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17 October 2022

Aankhen (2002)

Directed by: Vipul Shah
Music: Jatin-Lalit
Aadesh Srivastav
Lyrics: Prasoon Joshi
Praveen Bharadwaj
Nitin Raikwar
Starring: Amitabh Bachchan, Paresh Rawal,
Akshay Kumar, Sushmita Sen, Arjun Rampal

After two consecutive films in which Amitabh Bachchan (or his character) wrestled with the problem of ‘dharma’ or duty and what it entails, or should entail, we decided to shift gears to a film in which his character, a duty-bound bank officer, goes over to the dark side. And how!
 
The movie begins with a song (and we went ‘Huh?’) as the credits play out. Shalini noted that this had nothing to do with the movie but we both agreed that Amitabh looked good in black. When the film really begins, a board meeting is taking place at the top floor of the Vilasrao Jefferson Bank. 
Downstairs, in the same bank, Development Manager Vijay Singh Rajput (Amitabh Bachchan) is supervising the final details of the bank’s move to a larger space. 
Upstairs, the Board is hotly debating Rajput’s ability to head the bank; the chairman is pro-Rajput. After all, he was so devoted to the bank that he had remained a bachelor. And it is due to his efforts that the bank has seen such exponential growth. But Mr Bhandari (Ajit Vachani) is vociferously against the appointment – the man is dangerous, he says, as he accuses the chairman of looking the other way when Rajput turns violent. He’s beaten a watchman sleeping on the job, he’s chastised a security guard whose phone keeps ringing while he’s talking… He’s schizophrenic, says the chairman; on the contrary, he’s dangerous, avers Bhandari.
 
Just then, there’s a commotion downstairs – Rajput has caught a teller palming a note while handing out a client’s money. He beats the man up so badly, even chasing him down the road to do so.
Shalini: I agree with the bank executive who said AB is too dangerous to have around.
Me [Wondering how many of the crowd who gathered around were extras, and how many were people who had come to watch the shoot.] 
Bhandari’s determination to fire Rajput is cemented. The loss of the  bank to which he had given his blood, sweat and tears for over 25 years hits Rajput hard. Slowly, that frustrated anger solidifies into a quest for revenge.
Me: His monologue and his baritone are used very effectively here.
S: Normally I don’t like much exposition, but here there is both ‘show’ and ‘tell’.
And so, Rajput, who knows every inch of the bank – he designed the interiors, chose the furniture, planned the layout, selected the colour of the security guards’ uniform – begins to plan.When he realizes that blind people can be trained to do things like people with sight, he targets Neha Srivastav (Sushmita Sen), the teacher at the school for the blind. He kidnaps her little brother to force her to do his bidding and informs a wildly protesting Neha that she’s to train three blind men to rob a bank.
Me: It’s chilling that he’s paying no attention to her tears or what she’s saying.
S: He’s just rolling over her protestations.
 
Rajput had given an advertisement for a workshop for the blind, in which he had promised not only training but employment for the candidates who successfully completed the course. Of course, it is all a ruse so he could pick the three most fitting candidates for the job. One by one, he introduces them to Neha.
Arjun Verma (Arjun Ramphal), who was deliberately blinded by his own uncle.
Ilyas (Paresh Rawal), who had wandered off as a child, only to be picked up by a man who blinds him so he can beg. Vishwas Prajapati (Akshay Kumar), who loses his eyes in an accident.
S: So, we have some really pretty people in this film – Sushmita, Arjun, Bipasha, Akshay, and two really good actors – Amitabh and Paresh. Reasonable balance.
I laugh and agree. Especially when Akshay’s introductory shot shows him doing adventure sports.
Me: You can believe that Akshay is actually doing them.
S: Yes, and the song isn’t entirely gratuitous. It does establish Akshay as a daredevil. 
Neha is living a nightmare. Nothing she says seems to penetrate Rajput’s bland assurance.
When the three men arrive, they are taken aback to realize what they have been brought there for. But Arjun is the only one who protests, even when Neha breaks down and tells him what’s at stake for her.
Me: ‘He’s right.’  Why should he rob a bank to save her from a mess? 
Meanwhile, tired of Arjun’s protests, Ilyas is muttering, ‘Is ko maar daalo na, yaar.” Which might just turn out to be the case since Rajput is also trigger happy. 
Luckily for Arjun, Neha manages to convince him not to kill Arjun on the spot. Vishwas, who has sixth sense, is the only one who senses that there is someone behind Neha. Both literally and figuratively.

