Ghulam: When Aamir Khan Wanted to Do Action

Writer Anjum Rajabali remembers this underrated film which remains a good watch even 25 years after its original release
Ghulam: When Aamir Khan Wanted to Do Action
Ghulam: When Aamir Khan Wanted to Do Action

Six months before writer Anjum Rajabali began working on what would eventually become Ghulam (1998), the riots of 1992 erupted in Bombay. Married to a Hindu woman, Rajabali was the only Muslim person in his apartment complex. There were reports of mobs asking security guards of buildings about their Muslim residents. A cable TV operator who lived across the street from Rajabali had been lynched and set on fire. “There was this slogan – ‘Musalmaan ke do hi sthaan, Pakistan ya kabrastaan (A Muslim belongs only in two places, Pakistan or the cemetery)’,” recalled Rajabali with an uneasy laugh. Friends offered to smuggle Rajabali out of Mumbai, but the screenwriter refused. “I stayed on, and somewhere that fear turned into outrage,” he said. Years later, he wrote that rage into a scene in Ghulam, in which Siddhu (Aamir Khan) returns after appearing as a witness in court implicating the local goon, and finds his home ransacked. Sidhu’s feeling of not being allowed in his own home was something that Rajabali had felt in 1992 and the sheer unfairness of it was something that he wanted the audience to feel.

An “unofficial” remake of On The Waterfront (1954), starring Marlon Brando, Ghulam was director-producer Mukesh Bhatt’s second attempt at remaking the classic Hollywood film after Kabzaa (1988), starring Sanjay Dutt and Raj Babbar. Ghulam came to Rajabali because of his dog, who had given birth to a litter of six around the time when Aamir Khan was looking to adopt a dog. That was how the two met and somewhere along the way, they got talking about the new retelling of On the Waterfront in which Khan was supposed to act. Although he came on board, by his own admission, Rajabali was “clueless about a screenplay” at the time. Yet for a ‘mainstream’ potboiler in the Nineties, Ghulam, directed by Vikram Bhatt, made some inspired choices and hit that sweet spot between plausibility and fantasy. Retaining the grittiness of the Hollywood original, Ghulam found a way to mesh Bollywood melodrama, Jatin-Lalit’s spectacular songs, and a surprisingly tender brotherly dynamic (between Khan and Rajit Kapur).

Ghulam was remade in Tamil as Sudhandhiram (2000), starring Arjun Sarja and Sharat Saxena reprising his role as Ronnie. The remake lost the essence of what made the Hindi version work – the manner in which the fight is stacked against the ‘hero’. Sudhandhiram shows how easily Ghulam could’ve gone wrong. In the hands of a committed writer and a perceptive leading man, we got a film that deserves to be called much more than a ‘Hollywood copy’.

As Ghulam turns 25 this week, Rajabali spoke to Film Companion about what went into making the film.

Aamir Khan and Rani Mukerji in Ghulam
Aamir Khan and Rani Mukerji in Ghulam

The ‘Om Puri’ draft

That first draft was a really grim version of the film, which had addiction, a gang rape, lots of pain and tears, it was set entirely in Dharavi. Most of the scenes were set in darkness while the Bhatts (Mukesh and Mahesh) liked a lot of these majority elements, they felt that this was veering towards being an ‘art film’. Mahesh did say that he wanted an Aamir Khan film, while I had written an Om Puri film. He said he wanted the film to feel “bigger”, which I didn’t immediately understand. I was trying to be as faithful to my research in Dharavi. But then he said something that really helped with the subsequent drafts. He said, “Why are you restricting yourself to the slum? Open it up. Give me South Bombay, give me colours, give me everything the city of Bombay stands for.”

The critical third draft

I went back and took around three weeks for a complete overhaul. Some things fell into my lap. Like, On The Waterfront begins with the betrayal — Terry Malloy calls Joey Doyle to a terrace, and he’s killed. Terry Malloy is an ambivalent, slow-in-the-head kind of fellow. I thought if I was adapting it in India, why don’t I build up a friendship between these two characters, so you really feel the betrayal. Which was one of the major reasons why I put the betrayal between Siddhu and Hari (Akshay Anand) around the interval point. I could use the time before the betrayal to establish the world, how it functions. I discovered I could introduce the boy to the girl, without him realising she was the sister of this other man he had befriended in the mohalla (neighbourhood). I wondered, if he was so moved by what the activist character says to him, what is stopping him from taking a stand? Which is when I wrote a backstory: What if he had a father, who he idealised as someone who fought for the country’s freedom? And what if it turns out that the father was a coward, which was revealed in a nasty manner? Was this the reason why he lived such a shallow life?

It was in the third draft, which became the blueprint for the final film, that I added sequences of our protagonist racing with a group of bikers. It was around then that I came up with the idea of what if the first person to beat our ‘hero’ in a race is the film’s heroine? She emerges from under a helmet – and our hero is struck by a thunderbolt.

Everyone seemed to like it. Aamir confirmed he would do the film. Mukesh read the script too, and told me we were on.

