Dir. Prayag Raj
I have written before about how difficult it can be to overlook certain types of filmi misogyny, even when attempting to allow for the cultural milieu and era of the movie. It's one thing when a villain rapes or hits a woman; it is quite another when the hero engages in unconscionable conduct and yet remains unassailably heroic. A rape threat and some violent manhandling of Mumtaz by Shashi Kapoor ruined the otherwise top-notch masala of Chor machaye shor for me; likewise Geraftaar, a delightfully satisfying masala meal turned rancid when the hero, this time cutey-patootie Kamal Haasan, throttles a woman until she falls in love with him.
I want so much to love this movie. It has so much masala goodness going for it: A Prayag Raj story, Kader Khan dialogues, a Bappi Lahiri score; a cast full of masala stalwarts like Nirupa Roy, Ranjit, Shakti Kapoor, Jeevan, and Kader Khan himself; a guest appearance by one of my favorite parallel-mainstream straddlers, Kulbhushan Kharbanda; a brief but utterly thrilling cameo by Rajnikanth, and "above all":
Indeed, the first hour of this film just plain delivers. It begins with one of the more creative filmi murders you'll ever see, one involving large earth-moving machinery. A pair of young brothers are separated, setting the stage for masala goodness to come. One of these grows up to be Kamal Haasan, who has an absolutely wonderful cowboy-leatherman-spy disco medley and some beautifully choreographed and executed melees.
The movie as a whole is available on YouTube (with subtitles!). The song isn't. So here is the movie cued up to the beginning of the song.
I am normally not that interested in dishoom-dishoom, except when it has comical elements, like the climax of Seeta aur Geeta or Ashanti. But Kamal Haasan's fight scenes are special. He brings an athleticism and even grace that is not common among Hindi film heroes. There is a melee in which he uses a small wooden bench as a weapon and shield, and it is almost beautiful to watch. (Skip to 31:17 in the above video to see it.) There is some use of a double but for the most part Haasan does his own footwork, and the result is truly entertaining.
Anyway, as if all of that Kamal Haasan goodness isn't already fantastic, when Kader Khan turns up, he is sporting a positively epic wig-and-moustache combo. Also he consults a glowing-eyed plastic skull for advice, something like a magic 8-ball, except it opens up and dispenses fortunes on folded-up pieces of paper. It seems like it can't get any better, and Rajnikanth hasn't even turned up yet.
Then something absolutely dreadful happens.
I should have been prepared for it. I'm watching a 1980s masala film, after all; there is a reason I've seen relatively few of those. I should have known to expect the film to go all rapey and misogynistic on me. And yet, I feel bitten by Geraftaar and its utter betrayal of first-hour awesomeness.
What happens is Kishen (Kamal Haasan) pushes Anuradha (Poonam Dhillon) around; forces her into marriage, holding her by a twisted clump of hair while smearing blood in the place of sindoor; smacks her and throttles her for trifling with his affections. These actions are presented with no moral complexity at all; Kishen is the hero, and the forced marriage and physical abuse are justified and upstanding because Anuradha is a spoiled rich girl who was mean to him. After Geraftaar's glorious first hour I was stunned by this turn, and my stomach sank as I anticipated the inevitable consequence: Anuradha is moved, whether by the beating or by Kishen's accompanying chastisement, to love him, to accept him as her husband, to shun her miniskirts, calf boots, and sports cars in favor of sarees and domesticity.
“Feh” doesn't even begin to cover it.
Once this atrocity has passed, astonishingly, Geraftaar picks up again. There are more excellent songs, including a terrific disco buddy song between Rajnikanth and Amitabh. There is the female police inspector (Madhavi) who kicks serious ass in her own right – such a treat. The climax brings back the earth-moving machinery of the early scenes, nicely bookending the story. Kamal Haasan, when he isn't busy biffing on Poonam Dhillon, is adorable. There's really everything one could want in a masala film.
And there is Rajnikanth, who deserves a paragraph of his own. When Rajnikanth makes his appearance, famously lighting his cigarette with a mid-air pistol shot, something transformative happens. He is an incredible star, a massive personality, and riveting to watch. He's not an especially good-looking guy, but his charisma is powerful. The stylized staccato of his melee moves is thrilling.
But the decidedly unheroic actions of this film's hero are too much even for Rajnikanth to redeem, and sour the delights of what could have been a surprise instant favorite. When I tweeted my reactions to Kamal Haasan's physical abuse of his heroine, a few folks reacted with what were essentially verbal shrugs: What do you expect from 80s entertainers? Some had forgotten this aspect of the movie altogether; it was so much a part of the landscape of Hindi films at that time that it wasn't even noteworthy to them. But others did remember it. “Geraftaar is one abusive relationship after another,” one tweeter commented.
And I really can't look past it either. I'm not an Indian kid in the 1980s seeing Rajnikanth for the first time, blown away by his manifest coolness, or inspired by Madhavi's fierce ass-kicking to practice my own spin-kicks. I am 2014 Carla, and for better or worse there's a limit to how much of my sensibilities I can check at the door. I'd like to watch Geraftaar again sometime, for everything that is terrific about it: for Kamal Haasan, for the thrill of Rajnikanth, for the fantastic songs, for the pure fun of the villainous scheming combo of Kader Khan, Ranjit, Shakti Kapoor, and Kulbhushan Kharbanda. But if I do, I'll have to skip the middle third. I just don't want this movie ruined for me a second time.