, relegating herogiri to the embarrassing 2000s-era career of Sunny Deol. Action got segregated out into films like Race; romance got segregated out into films like Hum Tum; and social issues got segregated out of single screen theaters all together.

Ghajini was a reminder that Bollywood, as much as it seems to want to exist globally, is still just one of the Indian film industries - plural. It has a bigger megaphone and more money than Sandalwood or Mollywood but at the end of the day, Bombay is located in Maharashtra, not next to Monaco or in Montreal, and they when they remember that fact, the result is glorious. The result is Ghajini.

* When the film came out I had been going to see Hindi films in the theater for about two years and had been watching them on DVD for about six and I had never seen anything quite like Ghajini before. Ghajini had everything – action, romance, drama, pathos, music, and comedy. I walked out of the theater with a feeling of elation and went right back again the next day.

** A “Who is Doc Brown, really?!” moment for me for sure.

*** It can’t be a coincidence that the two other big hits of that year (2008) were Akshay Kumar starrer Singh is Kinng and Shahrukh Khan starrer Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. Singh is Kinng may have taken place in Australia but the comedy came from seeing the aam aadmi Akshay dropped into the midst of one of those NRI romantic-comedies. And the picturization of “Haule Haule” from Rab Ne, which had Shahrukh as a regular guy in his small city, is exactly the kind of thing audiences were craving.

**** Ghajini doesn’t have a hero introduction song but it does have a heroine introduction song right off the Bollywood backlot. I haven’t seen the Tamil version of Ghajini but I did check out the equivalent heroine introduction song on youtube and the difference between the two is staggering. Both are peppy, both are heroine introduction songs, and both feature the lovable Asin but where the Tamil version is overtly sexual, the Hindi version is much more playful and, most importantly, features the fantasies of the heroine not the audience. I like to think that this choice came from Aamir, who certainly has a strong woman to give him opinions in the form of his wife, director Kiran Rao.


getfilmy said...

"Action got segregated out into films like Race; romance got segregated out into films like Hum Tum; and social issues got segregated out of single screen theaters all together."

SO on point! And that period, the 07-08 period is when I was literally like WHERE is my Bollywood? Major identity crisis happening and I hated most of the films, including RNBDJ, coming out during that time.

I actually didn't like Ghajini and obviously had no clue what it was about to kick off. But my not liking it wasn't because it was a bad film, but because it was so gut-wrenching (the romance, the loss, the brutality of the murder) that I could never handle a second watch. That speaks to the power of Aamir's performance especially.

Anyway, I'm just glad it started the herogiri trend. Loved the post! Can't wait for the rest.

Also LMAO at Back To The Future stuck in the VCR. :P

Filmi Girl said...

Yay! Thanks for the comment and that story is 100% true. LOL! "Who is Doc Brown?" I wonder what happened to him - interesting guy. Had a BA in philosophy and then went for a degree in guitar.

Interesting that you didn't like it because it was too intense... that's why I can rewatch it so many times. :) Different strokes, I guess.

Yeah, the only bright spot between 07-08 was Akshay and looking back now it seems less like it was The Year(s) of Akshay and more like Nobody Else Was Making Films Regular People Wanted To See.

dunkdaft said...

An 'all praises for Aamir' post... How can I not comment ? ;)
absolutely engaging writeup. And as Getfilmy said, the segregation thing was so - to the point

Never Mind!! said...

This is why I love your blog! I love how you take apart something I think I know inside out, and show a totally different side. Makes sense?

Not relevant here, but have been meaning to write since your post about writing for money. I really admire your conviction and commitment to writing without monetizing your blog. Every other even partially successful blog has banner ads and sponsored posts up and I know it wouldn't be too hard for you to do it. Thanks so much for the good reads everyday. I may not agree with everything you say, but I always want to hear what you have to say.

OK i didn't make a lot of sense. I need a nap :)

Indraneel Majumdar said...

Loved the post. Herogiri was always appreciated amongst the viewership. Even the bad movies had people whistling when Sunny, Jackie, Govinda, etc beat up the goons. But, Ghajini brought a certain edge and class to the humdrum. It gave a certain perspective to the happenings. It provided a "why" to the story. So, it had repeat value that spurred it to be the founder of the 100 Cr league.

Filmi Girl said...

@dunkdaft I have such respect for Aamir... even when I don't like his films. :) Fortunately, I love Ghajini.

@Never Mind Thank you for the comment!! You know, sometimes I don't even agree with me... ;)

Some films don't hold up to much thought but some do - Ghajini is one of those films that keeps revealing layers, like an onion.

@IM Thank you for reading!! :) Yes, it seems 07-08 was the years when only Akshay was making films people want to see and nobody was making herogiri films... not even Sunny. Bollywood producers ignore that audience at their own risk.

Jess said...

Great article. Loved your observation about Asin's intro song.

But with Mr. Perfection on top of everything, he couldn't find fake tattoos that don't look like they were made with sharpie marker? That distracts me the ENTIRE MOVIE.

Heqit said...

I love this theory - I'm all about the herogiri.

How do you think Rang De Basanti fits in with this? It certainly has action, romance, and a social message - but was it a mass entertainer? (I feel like not, but I'm isolated from the filmi world here in southern Virginia, so what do I know?) Was it too historical/intellectual/social message-y to be a mass entertainer, or was it a harbinger of the coming trend, or was it just Aamir doing What Aamir Does?

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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