A Case For Rajkumar Santoshi, An Overlooked Filmmaker

Some filmmakers get recognised in their lifetime and some have to wait a little longer. One hopes that the latter fate doesn’t befall Rajkumar Santoshi.
A Case For Rajkumar Santoshi, An Overlooked Filmmaker

Some filmmakers get recognised in their lifetime and some have to wait a little longer. One hopes that the latter fate doesn't befall Rajkumar Santoshi, a filmmaker who's delivered several high-quality films over the years that are perhaps not as well-recognised as they should be. One would be remiss to not state from the outset that this write-up is not biographical in nature, so one shouldn't expect to come out the other side knowing all there is to know about Rajkumar Santhoshi the man. One might, however, emerge on the other side with a greater appreciation for Rajkumar Santoshi the filmmaker. This write-up is more of a discussion of some of his films that one believes should be on the list of "must-watch Indian films".

What is immediately apparent as one starts to watch Santoshi's films is that they all tend to be extremely energetic in nature. His storytelling, barring a few passages of meandering, commercially-motivated diversions, always has a sense of urgency about it. So in keeping with the nature of his films, we'll get right down to business.

Ghayal (1990)

Ghayal was Santoshi's debut film as director and what an electrifying debut it was. The film is remembered more as a Sunny Deol vehicle but what a lot of people don't realise is that Ghayal was arguably the first film that gave Sunny Deol's larger-than-life, herculean persona a plausible raison d'être. Sunny Deol's Ajay Mehra starts off as an aspiring, if slightly naïve, boxer, who must then navigate the dark underbelly of society to investigate and subsequently avenge his brother's death.

Although the film starts slowly, the aforementioned energy that is seen in most of Santoshi's work is present here as well. The film barrels through its scenes with great urgency. It proceeds headlong towards a cathartic climax that, seen in isolation, might seem outrageous to the casual viewer, but follow the story from its inception and you will be vindicated by the outcome. The story is told so engagingly that when Sunny Deol's character grabs Amrishi Puri's Balwant Rai in an unlikely chokehold and doesn't let go even as policemen upon policemen try in vain to pry his arms open, you nod in cathartic empathy. No other Sunny Deol film before this one was able to make us believe that Sunny Deol could be one of us. His earlier films, barring a few exceptions here and there, presented him as a god-like entity, whereas Ghayal finally humanised him.

There's another little titbit about this film. Some people might believe that 2016's Udta Punjab was the first Hindi film to tackle the issue of illegal drugs on screen. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, as Ghayal, made some twenty-five years earlier, was also set against the same backdrop.

Damini (1993)

Like Ghayal, Damini is also a film whose themes predate a more recent film by several decades. Champions of the film Pink were elated when a film of such strong feminist convictions finally hit our screens in 2016. Not to take anything away from Pink, but Rajkumar Santoshi was once more already on the same beat some two-and-a-half decades earlier.

Damini saw Santoshi reuniting with Sunny Deol and Meenakshi Seshadri, and taking on yet another social evil, this time the oppression of women. Like Pink, large portions of the film take place in a courtroom and employ the character of a disgruntled lawyer to take us through the proceedings. Sunny Deol's performance as the tortured lawyer Govind is legendary, of course, with his courtroom speeches having become some of the most celebrated in history and sometimes even unfairly ridiculed. He was famously given the National Award that year for playing a character that was only present in the last 40% of the film, but it was an accolade well-deserved. That is not the say that the other 60% of the film suffers from his absence, however, for another thing about Santoshi's films is that he tries to give all his characters and actors equal opportunities to shine. Meenakshi Seshadri, for example, as the eponymous Damini, is riveting and keeps the audience empathetic to her plight throughout. Although Sunny Deol's blustering "tareekh par tareekh" speech has always been the most talked about part of the film, Seshadari's soliloquy that follows it directly is equally poignant and penetrating. Rishi Kapoor, playing Damini's flustered husband, is also given a considerable amount of meat to chew on. Kapoor never struck a false note in his entire career and he doesn't falter here either. Most of the other actors are also given well-rounded characters.

On top of that, the film will give you much to think about, even some thirty-odd years after its release as of the writing of this piece. And that's the real achievement of this film.

