Dir. Rahul Ram
When I sat down to write a post about the most thematically interesting part of this movie - Madhuri Dixit's character's transformation into an avatar of both mother goddess and death goddess - it turned into a broader rumination on the changing portrayals of revenge in Hindi films, and became my latest column in Outlook. Please do go and read it.
There's still lots to talk about, though. Anjaam has surprised me a little by sticking with me. While I was watching, I didn't think it would. The first half of the movie is pretty stupid; Shah Rukh Khan hams it up more than a pig roast, and it's pretty painful to watch. Madhuri, as was so common in those years, is far better than the material and actors she's given to work with - the mulleted flaccid noodle who plays her husband (Deepak Tijori) is especially beneath her. And as if all that isn't bad enough, Johnny Lever drives the comic side plot as a hijra. I'm one of the few people on earth who actually believes Johnny Lever has talent (not that's it's usually well deployed or anything), but really - Johnny Lever as a hijra?
But there's some very interesting stuff in there all the same, and the movie's oddly satisfying second-half rewards the wait. Here's some of what I said about Anjaam in that Outlook column:
Back in the 1990s, when revenge films were the order of the day, Anjaam showed another character turning to revenge when the criminal justice system failed her. Shivani (Madhuri Dixit) is convicted and imprisoned for the murder of her husband on the strength of perjured testimony of the real murderer, Vijay Agnihotri (Shah Rukh Khan). Agnihotri, credible as both a wealthy industrialist and a man, paints Shivani as an hysterical and wanton woman, a misogynist theory of the crime that the court is all too ready to accept. After a few brutal years in prison and plenty of grating talk about how enduring injustice and degradation is the lot of all women, Shivani snaps, propelled by the religious chants of her blockmates into a spree of cold-hearted revenge against everyone who has wronged her during her ordeal. When she finally catches up with Agnihotri, he is hospitalised and catatonic. Not satisfied with this karmic justice doled out by the universe, Shivani takes the time to nurse Agnihotri out of his catatonia and convince him she's fallen in love with him, just for the satisfaction of his full awareness when she kills him.
Shivani's crusade against Anjaam's lineup of vile and awful men (plus one complicit female prison guard) is echoed by later Madhuri Dixit performances in Mrityudand — another film in which nearly all the men are horrible, awful people — and even Gulaab Gang. In those films, Madhuri’s characters face down the institutionalised oppressors of women in terms they can understand, with rifles or machetes. Anjaam goes a step further, placing Shivani in an archetypal space in which she wields the feminine ideal as advanced by patriarchy as a weapon against it. Shivani lulls Agnihotri by playing into his misogynist fantasy of how women, especially this particular woman, should serve him, and then turns on him with another misogynist stereotype, that of woman as seductress, betrayer, and destroyer of men. Anjaam stirs an interesting religious flavor into the rib-sticking broth of revenge, dovetailing as it does the nurturer-goddess and death-goddess aspects of archetypal womanhood.
Here are a few additional observations.
- Every last man in Anjaam is horrible. Even Shivani's husband, who could have been a nice guy in his mulleted, baggy-jeaned, 90s kind of way, lets his own greed blind him to the obvious fact that his wife is being stalked by a maniac. He dismisses her very real concerns and instead follows the ₹ signs right into the trap that Vijay Agnihotri lays for him.
- On the flip side, each and every horrible man in the movie gets punished by death at Shivani's hands (except her husband, though she is convicted of his murder). The death of Shivani's awful brother-in-law (Tinnu Anand) is especially creative; he too has been a greedy bastard from the film's first scene, exploiting both his own wife and Shivani for every rupee he can squeeze out of them and drink or gamble away. Shivani kills him by stuffing his mouth with rupee notes until he suffocates.
- To achieve her final revenge against Agnihotri, Shivani also sacrifices herself - first symbolically, by devoting months to his care and rehabilitation in the hospital and subjecting herself to the indignity of pretend-loving him, and then physically, so that they die together. This has both narrative expedience (death goddess or no, you can't really let a character get away unpunished with the number of brutal killings Shivani pulls off, no matter how just they seem within the fantasy world of the movie) and cathartic value for Shivani. She has transcended life on earth at this point; one can't simply return to life as a flight attendant after marauding around as an incarnation of Kali.
- I love the way Anjaam acknowledges that women, too, can be agents of oppression when they buy into the unjust power structures of patriarchy; this comes in the form of Kalpana Iyer, delightfully chewing up a bunch of scenery in a brief role as a smokin', swaggerin' prison warden who gets off on pimping out her charges to local bureaucrats and beating the stuffing out of them when they object. Don't worry; Shivani gets her, too.
- Anjaam has a couple of really fantastic Madhuri numbers - including a great 90s-style folk wedding song and another folk-style song, in which she serves as Agnihotri's imagined substitute for some other stage performer he happens to be watching. (I love songs about how mirchi-hot Kolhapuri girls are; see also Ashanti.)
I like it when I'm surprised by a movie. Here was a movie with two strikes against it - 90s rapey-revengey-women-suffery stuff, and the dreaded smugness of Shah Rukh Khan. And yet it was pretty enjoyable while it was happening - the songs got me through the first half and the second half really took off - and gave me all these ideas to think and write about. Actually I just placed a big fat DVD order as I do a few times a year and I am kicking myself that I didn't take the opportunity to add it to my collection. But for now I can watch it over again on YouTube.