Listening to the Masala Zindabad podcast on movies of the 80s reminded me how little I know of that era in Hindi film. Fears of gratuitous rape and violence have led me to steer clear, except for artier films and the occasional delicate social. But the podcast roused my curiosity about some of that decade's better-regarded mainstream movies, and so I gritted my teeth and dug into Subhash Ghai's Ram Lakhan. Three hours, no rapes, and only a little excessive violence later, I was very happily surprised to have seen a rich, excellent masala movie that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Pratap (Dalip Tahil) and Sharda (Rakhee) are delighted at the birth of their second son, Lakhan, who grows up close to his brother Ram. But a dubious family friend Bishambhar (Amrish Puri) cheats Pratap out of his inheritance and later murders him, leaving Sharda and her sons disgraced and destitute. Sharda vows that her sons will be her weapons of revenge against Bishambhar. The boys grow up close, but very different - Ram (Jackie Shroff) is a stern and serious police inspector, while Lakhan (Anil Kapoor) is a gadabout and a bit of a con man with big dreams of big riches. To prove his worth to Ram and Sharda - not to mention to his childhood love Radha (Madhuri Dixit) and her father Devdhar (Anupam Kher) - Lakhan joins the police force himself. But he is quickly seduced by the bribes of Bishmbhar and the gang of smugglers he treats with, the peculiar Kesariya (Gulshan Grover) and imperious Sir John (Raza Murad). Ram is disgusted when he learns of Lakhan's abuse of the uniform. Sharda despairs at the wedge this drives between her two sons, and fears that she will never see Pratap's cruel death properly avenged.
What I expected from Ram Lakhan was a very male, very violent revenge fantasy. What I got was a fun, well-crafted masala ride, packed with religious allegory, real laughs, and some great songs to boot. There is some excessive violence, but it only goes over the top in the movie's climax, after more than two and a half fully engaging hours. And while the brothers and their relationship are clearly the focus of the story, the female characters are strong and satisfying too. Madhuri Dixit is at her best in Radha's two wonderful songs, the pleading "O Ramji", and the cathartic, rageful "Bekadar, bekhabar." I sometimes lament the bad timing of Madhuri's career, such that her talents are largely wasted in mediocre movies that she elevates with her magnetic presence. Here, though she has a relatively small part to play (albeit with a generous helping of songs), she adds delight to an already strong movie.
The other women in Ram Lakhan offer more substance than I might have expected. Ram and Lakhan's mother, Sharda, can only be described as the fiercest of masala maa characters - when she grows angry, thunder peals and lightning flashes. Rakhee is amply suited to this role - she brings the perfect blend of mainstream melodramatic style and serious acting chops, and so there is some nuance in her face, even as the bombast of her dramatic scenes swells to true masala proportion. Ram Lakhan is a movie that any Rakhee fan should see.
The men, too, bring quite a lot to the table - and go a long way to helping me understand why they are stars. Anil Kapoor is adequately cute and convincing in the mischief-maker role, highlighted in his introductory song "My Name is Lakhan." (Any actor who gets that many drums to herald his first appearance in a movie is clearly already a larger-than-life star.) Jackie Shroff is at times a little too stern and overbearing - he lays it on especially thick in the scenes that make the Ram-Lakshman allegory explicit. But this is amply balanced by his tenderness in emotional scenes with Anil, and especially in his romantic song with Ram's love interest Geeta (Dimple Kapadia), "Tera naam liya". This superbly filmed song is perhaps the biggest surprise and my favorite song of the movie. Jackie and Dimple are well-matched in age and gravitas; the song has a mature feel that is unusual for masala romance, and is yet utterly romantic.
Ram Lakhan is not without weaknesses, but it's difficult to make a 3-hour movie without taking some missteps. The most egregious of these is the terrible "Main hoon Hero" song, in which an utterly charisma-free villain (Bishambhar's son Deboo) challenges Lakhan to a dance-off. The script also leans too heavily on irritating catchphrases, such as Kesariya's annoying "Bad man!", and Deboo's mind-crushingly stupid "India is greeeeaaaat." But the teeming cast of over-the-top villains is a masala stand-by, and their bombast is appropriate to the movie's overall tone. Even some of the comedic moments offer real laughs. Anupam Kher gives the best of these - Lakhan tricks him into sitting on some eggs, and he lets out a whimper that sounds for all the world like the clucking of a hen. In short, Ram Lakhan is masala done right, not nearly as violent as I feared, and thoroughly paisa vasool.