When I reached the third draft, until then Rangeela (1995) had not been released. Siddhu’s name came from my nephew, who I was very close to. He’s called Munna by his brother, which came from what I called my younger brother. Common nickname. But Aamir’s name in Rangeela was also Munna. I raised the issue with him, but he assured me this was completely different from what he’d done in Rangeela. He dismissed my misgivings.

Aamir Khan in Ghulam
Aamir Khan in Ghulam

Credit where credit is due

All scripts were written in English till then. Then came the issue of Hindi dialogues. They asked me to choose. I picked this young man called Ishaan Trivedi. …  I have to confess to this inexplicably stupid thing that happened when the film came out – Ishaan’s name wasn’t mentioned in the credits. I still deeply regret that omission. Mukesh knew that Ishaan had worked on the film, he was a part of script meetings etc, but somehow his name had been left out. Understandably, he (Trivedi) was quite upset. We saw the preview and I apologised to Ishaan. I said that I’ll go fight with Mukesh about this. 

Mukesh, on the other hand, told me that all the prints had been sent to the distributors. But he asked how he could make amends. I told him to give an interview mentioning Ishaan’s contribution to the film and at the premiere (which Ishaan didn’t come to because he was understandably upset) the first name to be read out was that of Ishaan’s. Moving further, for the Zee Cinema awards, where (the film) was nominated for Best Dialogue, I insisted Ishaan’s name be submitted. They were refusing to accept it since he didn’t have a credit, to which I sent them a letter on Mukesh’s letterhead, and also my own, declaring Ishaan Trivedi was the dialogue writer for Ghulam, and that his name being omitted from the credits was a clerical error.

After the film was completed – I think it was somewhere around the preview stage, I suggested to Mukesh that we write “adapted from On The Waterfront”. He said, “Are you mad? I might as well openly admit that we’re remaking that Hollywood film!” I asked if we could call it a ‘tribute’ to On the Waterfront. He shot me down. I said anyone who sees it will immediately know that we’ve stolen from a Hollywood film. What he couldn’t stop me from doing obviously was that every interview I’ve ever given about Ghulam, I’ve mentioned it was inspired by On The Waterfront. Every single time the film is mentioned in a workshop, classroom, I make it a point to mention the original film. It’s where I learned to write a screenplay from.

Aamir Khan and Rani Mukerji in Ghulam
Aamir Khan and Rani Mukerji in Ghulam

Casting what-ifs

For the villain, we went to Mukesh Rishi and a few others, but it wasn’t quite working. And then, it was Aamir who suggested Sharat Saxena, who was doing quite a bit of work down South. We called him and we did an audition. I’d written a backstory for Ronnie – how he’s risen from the ground up, by taking on people more powerful than him. He’s done it to such a point that he almost starts treating Dongri as his fiefdom. He fought his way through everything, and that’s why he has this strong conviction about why he deserves what he’s getting. I even wrote a piece of dialogue where Ronnie is telling his henchman “Bohot ghiss-ghiss ke pohocha hoon idhar tak (I’ve worked my way up).” The way Sharat enacts the scene pretty much captures his backstory in that one dialogue. It’s not a villain – this is exclusively Rounak Singh’s journey.

Another part that was hard to cast was that of Alisha, the heroine of the film. We’d initially chosen Pooja Bhatt, but that didn’t work out. One day, I got a call that it would be Rani Mukherji, who had just made her debut in a film called Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat (1997). I had no idea who she was, but Aamir came on the phone and vouched for her. 

Ghulam (1998)
Ghulam (1998)

Rejecting ‘Aati Kya Khandala’ 

While they were shooting the “10/10 ki daud” scene, lyricist Nitin Raikwar met Aamir and performed a song which everyone really liked. That turned out to be ‘Aati Kya Khandala’. They called me saying that they’ll include the song. I said, “What do you mean?” I said, “This is not even poetry, and it’s utter nonsense!” What really made me angry was that they were putting (in) the song and replacing three scenes that I really cared about – where Siddhu and Alisha are getting to know each other. For once, they overruled me. I cursed them ki tera gaana bhi flop ho jaayega (your song will flop), and your film will also suffer. And look what ended up happening! I’m still eating my words. I was livid at the time though because I really liked the scenes that ‘Aati Kya Khandala’ was replacing. 

It was right after Siddhu witnesses the dysfunctionality in Alisha’s family, and he’s trying to be there for her. They’re walking on the street. I’d written the scenes to be somewhere around Marine Drive. Alisha is talking about how the only person in the family she connected with was her brother. She confides her loneliness in Siddhu, who also tells her how he’s drifted apart from his elder brother, the only family he has in the whole world. And that becomes a thread between the two, their love for their respective brothers and sharing this poignancy. Others thought it was too intellectual, so they chose ‘Aati Kya Khandala’ instead. It did the job, to be fair.