S: That was a close call between AB and AK.

Me: I like AK’s smile. He knows, senses…
S: It’s a small thing, but it adds colour to the screenplay, this side game between the two. 
Rajput has set up an entire replica of the bank’s interiors in his farmhouse. Finally, the training starts. Forty days later, the day is set for the finale… only, is it really?
 
Aankhen was a slickly made heist movie, based on the Gujarati play Andhalo Pato  by Aatish Kapadia. Apart from a gratuitous item song (featuring a graceless Kashmira Shah), the movie moves along briskly for the three hours of its running time. It doesn’t lose sight of its purpose – the bank robbery – for one minute. The one romance that is there is muted and doesn’t lessen the tension.  
We even liked the ‘international ending’. Because it is believable. More believable than the ending they  had for the Indian release.

S: More to the point, even when he’s evil and deranged, I don’t want Amitabh to lose.
Me: You know we are absolutely wicked, don’t you?
 
Even with an ensemble cast and a brilliant co-star in Paresh Rawal, it is Amitabh Bachchan who commands – and holds – your attention. 
It is one of his finest performances in that stage of his career. As a schizophrenic, he’s dangerous; but he’s also chillingly psychopathic  in his obsession for revenge, and his manic quest to regain the loot. His meticulous planning, the total unconcern for what Neha thinks, the cool way in which he holds her brother captive, the casual ease with which he's willing to kill, Amitabh didn’t slip out of character even once.

He’s a man who lives and breathe revenge. He lets us see how unhinged he really is, all the more horrifying because of how rational and sane he sounds. Amitabh’s baritone (almost overused now) is put to good use here in two lengthy monologue scenes. His face off with Sushmita after he kills one of his men is almost grotesque in its horror. And you can see the dawning comprehension on her face – there’s no escape. 
Rajput  is truly batty, and AB played him wonderfully. In the climax, when he’s trying to persuade the inspector that the men carried out the robbery, he slowly unravels. The desperation to prove that he’s speaking the truth makes him misstep  and the realisation that he’s been outwitted slowly dawns. It’s a taut scene and not once does Amitabh allow the tension to slacken.

Akshay Kumar, lithe and fit, gets the physical action in the film. This was also one of his finest performances. He aced the ‘blind’ character, and never slipped out of character even during the action scenes. Vishwas is intelligent and dangerous because he is intelligent. He’s also cynical and more aware of the danger they are all in.
When Arjun falls into an open pit out of which they pull him out, he says, "Qabr khol ke rakh di hain – hamare liye.” It’s a matter-of-fact statement and the manner in which he says it makes it even more horrifying. (Because we, as the audience, know it is true.) The side game between him and AB also ratchets up the tension. He has the most difficult actions in the heist, and it’s to his credit that he does them so well – not the action itself, but the little sigh he gives during the robbery in the bank when he manages to keep the door open; the look on his face when he manages to make Ilyas understand the stakes (and to do that while keeping your eyes blank is a feat). 
And he’s the only one among the three who has brains and uses them to stay one step ahead of their tormentor. There’s no overt dependence on his sixth sense, just an acute awareness of his surroundings that helps him sense the presence of danger. It’s more intuitive than supernatural.
Paresh Rawal – What. An. Actor. As Ilyas, he is the funny man, with the best one-liners. His backstory is tragic but the matter-of-fact way in which he narrates incidents from his life is more poignant than manipulative. It brings a lump to your throat. It also helps that the next minute he’s jocularly belting out another line that makes you smile.
Sushmita Sen. Firstly, how gorgeous is she!
S: Her beauty is so earthy, so approachable.
Me: I agree. I love her.
S: She’s no better an actor than Ash, but I find her really relatable.
Me: I think she’s a better actress.
[I was so glad Sush proved me right in this film.]
As Neha, desperate to save her brother and horrified at the nightmare she’s trapped in, Sush was awesome. Having agreed to train the men, her plight when she’s waiting outside the bank for them to return is pitiable. When the men return without the loot and she finds herself at the mercy of a mad man, her desperation is even more believable. 
When she finally realizes that there is no way out, her calmness is commendable. Sush really lived the part.

