I can’t decide which of two scenarios is more likely. Did Khud-Daar spring from an excellent script that the exigencies of execution happened to garble? Or was the whole project an inherently shaggy mess that, though some sort of gambler’s fallacy, happened more often than not to strike gold? One scene might be taut, emotionally and socially intelligent, well-acted; in the next, characters are referring with unshakeable confidence to events never intimated to have happened or, what’s worse, Mehmood is running around comedically selling bananas. One’s mileage is going to vary widely with this one. In my case, although I do not feel called upon to watch it twice, I am glad I saw it the once. The family drama at the very center point of the narrative is what lands most effectively. The unpolished detritus at the outer edges, while weird, is not infrequently delightful. There are also beautiful views of period Bombay and some well-executed car stunts. Directed by Ravi Tandon from a screenplay by Kader Khan, Khud-Daar was produced by Anwar Ali and F. K. Rattonsey for the intriguingly named Yokohama Productions.
Law student Hari (Sanjeev Kumar) believes his foremost responsibility is caring for his much-younger stepsiblings Govind and Rajesh. Indeed, Hari pays the children such preferential attention that it inflames the jealousy of his new bride Seema (Tanuja). While Hari is busy sitting the bar exam, Seema loads the kiddoes onto the next train for Bombay Central; she will later claim that they themselves took the initiative to run away. After a rapid overview of the possible fates that await filmi children set loose in the city, Govind and Rajesh fall under the good-natured guardianship of Rahim Chacha (A. K. Hangal), growing up alongside his own endearingly cute children Farida and Anwar. In adulthood, Govind (having now become Amitabh Bachchan) puts Rajesh (ditto Vinod Mehra) through school by driving a literally marvelous taxi. This car—a 1963 Fiat 1100 Super Select, as the internet informs me—is named “Basanti,” has a moral center occasionally at odds from Govind’s sanctimonious own, and can detect both smuggled goods and ill intentions. Insecure Rajesh fibs to his classmates that, if they’ve never run into his brother at a college function, that’s just because he’s constantly off abroad doing fancy businessman things. Although this deception will unravel before he manages to graduate, classmate Manju (Bindiya Goswami) is sufficiently sweet on Rajesh to stick with him—white lies and poor background notwithstanding. She can afford to overlook their differences, says Raju, only because she enjoys the security of a well-to-do family; “let me become wealthy, too, and then I’ll see what’s more important.” So he marries her, and does.
Oh, and also: Anwar is working for Manju’s father’s trucking company, and Hari has become a respected public prosecutor, and Parveen Babi wanders spasmodically in and out of the movie, and Manju’s uncle is played by Prem Chopra so you just know he’s going to be trouble. These are among the shaggy bits.
Despite the spindly disjunction of this film’s plot mechanics, its themes remain closely defined. As soon as Govind and Rajesh are on their own, the elder brother’s idiosyncratic understanding of personal and communal pride is what guides their forward course. Govind is more self-respecting than he is sensible. He insists on working for his keep while Rahim Chacha thinks he’s much too young. Anyone who doesn’t earns his categorical disgust, whether it’s the kingpin of a cocaine smuggling operation or poor little Mary (Parveen Babi’s character), who squeaks by cooking bathtub moonshine. The early scenes in which Govind and Rajesh are still under Hari’s care suggest some part of the problem is the transplantation of a middle-class ethos to a lower-class existence. (In the family song—yes, this is a film with a family song in it—Hari sings a verse deriding laziness while bicycling past a napping beggar.) Having such a tetchy sense of honor leaves Govind open to manipulation; all anyone needs to do to get rid of him is insinuate he might be after a free lunch. While Rajesh and Manju’s wedding is being negotiated, her family come to Rahim Chacha’s house, drink the tea Govind serves them, and then suggest that the couple might be more comfortable settling at the maternal home instead of here. Having moments ago been proud to offer them hospitality as equals, Govind snaps bitterly back; the prospect of Rajesh being a “live-in” son-in-law, no matter how convenient for all parties, could be nothing else but a choking shame.
