The originality of content in mainstream Indian/Hindi Cinema has always been an area of much debate and vagueness, where masters of ‘derived inspiration’ have done battle with champions of fresh thoughts. Owing to the mass market-driven compulsion of catering to a pan-Indian audience, where the lowest common denominator can make or break a multi-crore venture, well-packaged entertainment has by and large lorded over the novelty of ideas here, with both filmmakers and patrons traditionally preferring the former.
This brings us to Kaabil, produced by actor-turned-filmmaker Rakesh Roshan and directed by Sanjay Gupta, both master craftsmen of the masala entertainment genre. Neither man has ever strictly sworn by originality: while Roshan took inspiration from diverse sources such as Return To Eden (Khoon Bhari Maang), Ram Aur Shyam (Kishen Kanhaiya), Kasme Vaade (Kaho Naa…Pyaar Hai), E.T. (Koi…Mil Gaya), and Superman (Krrish and Krrish 3), Gupta successfully Indianized A Better Tomorrow (Aatish), The Juror (Khauff), Reservoir Dogs (Kaante), Oldboy (Zinda), and Seven Days (Jazbaa). Kaabil keeps the tradition alive.
Rohan Bhatnagar (Hrithik Roshan), a young voice-over artiste, is introduced to Supriya Sharma (Yami Gautam), an independent working woman, by a well-meaning mutual acquaintance. It is literally a blind date – both are sightless. They click and before long, Rohan has successfully wooed Supriya. As expected, marriage follows. But soon afterwards, tragedy strikes: local goon Amit Shelar (Rohit Roy) and his friend Wasim (Md. Sahidur Rahaman) rape a vulnerable Supriya in Rohan’s absence. Since Amit is the younger brother of influential corporator Madhavrao Shelar (Ronit Roy), the investigating cops quickly hush up the case; they even help Madhavrao abduct the couple to prevent them from going for the all-important medical examination that must be conducted within 24 hours of the rape. Far from helping the distraught couple, the police label them as frauds attempting to blackmail the Shelars.
Supriya commits suicide after being raped for the second time. When Madhavrao taunts Rohan and tells him to stop pursuing the case, the grieving man, who has already given up on the law, decides to take things into his own hands and deliver vigilante justice to his beloved’s tormentors.
Kaabil is a shout-out to Bollywood’s great revenge dramas of the 80s and 90s, the direct descendant of films like Andhaa Kaanoon, Aakhree Raasta, Indrajeet, and Phool Aur Angaar, where the hero, traumatized after the rape and subsequent death of his wife/adopted daughter/sister, sets out on a mission to visit vengeance on the evil-doers. While the premise itself is nothing new, the treatment is clever, with the protagonists’ blindness adding a new dimension to an oft-told tale, but not without silently outlining how much modern-day Bollywood, despite its snobbish attitude towards its own history, is still dependent upon the formulaic, masala cinema of yore as a prime source of influence.
In his finest performance since Krrish in mid-2006, Hrithik is in splendid form. The goofy lover, the talented dubbing artiste, the broken husband shattered by his wife’s rape and suicide, the relentless machine of death – he does full justice to every aspect of the role. He moves through the narrative as a Great White Shark might move through the ocean: smooth and unstoppable. Of special mention are the shopping mall sequence, where the young lover’s helplessness surfaces on getting separated from his girlfriend, and when he mimics Amitabh Bachchan to impress his new wife. In many ways, the character of Rohan Bhatnagar is a direct throwback to Bachchan’s Angry Young Vijay of Deewaar, Shakti, and Agneepath: dangerous, calm, calculating, and a resourceful risk-taker. He reminds one of textbook ‘blind man’ performances such as Sanjeev Kumar in Qatl, Denzel Washington in The Book Of Eli, and Naseeruddin Shah in Sparsh.
Yami Gautam is restrained; there is a great deal of poise in her portrayal of Supriya who, even in her darkest hour, puts her husband’s emotional well-being ahead of her own trauma. Rohit Roy is suitably slimy, while Ronit Roy channelizes the innate menace of Madhavrao very well. But it is Narendra Jha, the chief baddie from last year’s Ghayal Once Again, who is a revelation as senior cop Chaubey. Clearly, here is someone to watch out for.
Akiv Ali’s editing is sharp, while Sudeep Chatterjee and Ayananka Bose’s cinematography is polished. The many close-ups capture the nuances of the characters’ expressions in fine detail. Shyam Kaushal’s ingenious fight sequences have been choreographed keeping in mind a blind man’s reliance on his other senses than physical sight. Rajesh Roshan’s music is a big disappointment: none of the songs stands out and the degradation of the Kishore Kumar classic “Saara zamana” from Yaarana into an item number is deplorable. Rajesh Roshan has always been associated with melodious music, right from Khatta Meetha and Doosara Aadmi to KNPH, and though Kaabil does not have much scope for music, one wishes he had done better.
Some of the first reviews of Kaabil were critical of how the screenplay focused more on Rohan than on Supriya and how the plot was regressive in its portrayal of a rape victim as a sullied, broken object. One feels compelled to disagree. Apart from the fact that the film is Hrithik’s home production and was always going to focus more on him than anyone else, Kaabil is Rohan’s story, told from his viewpoint, not Supriya’s. Expecting her to have an equal role would be akin to demanding Radha and Basanti be given as much screen time as Jai and Veeru. Supriya’s importance lies in the fact that her tragedy is the fulcrum on which the machine operates, but Rohan was always going to be the main power switch. (Honestly, did anyone really think the makers were going to bank on Yami Gautam as much as Hrithik?) As for Rohan’s “regressive” reaction to Supriya’s ordeal, that too is a misinterpretation: as he correctly deduces, Supriya gives up her life not because she is weak, but because she realizes that her vulnerability against her abusers is going to hit her husband hard. Rohan’s silence to Supriya’s offer of walking away arises not from ‘disgust’ at his wife’s ‘tarnished honour’, but more from a husband’s helpless rage at not having been able to protect his wife from her predators.
Kaabil is not flawless – it is not explained how a dubbing artiste is able to book an (expensive) apartment in a Mumbai high-rise, or why Supriya stops working after marriage, or why the phone booth owner was always conveniently absent every time Rohan went there to make a call – but these are trivial niggles. The film definitely packs a punch. Watch it irrespective of whether you are a Hrithik fanboy/fangirl. Because of the solid old-fashioned entertainment, especially one that does not take recourse to the lionization of criminals or distortion of documented history, is a rarity from present-day Bollywood.
About Anirban Dey Choudhury
A former journalist and Learning Content Designer with a Bachelor’s degree in English and a Master’s degree in Journalism & Mass Communication, Anirban moved to Pune from his hometown Kolkata more than 12 years ago, before settling down in Mumbai. He’s a true-blue Kolkatan and a hardcore Mumbaikar rolled into one. A social media junkie, Anirban finds his fix in literature, cinema, friends, food, and his family. Anirban Dey Choudhury can be reached at email@example.com. You can find Anirban on Facebook and follow him on @Andec_Tanker twitter handle.
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