After the surprisingly unviolent Ram Lakhan, watching the excessively violent Ghulam ("slave") was - dare I say it - a slap in the face. This frustrating movie is the proverbial "little girl with a little curl" - when it's good, it's very good, but its weaker moments are horrid indeed.
Siddhu (Aamir Khan) is a sometime amateur boxer, a petty criminal, and a layabout, haunted by troubling memories of his father (Dalip Tahil), a one-time freedom fighter who died a violent death when Siddhu was a boy. Siddhu's Dongri neighborhood is terrorized by the hot-headed extortionist entrepreneur Raunak Singh, or "Ronnie" (Sharat Saxena), for whom Siddhu performs occasional thug-duty, delivering messages and roughings-up to anyone reluctant to do Ronnie's bidding. After winning the heart of a sad young woman named Alisha (Rani Mukherjee), Siddhu meets a social worker named Hari (Akshay Anand), who is trying to galvanize beleaguered members of the community into legal action against Ronnie. After he unwittingly delivers Hari into a trap laid by Ronnie, Siddhu is inspired to take up Hari's cause. But Siddhu's brother Jai (Rajit Kapoor) reminds Siddhu that their father might not have been the great man Siddhu remembers, and calls into question the very foundation of Siddhu's righteous beliefs.
The worst parts of Ghulam are so bad that they are hard to watch. The motorcycle gang that features an embarrassing squealy caricature of an effeminate man is bad enough, and the gang's reappearance toward the film's end is particularly stupid. The violent scenes are too numerous, and too interminable - Siddhu's showdown with Ronnie at the movie's climax is especially improbable and egregious. And if I gave star ratings to movies, any movie that features a boxing match would automatically be docked at least one star. (At least in Ghulam, the boxing match is merely gratuitious, rather than a proxy for real achievement - or worse, redemption - as it in that unbearable genre of movies that are actually about boxing.)
Ghulam is redeemed somewhat by the contrast in its well-wrought characterization of the two brothers. Jai is the clean-cut, educated brother in spectacles and khakis. He contrasts sharply with Siddhu's leather and chains, and rough Tapori dialect - to all appearances, he is far more like Siddhu's idealized memory of their father, the "bespectacled master." Yet Jai puts all that class and education to work as Ronnie's accountant, cooking the tyrant's books and laundering his extortionate earnings. Siddhu, for all his thuggish affectation, proves to have the stouter heart and the purer conscience, in a pleasing (if somewhat facile) turnabout of stereotype. Even Alisha, clearly attracted to bad boys who feed her fantasy of liberation from her penthouse prison, only falls for Siddhu after he demonstrates his true nature by saving a rival's life. Siddhu is the descendant of both the Angry Young Man character perfected by Amitabh Bachchan in the 1970s, and the sort of Tapori trickster embodied by Anil Kapoor in Ram Lakhan.
And so it is fitting, and in hindsight not at all surprising, that Siddhu's great triumph is not that he musters the courage to testify against Ronnie in court - Hari's righteous quest turns out to be a bit of a red herring - but rather that he incites his neighbors to riot in a physical and violent defeat of Ronnie and his gang. To me and my ordered, Western perspective, the violence of this victory is unsatisfying. But I have to acknowledge, as I often do as a student of Indian movies, that I am not the target audience, and what I personally think is the correct course would not be the most effective course for people menaced by the likes of Ronnie. In the movie, Ronnie's case is adjourned for a weekend, setting up his climactic confrontation with Siddhu; I know that in real life, a more likely outcome would be for the slow wheels of justice to creep along for a decade or more while he continues his reign of terror. And so the violent solution is perhaps the only solution that would ring true to Ghulam's Indian audience.
The appeal of the stars carries the movie a long way too. Aamir Khan's performance is, as usual, both physical and soulful, and Rani Mukherjee, while still very young, is thoroughly cute. Their appeal is highlighted in the movie's best song, "Aati kya Khandala," which features Aamir singing his own part, and which is adorable; I especially love it when they dance next to the Buddha sculpture. Somewhat less effective, but still pleasant, are the two - not just one - romantic songs with scenes shot in Switzerland. Of the minor characters, I particularly liked Akshay Anand as Hari, as well as Sharat Saxena as Ronnie (he does quite well with a character whose vein-popping apoplexy is a bit overdone). I also enjoyed Siddhu's lawyer (Mita Vasisht). Her performance makes me wonder whether they offer "Shabana Azmi" classes in acting school; if so, she appears to have studied very hard.