Cop movies in Bollywood have often been reduced to glorification of the leading man – whether it was a regular cop singlehandedly fighting crime and criminals in the '70s (Shakti/Deewaar), or encounter specialists killing their way to a safer Mumbai (Ab Tak Chhappan/Garv), or, in recent years, corrupt cops finding their conscience and standing up for justice (Dabangg/Simmba). Simply for breaking out of this cycle of glorification, Khakee was as refreshing as a cop movie can get in India.
Police assignments are seldom as straightforward as popular movies tend to make them out to be. There are multiple stakeholders at each intersection and there tend to be more unknowns than knowns. Khakee gets this completely right. We start the movie with the tip of the iceberg and then the story slowly unravels. It's not until halfway into the second half that we know who the real antagonists are.
While Rajkumar Santoshi has several bigger movies to his credit – Andaz Apna Apna, Ghayal, Damini – Khakee outdid all of them by some distance for me. It is perhaps the timing of the movie that meant it didn't get its due. Released on January 23, 2004 (the box office was still riding the wave of Kal Ho Naa Ho and Munna Bhai MBBS) alongside Aetbaar (another Bachchan release that was also helped by the then in-demand duo of John Abraham and Bipasha Basu), it was perhaps playing against the odds.
A convoluted plot, a chase story, religious politics and the everyday struggles of police officers in India: Khakee combined all these elements into a delicious storyline that does not drag or run too fast in any scene. The dialogue was fantastic as well, crisp and to the point, not preachy yet memorable. I distinctly remember the pep talk that AB delivers to his team as they are departing for Chandangarh: "Woh kab ayenge humein nahi pata, par woh ayenge zaroor. Wo kitne honge humein nahi pata, par wo bahut saare honge ye pata hai." These are dialogues that really define the uncertainty and danger that our policemen deal with on a daily basis.
What made this movie engaging was the character detailing and performances. It's a testament to the director and the writers that in a stellar cast comprising stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn and Aishwarya Rai, even the two constables (played by Kamlesh Sawant and D Santosh) get their due and manage to leave their mark. It is no coincidence that when I saw Kamlesh Sawant as Gaitonde in Drishyam, I could immediately recall his character as a constable from Khakee.
The acting was top notch. Amitabh Bachchan was dependable as ever as senior officer Anant Kumar Srivastava, tasked with bringing a criminal to Mumbai from Chandangarh safely. Having discovered his second career not as a hero but as the hero's father, leading a team of young policemen was completely up his alley. Combining his experience of playing a cop during his angry young man days with his recent roles playing an older man, he hardly put a foot wrong. Akshay Kumar as Shekhar was in top form as well. Having recently discovered his comedic side in Hera Pheri, and with a reasonably long list of cop films in his filmography, he is perfect as the nihilistic corrupt cop who gains a conscience. Taking a bribe from a man in the morning right after spending the night with his wife, betting on their chances of returning alive from the mission, and pursuing a witness during a dangerous mission – the comedy scenes involving Akshay were pure gold. Tusshar Kapoor was sincere as a young enthusiastic cop discovering the holes of the system he has become a part of. The supporting cast was terrific as well. Prakash Raj, Atul Kulkarni and Sabyasachi Chakrabarty all play their parts with sincerity and do justice to their roles.
But the highlight of the cast for me were Ajay Devgn and Aishwarya Rai. While it wasn't the first time a leading man was playing the antagonist, it was still surprising every time it happened. Ajay Devgn plays the ex-cop turned criminal Angre with perfection, switching between humour and evil with ease. Aishwarya makes the most of her limited screen time as Mahalaxmi, but it was the twist at the end that makes it memorable for me. Perhaps it was my impressionable teenager mind, but I would rate her betrayal in my top 3 of all time (Kajol turning out to be the killer in Gupt and Naseeruddin Shah revealed as not blind in Mohra being the other two). Khakee has a special place in my heart.