Dir. Mukul S. Anand
There are certainly some ways in which this movie is a hot mess, but it really doesn't matter; Khuda gawah is thoroughly enjoyable in its bombast and excess all the same. As a ferociously proud Pathan, Badshah Khan, Amitabh Bachchan delivers every speech in a thundering string of capitalized abstract concepts: MOHABBAT! IZZAT! JURM! INSAAF! And it works, because Badshah Khan is himself a capitalized abstract concept given flesh. He is not a character, not a man, but a walking complex of pride and honor. Each time he booms "MAIN PATHAN HOON PATHAN!" it is clear that Badshah Khan is driven not by reason but by the weight of that legendary heritage.
Thus Badshah Khan's plot-driving bond with Ranvir Singh (Vikram Gokhale), the Rajput jailor who arrests and imprisons Badshah Khan, and also becomes his lifelong friend. Badshah Khan sees in this man a brother who also has an impossibly prideful lineage to live up to, and if "Tum Rajput, main Pathan" becomes almost a call of love between them, so too does the classic trope of respect between lawbreaker and law enforcer. When Badshah Khan requests a 30-day furlough for his marriage, Ranvir Singh bets his career on his faith that the Pathan will keep his word and turn himself in at the end of the month. Of course Badshah Khan makes good, and both the Pathan and the audience are deeply satisfied.
Then there are the two characters played by Sridevi, who are, both separately and put together, all over the map. First is Behnazir, who in the film's visually awesome opening (more on that below), proves a serious badass in the tribal competition of buzkashi, where horse-mounted contestants vie to collect a goat carcass from the wilderness and deliver it to the village. Behnazir matches Badshah Khan gallop-for-gallop in this (presumably) uber-mardaani pastime, and her ferocity in that wins his heart. (His subsequent courtship of her is shown in a grand and marvelous song, a hilarious filmi exoticisation of an Afghan tribal musical gathering. Great stuff, and completely commensurate with everything else that is BIG and entertaining and unintentionally silly about Khuda gawah.)
Badshah Khan and his sidekick Khuda Baksh (Danny Denzongpa, supergreat here as a good guy) gobsmacked when the champion buzkashi rider turns out to be Behnazir; Badshah Khan gets ready to take a chomp out of Behnazir.
Before surrendering her heart in return, though, Behnazir sends Badshah Khan on a mission to India, for revenge on HABIBULLAH (name always pronounced in all caps), the man who she says killed her father. One is left to wonder why a woman with the chutzpah and skills to hold her own in the buzkashi fray can't, you know, exact her own revenge. That would have been a pretty good movie, too. But it isn't Khuda gawah. Benazir has a few minutes of badass screen time, and then promptly begins her descent.
When told that Badshah Khan has died in India in pursuit of vengeance (spoiler: he hasn't), this once-fierce Behnazir loses her shit completely, and caroms into the realm of the "filmi mad" - mussed hair, muddy face, clad in a shapeless caftan, with but two modes of communication: the Mutter and the Wail. So much for the ferocious buzkashi champ that turned Badshah Khan's head.
Badshah Khan's successful revenge mission earns him the lifelong enmity of HABIBULLAH's brother Pashahhhhh (name always pronounced in an elongated whisper) (Kiran Kumar), a man who menaces the mountainous countryside dressed as a scarecrow.
Time passes, as it does in the movies, and before long Behnazir and Badshah Khan's daughter Mehndi (also Sridevi) is grown. Mehndi is the kind of Sridevi character who makes you want to plug your ears, because SCREECH, and lament the utter squandering of Sridevi's talent that was the 80s and 90s. Mehndi is that effervescent, hyperactive, dog-whistle-pitched type of heroine that makes you wonder if the filmmakers have ever met or spoken to an actual spirited young woman - or, more cynically and probably more truthfully, if the filmmakers believe that their principal audience never has.
In her favor, though, Mehndi drives in road rallies for a living - a clever updating of her mother's horse-riding chops, and a funny one too, because the first half of Khuda gawah seems to be set in the 17th century, while the second half is in the present. And Mehndi shows some ferocity of her own, like the 1.0 version of her mother; at the end, she participates fully in thrashing the bad guys, together with her Rajput counterpart, Ranvir Singh's daughter, Heena (the also always fierce and often underutilized Shilpa Shirodkar, whom I will always adore because Mrityudand). (Badshah Khan's and Ranveer Singh's bonding ritual includes this cute choice of names for their near- simultaneously born daughters; they give the two girls the same name, with a little cultural twist, so Khan's girl gets the Hindu version of the name and Singh's girl, the Muslim version. But it's notable that while Mehndi inherits her father's propensity to bellow "MAIN PATHAN HOON PATHAN!" at every opportunity, the best Heena can muster is "Main Rajput ki beti hoon!" In the universe of Khuda gawah, at least, Pathan knows no gender but only boys can be Rajput.)
All of this is just delightfully silly, bombastic, over the top, and often unintentionally hilarious, making for a completely entertaining film. But at the foundation of it all is some truly remarkable technical craft for which Khuda gawah must be given complete credit. I do not know the technical vocabulary but the picture quality is much sharper and richer than many films of its era. The opening scenes especially, of the buzkashi players' thundering gallops across the bleak, baked Afghan landscape, are actually jaw-dropping.
Not gonna lie, it's beautifully shot. Click on the still for full-sized glory.