For reasons that are mostly coincidence, I watched three 1980s masala flicks in the space of a little over a week. All three had Kader Khan write them and act in them. Two of the three had Rajnikanth in them; two had Amitabh; two had Amrish Puri; two had Shakti Kapoor; two had Bappi Lahiri scores. And so I had to write them up quickly before the three films became blended into one giant protein-enriched masala smoothie in my brain.
I've written about Naseeb and Geraftaar already, and now turn to the most unlikely of the three: Gangvaa. Here's how it happened.
Me: @bethlovesbolly I am speechless. Did you watch?
Beth: @carla_filmigeek I did not - I thought I should watch it with YOU.
A true friend! So Beth and I watched Gangvaa, starring Rajnikanth and Shabana Azmi. Starring Rajnikanth and Shabana Azmi. I want to repeat that and let it sink in, because despite nearly a decade of adoring Shabana Azmi and exploring the ins and outs of her career, I somehow had not really processed that such a thing existed. I've seen a respectable amount of Shabana Azmi's mainstream work. I've also seen a fair amount of her work in dire and terrible films. I've even put myself through the agony of Son of Pink Panther out of pure love for her.
But Shabana starring opposite Rajnikanth, that stylized superstar who is even larger than larger than life? That is a whole new level of pleasing cognitive dissonance. Gangvaa was a film I simply had to see, even without subtitles. What we got was a film that was more enjoyable, and made with more attention to craft, than either one of us particularly expected.
This really exists.
The basic injustice at the core of Gangvaa is the way the landed classes take advantage of ordinary village folk. Early on in the film, a work crew finds a pot full of gold coins (these are delightful yellow-painted circles of cardboard, near as I can tell), and a suitably mustache-twirling zamindar (Amrish Puri) confiscates them to add to his already massive wealth. Enter Gangvaa (Rajnikanth) to save the day; like a classical mythological warrior, he makes his first appearance in the film riding a chariot.
Gangvaa punches and kicks his way through the zamindar's goons, and quickly dispatches the zamindar to an early exit (presumably freeing Amrish Puri to move on to the set next door where he can play the same villain in some other masala movie). There is a satisfying, if gruesome, spatter of blood on the camera lens to mark the zamindar's final moment on earth. And Rajnikanth's trademark fighting style is such an undeniable thrill to watch, even for someone like me who is not a big fan of dishoom-dishoom. He delivers multiple punches of bone-crunching force without moving his arm - it really is all in the wrist, I guess.
Gangvaa puts together a band of the men who had suffered under the zamindar's tyrrany. Together they hang out in the wilderness and perform Robin-Hood-esque raids for the sake of vigilante justice. At some point Jamna (Shabana Azmi) encounters Gangvaa and is smitten. Then a village girl accuses Gangvaa of rape, and Jamna is enraged - it is here that she gets the vigorously indignant speech that marks Shabana Azmi's movies of this time period, the kind of speech without which one presumes should would not have accepted the role.
But indignation looks so good on her.
It turns out that the rape was actually done by a totally different guy named Gangvaa (Raza Murad), and righting this wrong wins Jamna back for our hero, but makes him a new set of enemies that he spends the rest of the film fleeing from. Also on his tail is an upstanding police inspector in the handsome form of Suresh Oberoi, who cannot allow vigilante justice in his district, no matter how noble the intention. Actually I am not sure that Oberoi's character is the archetypical blemishless uncorruptible officer - having watched Gangvaa without subtitles I am sure I missed some nuance. It is possible that I am merely projecting Oberoi's character from Tezaab on this film. But I'm pretty sure I have it right.
Suresh Oberoi's resemblance to Vivek is stronger in Gangvaa than I've noticed before. Suresh is much better-looking though.
There is a certain grimness to 80s masala movies from which Gangvaa does not shy. There are several distressing suicides. One is quite unexpected; two are commited by characters who would evidently rather die than give up information about Gangvaa. That's the kind of loyalty that only Rajnikanth can inspire.
Gangvaa also features some very creative violence and action, like a scene where a disposable goonda is strapped to a rotating wagon wheel. In one particularly well-crafted highlight, Gangvaa is strung up by his ankles; he frees himself by grabbing a burning candle in his mouth and contorting his limber body until the candle's flame contacts the rope he's suspended from.
I'm glad I watched Gangvaa. I really did need to have the experience of seeing Shabana Azmi paired with Rajnikanth. This was in fact my first exposure to Rajnikanth - I watched it before Geraftaar - and as I noted in my review of that film, I get it. His presence is enormous, and thrilling.
The movie packs a wollop of a surprise ending. I won't spoil it here but it's not a happy one, even though it provides more opportunity for Shabana Azmi to get her sexy rage on. Despite this, Gangvaa is not a bad way to pass a rainy afternoon. Good songs, good character actors, and Rajnikanth eating an apple off a knife blade. Set expectations accordingly, and Gangvaa is pretty enjoyable.