I'm not sure what it says about the Hindi film industry, but as far as politics is concerned, the mainstream fiction produced at the turn of the century reflects – and critiques – the reality of today's India far more than the pro-establishment 'masala' cinema of today does. Only recently, we remembered Shah Rukh Khan's first home production, Phil Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000), for prophetically examining the role of the media in communally sensitive times. One of the key scenes of Shankar's Nayak: The Real Hero (2001) featured a corrupt Chief Minister (Amrish Puri) of a State instructing the police chief to let mobbers run amok during a citywide riot ("let some houses and people burn") a year before the Gujarat riots (2002) and CM Narendra Modi's alleged role in them.
In that sense, they don't make cop movies like Rajkumar Santoshi's Khakee (2003) anymore. Sure, it was an enjoyable and campy road thriller with an Abbas-Mustan-style twist at the end, but Khakee feels all the more significant in 2020. Unlike the modern Bollywood cop film, much of its entertainment value is derived not from a narrow jab at local goons/rapists/gangsters (the Rohit Shetty cop universe), but from a broader jab at the entire system – and by extension, the establishment – itself. And, most importantly, it doesn't spare the police force either. Instead of suggesting that there are always some bad apples in a clean basket, Khakee is in fact about an embattled group of good apples in a rotten basket. Amitabh Bachchan, a DCP, leads a righteous squad – of angel (Tushar Kapoor), devil (Akshay Kumar) and two constables (D. Santosh, Kamlesh Sawant) – tasked with the dangerous mission of transporting a terrorist (Atul Kulkarni, doing a Paresh Rawal from Phir Bhi Dil…) to a court trial in Mumbai. On their tail is a chain-smoking villain in dark glasses. The face of the enemy belongs to an ex-cop-turned-baddie (Ajay Devgan), but it is soon revealed that the enemy himself is a murderous minister (Sabyasachi Chakrabarty, somewhat resembles Mohan Agashe, who played a similar character in Rang De Basanti) who wants the prisoner dead before they reach Mumbai.
It's easy to appreciate the cleverness of the craft. For instance, the writing (by Sridhar Raghavan and Santoshi) is such that it exploits our perception of the random romantic track in Bollywood action movies. For much of Khakee, Aishwarya Rai's green-blue-eyed character Mahalakshmi is treated like most heroines in a multi-starring hero movie – as an attractive passenger, with the men deciding to take her along as part of an impromptu witness-protection program. Of course Akshay Kumar's Shekhar falls for her, but she's rarely more than a liability in some sticky shootout situations. The abrupt love songs between them – as catchy as they are – only exist to sell albums. I remember being shocked in the cinema hall when Mahalakshmi is revealed to be the villainous mole all along. This was partly due to the fact that the average Indian viewer was, at least back then, conditioned to comprehend female presence in an all-male journey as a genre-breaking and dispensable breather. Yet, here she was, turning our own gaze against us, with a twist that likely served as an audition for Rai's identically deceptive role in The Pink Panther 2.
Then there's the way cellphones – a relatively new (narrative) device in 2003 – elevate the excitement of the plot: Only the DCP has one during the trip, which helps isolate the group from the outside world. With the onslaught of technology today, such a bareboned plot is impossible to write. Some of the shots, too, are striking: In the pre-title sequence, a policeman tries to shield an attack on the terrorist, getting bulleted down in front of a steel shutter that is stylishly punched with bullet holes. Later on, a glass window reflects half the cop's face (Akshay Kumar) and half the killer's (Devgan) during a combat sequence – a visual riff on how Kumar's character was already half-bad before he decided to redeem himself. The characterization is smart, too: Bachchan's asthma is more or less a metaphor for his own system squeezing him, with the mission becoming his inhaler.
It's more rewarding, however, to appreciate the cleverness of the craft in terms of the film's social voice. For example, the "terrorist" is actually a (Muslim) doctor who is framed by the police after he tries to help a journalist expose the minister. His demonization is orchestrated by a government who wants to eliminate all proof of its misdoings. For those familiar with the arrest of former IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt, this plot point is not nearly fictional enough. Moreover, the booming Amitabh Bachchan monologue is weaponized to great effect in Khakee: DCP Anant Srivastava single-handedly (more like single-mouthedly) converts evil cops, chastises crowds and silences the villains with his perfectly timed speeches. One of them, directed at a rampaging Hindu mob (wearing Nehru caps), goes along the lines of "I feel sorry for you all, always getting misled by politicians, coming to kill with swords while your own houses get burnt". The words ring loud and clear, even more so because they come from a superstar rarely known to register political dissent. Which brings me to the other famous faces of the film. Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn, the modern messiahs of pro-establishment cinema, play non-hero parts in a story about an administration that has compromised the honour of the Khakee uniform. The irony is more than cosmetic. Far from nationalistic one-man armies, they were merely two actors prepared to embrace grey shades in order to meet their filmmaker's vision.
Closing the film with the most idealistic cop (Tushar Kapoor) staging an encounter to finish off the baddie is reminiscent of the climax of Nayak – happy, but also tragic, given that the noblest character resorts to emulating the system he wants to reform. If anything, there's still time for Khakee to be made mandatory viewing at police academies across the country. Maybe even film schools. As I said, they don't make anti-cop cop movies like Khakee anymore.