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11 October 2022

Khakee (2004)

Directed by: Rajkumar Santoshi
Music: Ram Sampath
Lyrics: Sameer
Starring: Amitabh Bachchan, Akshay Kumar,
Ajay Devgan, Aiswarya Rai,
Atul Kulkarni Tushar Kapoor,
Prakash Raj, Sabyasachi Chakraborty,
Kamlesh Sawant, D Santosh,
Tanuja, Ashwini Kalsekar
Continuing our Amitabh Bachchan V3.0 retrospective for Amitabh Bachchan's 80th birthday, Shalini and I settled in on a Sunday evening to view, comment upon, and analyse Khakee, a film we have both liked very much. Does it hold up to our scrutiny? Read on. 

begins with a bang – an alleged ISI agent, Iqbal Ansari (Atul Kulkarni), is arrested and is being brought from Chandangarh to Bombay where he is to be arraigned. But on the way, a quick, brutal attack leaves the prisoner cringing inside a godown and eight cops dead. 
ACP Shrikant Naidu (Prakash Raj) quickly assembles a new team: DCP Anant Kumar Sreevastav (Amitabh Bachchan); Senior Inspector Shekhar Verma (Akshay Kumar); Sub-Inspector Ashwin Gupte (Tusshar Kapoor); and constables, Kamlesh Sawant (Kamlesh Sawant) and Gajanan Mhatre (D Santosh), to bring Ansari to Bombay. 

DCP Anant Sreevastav is reluctant – he’s at the fag end of his career, and his integrity has led to him being transferred from post to post until at last, he’s heading the police academy. Besides, his daughter is getting married within a fortnight. But he’s always longed for that one chance to prove himself and is persuaded to head the motley group. 

Inspector Shekhar is even more reluctant – a copy who has found a way to game the system, he’s into flashy cars, $5000 German watches, and – women.

Me: Wait, did he just get paid to sleep with the man’s wife?
Shalini: Pretty much. At least he’s not missing out on the pleasures of life.
Unfortunately, he fails to buy his way out this time and joins the group under duress.

Sub-Inspector Ashwin is perhaps the most eager – a rookie cop, he wishes to make a difference. His idealism rubs his senior the wrong way. The constables, of course, do as they are told. Before leaving, the DCP lays his cards on the table.

S: This isn’t a speech designed to inspire confidence in the men, is it?
Me: No, but it doesn’t offer them any false hope, either.

Meanwhile, a freelance photographer, found taking the Special Ops team’s photos, is nabbed and questioned. When he returns home,  police in tow, it is to find a friend. 
Me: I didn’t see that coming!
S: Yes, he’s not playing.
When the team reach Chandangarh, the DCP is made aware of the local situation. Aware that the slightest slip could alert the enemy (who seems to always be one step ahead of them), the DCP changes his travel plans. 
Just then, a phone call alerts them to the presence of terrorists in the area, and the DCP offers the local police their help. The woman at the other end is Mahalakshmi (Aiswarya Rai), an NGO worker who is holding a workshop in the area. When the cops raid the house she’s staying in, the birds have already flown, leaving a dead comrade behind. The wary DCP prevents Inspector Shekhar from picking up the phone. His caution pays off.

But Mahalakshmi is in danger – she’s the only person who has seen the leader face to face. So when she asks to travel with them, the DCP is forced to agree.

Me: I like that AB doesn’t just agree, he follows protocol.
Before they leave, however, the DCP has a visitor: Iqbal Ansari’s mother (Tanuja). 

She has only one request – if it is proved in court that her son is a terrorist as the police claim, let them hang him. But, until then, keep him safe. Don’t kill him on the way. The DCP is touched – he promises that she will see her son in court.

Me: This brief scene establishes the fears of an ordinary citizen – not that they will not have their day in court, but that they may never reach there.
S: Same as in the US, if you are Black or Brown, that is.
Meanwhile, the DCP has a call – from his unknown enemy. The DCP is on his guard – he knows that voice but who is it? And what enmity does the caller have with him? 

But it is time to be on the road. And the journey isn’t going to be smooth. On their tail is a suave, cold-blooded, villain.
He comes out into the open soon enough, but who’s behind him? And there’s a traitor in the group, but who?
What I have narrated here is perhaps a third of the plot. Khakee is the cop movie we need but do not usually get. Our cops are either vilified or deified, (depending on who’s playing the cop) and the reason for a corrupt cop protagonist to return to the ‘right side’ is always when events affect someone dear to him. Khakee is a different kettle of fish. It takes aim at the establishment, at the system, and more importantly, even at the police force itself. 

