Director: Maqbool Khan
Writers: Sima Agarwal and Yash Keswani
Cast: Ananya Panday, Ishaan Khatter, Jaideep Ahlawat
Cinematographer: Adil Afsar
Editor: Ejaz Shalkh
In the movies, masala is a maligned word. It's come to mean over-the-top melodrama, hammy acting, a plot on acid in which logic is loose, anything is possible and no questions can be asked because it's all in service of the holy grail – entertainment. With entertainment being defined in the lowbrow way that Silk meant it when she so memorably said in The Dirty Picture that a film only runs on three things – 'entertainment, entertainment, entertainment aur main entertainment hoon'.
But a good masala movie is so much more. In the hands of masters, masala means flamboyance, writing that showcases larger-than-life characters, actors who can project attitude without sacrificing emotion, patterns in plot that allude to a larger destiny, dialogue that works even without a context, songs that get under your skin. All of which produces a movie high or what we call the 'seeti' moment. Think of the delight of Agent Kabir's entry in War or Chulbul Pandey's dialogue about holes and farting in Dabangg or Singham arriving in Simmba to save the day. Now that's entertainment.
Khaali Peeli is essentially a 2.0 version of Sadak. Once again, a taxi driver rescues a young woman from a brothel, which is run by a dreaded villain
Khaali Peeli aspires to this. In interviews, co-producer Ali Abbas Zafar, who has directed masala blockbusters like Sultan and Tiger Zinda Hai, described Khaali Peeli as a "traditional Hindi film, a mainstream potboiler." But because it's 2020, we get self-aware masala. So in the first few minutes, the hero makes a slow-motion entry, feet first, smokes a cigarette with style and tells us, in voice-over, that his life is like a Bollywood masala film and only two things really matter – tashan and emotion. For the next two hours, we get plenty of tashan but little else.
Khaali Peeli is essentially a 2.0 version of Sadak. Once again, a taxi driver rescues a young woman from a brothel, which is run by a dreaded villain. To make the scenario more current, the woman has some agency. Pooja is a practical girl – she puts on sneakers before running away, picks up a gun when necessary and even participates in the climactic action. And the hero has shades of grey. Pooja's reluctant rescuer Blackie is in this more for the money than the cause. Blackie gets the name because he used to sell tickets in black when he was a boy. His real name is Vijay. Which of course was Amitabh Bachchan's name in some of the great mainstream Hindi movies – Zanjeer, Deewar, Trishul, Don. But you can't match that shine just by naming your hero Vijay. You also need to write him a story that matches the prowess of Salim-Javed.
The narrative goes back 10 years, then 35 minutes and then we're back in present time. This leap-frogging continues through the film but it doesn't add much vitality to the plot
Which is the singular failure of this film. Director Maqbool Khan and writers Sima Agarwal and Yash Keswani toss in the masala tropes – bachpan ka pyaar; the shot of the hero growing up as he flees from pursuers; flashy dialogue; the item song in which the hero and heroine are in disguise; the comic interlude, provided here by Satish Kaushik in a terrible wig; and the villain, who must be introduced with murder because how else will we know how deadly he is? It's all there, but without the emotional underpinning that binds these ingredients together. The characters of Pooja and Blackie aren't fleshed-out enough to make us care for them. The writers have substituted posturing for depth.
Which causes Ishaan Khatter to wear swagger like an armor but you can see the strain. The Bambaiya slang and the flashy lines like, 'Main toh paydashi filmy hoon' don't roll off with enough ease or ownership. The otherwise fine actor is in performative mode here. It's as if Amir, his character in his debut film Beyond the Clouds, who was also a slumdog, got a bad Bollywood makeover. Ananya Pandey is even less suited to the role of a feisty girl from Mumbai's notorious red-light district Kamathipura. She works hard but can't summon up the rawness or fire this role required. It's then up to Jaideep Ahlawat, playing the don Yusuf Chikna, to shore up the film and as usual, he delivers. In one scene, he's hurting a young boy – we don't see what his hands are doing but his expressions and the boy's tears are enough to convey the damage. There's also Swanand Kirkire playing one of Yusuf's clients. The man is a pervert but Swanand plays him like an unhinged Devdas. It's distinctly creepy, especially because it's being played as comedy.
The film tries to blend uncomfortable elements like this with Fast & Furious-style car chases and romance. Maqbool attempts to liven up the storytelling by jumping back and forth in time – so within the first fifteen minutes, the narrative goes back 10 years, then 35 minutes and then we're back in present time. This leap-frogging continues through the film but it doesn't add much vitality to the plot. Maqbool is a fan of top shots and mirrors. He designs a few thoughtful transitions. The use of locales and some chase sequences are impressive.
But despite his best efforts, Khaali Peeli doesn't become more than wannabe masala.
You can watch the film on Zee Plex.