Arjun Rampal is another gorgeous creature on celluloid. His Arjun is honest, slightly na├»ve, and prone to blurting out the truth at inappropriate times. In that, he’s the weakest link. But when the chips are down, he holds his own.

 
It's twenty years of Aankhen this year and it was a very satisfying watch, holds up well, and leaves us wanting a sequel.
Postscript: Shalini and I have a deadly idea for a sequel. Rahul (Neha’s brother) grows up and seeks revenge for the death of his sister. The time lapse is perfect – 20 years have passed. (The classic ‘Bees saal baad’… so beloved of our masala filmmakers once upon a time.) Akshay and Arjun are older and wearier, but still up to playing the game, and want revenge themselves. And it would be totally believable that a man like Rajput would still be obsessively seeking his lost treasure. We decided that Ranveer Singh would be perfect as Rahul grown up.
Me: Let’s message Vipul Shah with our idea.
S: Why does no one in Bollywood come to us for movie ideas?
Me: Because they are filled with directors who don’t know their masala from their ‘garam’. We should warn VS not to mess up the plot with songs and dances in the Alps and choreographed dance-like action sequences.
S: We must replace VS with Sriram Raghavan. AB deserves a slicker, more sophisticated production. And certain conditions – the movie is no longer than 90 minutes, AB does not die, and RS gets a kickass girlfriend who’s both the brains and the brawn behind his schemes.
Me [after we ran through a list of female actors and rejected all of them]: I propose Tabu, even if she’s older than RS.
S: Perfect choice. The men are never too old to pair with their decades’  younger female co-stars so why should Tabu be too old for RS?
Me: Agreed. Besides, Tabu is my choice for everything. What an actor she is! And she can be deliciously evil as well.
S: We should have all the men in Aankhen2 fall for Tabu and have her use it to her advantage. She should keep everyone guessing, including the audience.
Me: We need to ping AB, Tabu, Sriram Raghavan, VS, AK, AR and RS! And then Akshay can go back to being the fun guy again.
S: Tabu should end up with RS because she deserves to get the cool guy.
Me: Actually, we should have Tabu use RS to get back at AB for something he did to her or hers. We can give her a back story. Rajput was psychopathic enough anyway, and we can have RS fall for her in the process.
S: Ooh, I like that. It makes Tabu the one who drives the movie rather than RS. But she should be clever and insightful not manipulative.
Me: Yes, she shouldn’t be the archetypal femme fatale. But she should target RS to use as a weapon and then AK, because his sixth sense warns him of danger, gets swept into the plot because he swoops in to protect RS whom he has helped bring up.
S: And RS falls for her intelligence and spunk. I want everyone to fall in love with her.
Me: Great! Now that we have the basic plot and character outline, Sriram Raghavan can fix the rest.
S: Yes, we’ve done all the hard work!
Me:  Seriously. They should thank us on bended knees. And let us meet AB.

S: Kuch qadr hii nahin hain! But you do realize that if we ever meet AB, we’d probably tell him all the things he did wrong in his career, right?
Me: Yes, and what he can do better. More Dev, Khakee, Aankhen type of films and less Yash Chopra/Karan Johar ones.
S: Hmm… might be better we meet him after Aankhen2 gets made, or we might just be thrown out of his house.
Me: We’ll keep quiet until they finish shooting. And then tell him the kind of scripts he should choose. In fact, he should hire us to sift through his scripts.
It’s a lovely daydream but I fear we are destined to die unsung. And that is a tragedy.
 
Tell us what you think of the review, our idea for the sequel, and how to get this idea across to Sriram Raghavan.

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