Andaz Apna Apna (1994)

There is little that can be said here that would add to the already legendary status of this film. I'll say this, however: it is often said that the Mahabharata contains parallels and analogies for every situation that one might encounter in life. I'll add a little postscript to the saying (and most people who grew up watching this film would vouch for its veracity): Andaz Apna Apna also contains parallels and analogies for every situation that one might encounter in life. There are lines one finds oneself using unconsciously that come straight from the film, there are times when one calls upon the wisdom of characters like Amar and Prem and Bhalla and Teja and Anand Akela to guide one through sticky situations, and there are times when one chuckles at how closely and how often real life imitates the screenplay of this film.

Something that is not often talked about in relation to this film, however, is its soundtrack. Perhaps, the other elements of this film are so enthralling that one often forgets what a distinct soundtrack this film had. The music was by Tushar Bhatia, a composer who never quite found a foothold in the Hindi film industry. Bhatia was interested in trying something a little different from what his contemporaries were doing. Not many people know that he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of both Indian and Western music and has composed several jingles for ad films. The soundtrack of this film is a testament to his passion and talent. And the lyrics by the legendary Majrooh Sultanpuri really add a distinct and soulful flavour to the soundtrack. One wishes Bhatia and Sultanpuri's melodious soundtrack had found more takers with time, just like the film itself. Alas, that was not to be.

Ghatak (1996)

Ghatak is a harrowing and powerful film that tackles many complex issues sensitively and evenly, albeit inside the confines of the commercial space. While the film eventually takes the side of its defiant protagonist, the arguments made by the oppressed shopkeepers are equally compelling. One understands their plight and helplessness even as one roots for Sunny Deol's belligerent Kashi Nath to emerge triumphant.

Ghatak once again stars Sunny Deol in one of his more respected and memorable performances. Once again, however, the film belongs more to the ensemble cast as a whole than it does to any one individual actor. This time Amrish Puri gives one of the best performances of his career and his relationship with Sunny Deol's Kashi is both touching and heartbreaking. The scene where he realises he's dying is easily one of the greatest moments ever put on film. Meenakshi Seshadri has less to do this time and is used mainly to add commercial appeal to the film, but she has her moments. Another thing that is in keeping with the commercial appeal is the film's main antagonist, played frighteningly well by the redoubtable Danny Denzongpa. Although his get-up is quite comical, as was the norm back in the nineties for villains, his actual performance is the stuff of nightmares. And, once more, several supporting characters are given compelling arcs. Tinnu Anand's arc in particular is very interesting, as is the journey of Harish Patel's character, a hapless flunky thirsting for revenge for the untimely death of his sister, the villain's wife.

Ghatak contains numerous memorable scenes and should be required viewing for those who wish to understand Hindi cinema's history a little better. It is a film that is steeped in drama and seething with anger.

China Gate (1998)

This entry might be a little controversial. At the time of its release, China Gate was said to be one of the most expensive Hindi films ever made. It was unable to recuperate its costs, however, and, like Andaz Apna Apna before it, proved to be a box office disappointment. However, unlike Andaz Apna Apna, China Gate never gained a cult following and as such remains an obscure film to this day. The only thing that is remembered about this film is the song "Chamma Chamma", which is a pity since the film is all kinds of entertaining if you're willing to give it a chance.

As mentioned previously, Santoshi enjoys creating compelling supporting characters and China Gate is no different in that respect. In fact, this film is largely made up of supporting characters, who all get their moment to shine at different points in the film. Perhaps what backfired this time around for Santoshi was the fact that the audience didn't have any identifiable "hero" to root for. The film nonetheless is engrossing as a whole, with great performances all around by a talented cast. And in keeping with Santoshi's penchant for dealing with complex issues, China Gate once more presents a moral conundrum to the audience and tackles it from as many different angles as possible. The issue of following military orders in the face of contrary evidence is what forms the crux of the story. The larger issue of personal honour is then explored as the film strides towards its gory climax.

One thing that might be said about China Gate is that its pacing is not as rapid as Santoshi's other films, and maybe that's why it suffered at the box office. But, overall, this is a film of very high quality and every self-respecting cinephile should watch it at least once. 