Rani Mukerji and Aamir Khan
Rani Mukerji and Aamir Khan

The vulture on Jaidev’s shoulder

Initially, I was told Mithun (Chakraborty) was being considered for the role of the elder brother. Then as the time progressed, Aamir kept insisting that we need more ‘real’ looking people. We took around 5-6 auditions, and one of them was Alyy Khan. However, with Alyy the problem was that he walks in with a certain kind of swagger. Though he’s a fine actor, I needed a certain kind of vulnerability. I could sense that this was a doomed character, who had a vulture sitting on his shoulder. There’s a weakness to him, he’s succumbed to something. He has to choose between his loyalty to the goons, and what his brother was standing up for. 

The brothers’ arc was something that was very close to me while writing Ghulam. That scene where Siddhu confronts Jaidev saying: “Tu apni baat kar, Jaidev! Tune apna khayal kayko nahi rakha?” I would feel my eyes getting moist each time I narrated the scene. I would wonder why it felt so close to me. It took me years to realise that I wasn’t identifying with Siddhu in it, but with Jaidev – who has absolutely no shot at redemption. And that feeling of helplessness for him.

Aamir Khan in Ghulam
Aamir Khan in Ghulam

Aamir Khan as an action hero?

One brief was clear from Aamir — that he wanted to do an action film. It posed a challenge to me because I was again thinking about the realism quotient of a fight featuring someone like Aamir, who didn’t have the height or width, against someone like Sharat Saxena. Hence, while writing I had to be convinced that someone like Aamir could measure up. And that’s when I began to zero in on Aamir’s eyes. I think that’s one thing I realised about him as an actor, that he uses his eyes very well in front of the camera – whether it’s to communicate pain, mischief, betrayal, the guilt or the internal sheepishness. I wanted to know what his eyes looked like in each and every scene of the film. And if you notice, with Aamir, he can contort the rest of his face to amplify the expression in his eyes.

As far as Aamir’s involvement in the film was concerned, by now, he had begun to take the approach where he would be clued into all major decisions around the film. Being the star in the film, he obviously held more sway than Vikram Bhatt or me. Even Mukesh (Bhatt) worried about keeping his star happy, so if Aamir agreed on something, it would be given the go-ahead. But me being me, the argumentative Indian, I would debate choices with Aamir – and even he would battle fiercely for his own convictions. There would be days when our arguments would carry over to the next day, and we would agree to sleep on it. The next day, one of us would concede. These were all constructive arguments, there was no acrimony between us. Barring once or twice he never pulled rank on me. He was confident and secure. Aamir has usually been keen on the script, and his involvement has been pretty deep.

The Climax 

In my version of the climax, I’d set up this bag with Rs. 95 lakh, which he’s supposed to hand over to a politician. In that bag, there’s also a gun. After getting beaten up, Ronnie runs to his office to get the gun from this bag. He’s so enraged that he wants to shoot Aamir’s character from the balcony of his office. What Aamir does in the meantime is he gets into a bulldozer, and drives towards Ronnie’s office, wanting to knock down this structure of oppression. Now, this structure is built like a fort, which was inspired by the Shiv Sena shakhas. At the gate of Ronnie’s office, there are two metal figures with spears pointing upwards.

Aamir Khan as Siddharth Marathe
Aamir Khan as Siddharth Marathe

So Ronnie is about to shoot Siddhu, who is in the bulldozer, but there’s this mute kid with a catapult, who takes a shot at Ronnie’s eye. The entire structure is shaking by this time, and Ronnie falls from the balcony onto the spear. He’s killed by the very symbol of his power. And the bag in his hand flies open, which rains currency down on the entire locality. 

Everyone thought it was too ‘intellectual’, so they made changes and didn’t tell me until later.  … According to them, it worked. When I went and saw it, I thought it was too long and violent for no reason. They shortened it, but it still felt long to me. Ultimately, all my social commentary was condensed to opening the shutter of a shop.

What’s aged the worst?

I really hated Rani’s dubbed voice (by Mona Shetty). I was unhappy with it. And there are two things in that: One is the voice, and the other is the intonation. I think the voice isn’t great, but there’s a shrillness in the intonation that made it even worse.

I’m so sorry about ‘Sexy Dixie’ [an effeminate biker, played by Bobby Sainy]. This is very embarrassing. It was a childish, nonsensical, infantile choice on my part. And to make fun of a character in a campy, caricatured way — I’m really sorry. In fact, after this film was released, a dear friend of mine – who teaches in America and belongs to the queer community – she came down to India. She said she wanted to watch the film, and I was a bit sheepish about it. But anyway, I went and watched the film with her, and she pointed out that there was no need for that character. She liked the film overall, but she told me not to sweat it too much. I felt really bad because I’d realised on the day of the preview itself that I’d made a terrible choice.

The reviews come in 

It was terrible, everyone seemed to have hated it. … Most of the reviews trashed it. That bothered me, and I have to admit I was really hurt by the reviews. It almost felt like a predetermined attack on the film. No review found anything ‘good’ in the film, which felt strange. 

I felt I was slashed, so I automatically distanced myself from ‘critical acclaim’ in subsequent films. A lot of my friends called me after reading the reviews in the morning. Govind (Nihalani) was the first one to call – he told me not to take it to heart. Vinay Shukla called, Baba Azmi called and Aamir Khan himself called. He told me not to take it very seriously.

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