S: A movie like this wouldn’t be made today, would it? A harsh criticism of POTA and Islamophobia? Can’t imagine that now.
Written by Sriram Raghavan and Santoshi himself, Khakee realistically portrayed cops as flawed human beings who struggle with questions of morality like ordinary people in real life do. The duo also did not falter in building – and keeping up – the tension. [Which the unnecessary songs diluted, except for the poignant Mere maula.

Be warned that this is a testosterone-driven film. The action is quick, violent and brutal. And it is even more chilling for being so casual. Witness the scene where Inspector Shekhar offers Ansari food. When he refuses, he hands the plate over to the constable and then roughhouses the prisoner. Without raising his voice, without breaking into sweat. 
The dialogue is crisp and to the point, particularly among the cops as they battle an unseen enemy. The strain that cops undergo on missions such as these is laid bare on screen. As the DCP says, just before the team leaves on their high-profile, yet dangerous mission: “Hum jis dushman ka saamne karne jaa raha hain, uska na koi naam hain na koi chehra. Humein ye nahin pata ke woh kitne hain, lekin ye pata hain ke woh bahut saare hain. Unke paas hathyar kaun kaun se honge, nahin pata, lekin woh hum se behtar honge, ye pata hain. Woh kab kahaan kaise hum par waar karenge, nahin pata, lekin woh waar karenge, ye pata hain. [The enemy we are going to face has neither a face nor an identity. We don't know how many they are, but we do know they are many. We do not know what weapons they wield but we know that they have better weapons than we do. We don't know when, where and how they will strike, but that they will strike, we do  know.]

It establishes, with one crucial scene the dangers that policemen face. In the end, the one cop who has ideals has to become part of the system to mete out ‘justice’ for the greater good. Indeed, as Shalini points out, Santoshi seems to be saying -  Can true justice ever be achieved in a corrupt system? If not, is it okay to deliver justice even if that means you go outside the system?

Khakee had an ensemble cast, and it was interesting to see many of them play against type. While Amitabh dons – yet again – a police officer’s uniform, his weariness at battling an unyielding system is a social comment in itself. Inspector Anant Kumar is stuck in a dead-end job; his integrity and dedication to his work mean that he’s a thorn in the sides of his superiors. Taking on a mission such as this even while his daughter’s wedding is just days ahead, he has a point or two to prove. He is Vijay [Zanjeer] grown old in the force, and Amitabh’s face expresses the weariness of a man who has seen much and lost so much more. 

In a small yet poignant scene, he flips through old photo albums, his absence in many of the photos underlining just how much he missed being a part of his family. This is a cop's reality.

What’s even more surprising is the two other leading men, now famously part of Rohit Shetty’s alpha-male ‘police universe’ – they are playing characters here, not heroes, in a film that blasts an administration for corrupting the police.


Ajay Devgn as the chain-smoking Yashwant Angre is a charismatic villain.

S: Ajay could do the cold, ruthless bastard really well, no?
Me: Yes, he establishes, quickly enough, that this is not a game.
The cat and mouse game between his character and DCP Srivastav is nerve-wracking. It’s psychological warfare and it exposes Angre as a man who kills for the sake of killing. He is amoral and as he tells his opponent, “You and I work for the same system. The difference is that they pay you to stop me, and they pay me to shoot you.” He is chilling.

It’s not often that you see Akshay Kumar play a character, flaws and all [he’s getting ready to be anointed for sainthood right about now], and especially not as a cop. Here, he is corrupt, opportunistic and humorous. From petty bribes to outright corruption, there isn’t much he wouldn’t stoop to do. 

And as he tells the DCP – You are ready to be martyred because you wanted to prove a point. "Lekin aap ke is khudgarz maqsad ke liye hum nahin mar sakte." Yet, he’s brave when the chips are down, intelligent and experienced, and can make an educated guess from what he’s seen and heard. The final – and fatal betrayal – kills his soul as well, but he’s still a cop to the end, thinking on his feet. 

He also has a crackling chemistry with Aishwarya Rai, who along with Tushar Kapoor (I have honestly forgotten how many ‘s’-es and ‘h’-es there in his name) were strikingly good in their respective parts. Plus, she’s stunning on screen. 

Atul Kulkarni is a great actor and in this, as the man framed by the establishment, he expresses both his grief and his resignation. 
As he tells the DCP (when questioned why he remained silent thus far), who will believe him? Sadly, it is the fate of countless Muslims, Dalits, and more broadly, the poor in our country even today. That in itself makes Khakee still relevant, 18 years after its release. At the end of the movie, we were both compelled to reflect on principles and people – people over principles or vice versa? 
What would you choose?
Postscript: Happy Birthday, Mr Bachchan. Please choose more scripts like these. 

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