The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002)

As many as six films on the life of Bhagat Singh were announced at the start of the millennium. Out of these, only four ever saw the light of day and nearly all of them proved to be financial and/or critical disappointments. The only film that enjoyed both commercial and critical success was Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's Rang De Basanti. Rajkumar Santoshi's The Legend of Bhagat Singh, on the other hand, enjoyed critical acclaim but was unable to light the box office on fire. The film is a tour de force, nonetheless. It is arguably the best film ever made on the subject, with the possible exception of the Manoj Kumar-starrer Shaheed. And there are several reasons for that. For one, it contains a rousing soundtrack by A.R. Rahman, who managed to "out-Bollywood" even the most exalted of Bollywood composers with a stirring soundtrack. The songs in this film are the stuff of legend. And then it contains possibly the best Ajay Devgn performance of all time. He is simply electrifying in the film. And once more Santoshi gives us a great and memorable supporting cast. Sushant Singh and D Santosh play the roles of Sukhdev and Rajguru respectively with great élan. Raj Babbar shines as Bhagat Singh's despairing father, as does Mukesh Tiwari, who plays Bhagat Singh's jailor. His scenes with Ajay Devgn are exhilarating and the scene where he is given orders to shift Bhagat Singh's execution date is heartrending to say the least.

The Legend of Bhagat Singh is a good showcase for Santoshi's energetic style. The film clatters through its story at breakneck speed and almost literally crashes into its gut-wrenching climax. And when watched with a receptive audience, the silence that follows the fade to black is so heavy that one is literally afraid to swallow the lump that has formed in one's throat.

Khakee (2004)

Khakee is another fiery film by Santoshi. Like most of his other films listed here, it deals with weighty themes and is filled with a great cast of characters. Khakee is also one of the few Hindi films that don't treat cops as caricatures or superheroes. Instead, it gives them rich and detailed lives. The cops shown in the film have their own dreams and aspirations, and Santoshi gives them all enough screen time to come into their own. We sympathise with Amitabh Bachchan's character when he laments having lived a life crippled by bureaucratic apathy, we root for Tusshar Kapoor's starry-eyed rookie as he slowly learns that the world isn't made up of black and white truths, and we laugh along with Akshay Kumar's acerbic Shekhar as he makes light of every situation he finds himself in. Santoshi gives an especially poignant arc to the character of Constable Kamlesh Sawant (coincidentally played by an actor called Kamlesh Sawant). The scene where his wife, played by Ashwini Kalsekar with heartbreaking poise, receives the awful news about his fate would move a stone to tears.

Like the best of Santoshi's films, Khakee is filled with unforgettable scenes and sequences. Chief among these is the equal parts thrilling and harrowing sequence at a lodge, where things take so many twists and turns that by the end of it you feel as if you've been in a violent firefight yourself. All in all, Khakee is commercial cinema done right.

Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani (2009)

If one said that Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani fails to reach the heights of Andaz Apna Apna, one would be well within one's rights. However, it is also important to remember that Andaz Apna Apna has set the bar so high that it is doubtful that anyone, including Santoshi himself, would ever be able to top it. So having got that out of the way, let's try to look at the film on its own merits. And having done that, one would be remiss to not admit that the film has its moments. Some scenes and passages in particular will cause you to break into fits of laughter. Add to that, Ranbir Kapoor is fabulous in the film as the well-meaning Prem. Katrina Kaif also shines as the lovesick Jenny and the chemistry between the leads is crackling to say the least. Uncharacteristically for a Santoshi film, however, the other characters don't have as much to do and the themes aren't that serious.

In the wake of more recent and far more violent films, one-sided love has lost much of its perceived innocuousness. However, Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani nonetheless remains a sweet little ode to it.

In closing, it would perhaps be correct to say that Rajkumar Santoshi hasn't made an impactful film in a while. However, one takes heart at the fact that he is still active and has a slew of films lined up for release. Even if his new films don't measure up he's still made enough ones of note for his name to go down in the annals of history without reservation. Finally, please note that if your favourite Rajkumar Santoshi film didn't make the cut, rest assured it's not an indictment of the film, only of the writer of this piece.

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