Although calculated along different metrics, Rajesh has his own tender sense of pride; otherwise, he would have no reason to obscure his background from his classmates. It’s not the poverty that seems to make him self-conscious, but some less material sense of class intimated through knowledge and behavior. Rahim Chacha and Rajesh get along like hand in glove; despite having spent his life as a construction worker, the former bears himself confidently around genteel people. Yet having lowbrow Govind turn up at a Western-style college play, booing and vah-ing like it’s the neighborhood Ramlila, projects Rajesh into nearly paralytic humiliation. There is a massive gulf of sensibility between them, of a character that is believable despite them having grown up alongside one another. One particularly astute moment is when Rajesh announces a “surprise” to Govind. Govind’s line of work has understandably taught him the English words “sir” and “price”; learning that “surprise” means something unrelated to either leaves him feeling almost cheated.
When viewed next to this thoughtful thematic exploration, many other elements of Khud-Daar look oddly half-executed. It seems like the film was probably intended to say something about interreligious relationships. Rahim Chacha lets the Hindu foster children install a murti in his house; after Mary turns up in Govind’s neighborhood during Krishna Janmashtami, she invites him to a Christian festival in turn.1 Developed sporadically and without a consistent sense of trajectory, these details blur into undemanding background noise. The dropped stitches are usually agreeable enough for whatever brief while they are in play. Little Rajesh has some sort of leg ailment for no more compelling reason than that Tiny Tim Syndrome is endemic to the masala populace; this affliction is introduced in one scene, cured in the next, and only alluded to one further time. Fleeting as it is, this detail facilitates one glorious visual transition: as child Rajesh spins and spins around Rahim Chacha’s courtyard, funky music starts to play and we meet the grown-up Rajesh legs-first, jiving for all he’s worth.
At least by my lights, Vinod Mehra was the standout performer of this ensemble. He so often plays goody-goody-two-shoes parts; it was interesting to watch what he could do with Rajesh, who, while sympathetic enough, is also a moral lightweight. The character is led in interesting directions and his tendency toward being dumbstruck offers Mehra the opportunity for some impressive face-acting. On the other hand, my beloved Tanuja is nearly completely wasted. While Seema might reasonably resent her baby brothers-in-law and Hari’s preoccupation with them—particularly in the context during which they first encounter one another—the severity of her response does not feel earned. The influence of catty girlfriends and her own villainous voiceovers did nothing to convince me. Less forgivably: her character isn’t even fun. I will also nod to Hungama, that cute fat character actor who, poor fellow, is so charismatic despite only ever being the butt of a joke.
Although much of the background score and diegetic music are fetching, the songs themselves do no great credit to Rajesh Roshan. By far the best—and, I am informed, the most popular—is the Janmashtami song “Mach Gaya Shor.” Besides having a lovely melody, there is a thrilling dynamism to the picturization. At one point, we watch the action from through a shop window, as though the energy of the festival crowd has stretched the seams of this narrow street to bursting, leaving no place for an onlooker to stand. Despite myself, I found the goodnatured tour of regional stereotypes in “Angrezi Main Kehte Hain Ke ‘I Love You’” cute—even if the instrumental break is nicked from, of all things, “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More.” By far, though, the song that provoked the most contemplation from me was “Disco ’82” (to which Rajesh dances in the appropriately named Club-N-Disco ’82). I am eternally fascinated by disco-style songs in Bollywood movies, which not only look and sound different than their U.S. equivalents but which seem to embody a radically different network of meanings. Besides learning that the genre had been semi-officially demolished by Steve Dahl all the way back in 1979, the pop music history survey I was obligated to take during undergrad taught me three defining characteristics of disco:
- Disco contrasts a four-on-the-floor drumbeat with a syncopated bassline.
- The instrumental accompaniments are lush and timbrally varied, often highlighting bowed strings in contrast to the brassier orchestration of contemporaneous funk.
- Finally, disco songs tend to have what my textbook referred to as “insipid, repetitive lyrics.”
In all of these categories–but especially the last–“Disco ’82” is the nearest kin to an American-style disco song that I have ever encountered in a Hindi film. “Main ek disco; tu ek disco; duniya hai ek disco. Disco ’82!”
1 For love or money I could not tell you the religious significance of whatever is happening at her house—but they’ve put fairy lights on the church, so filmi logic dictates it must be Christian. Elsewhere she says, “Mera naam ‘Mary’ hai. Aur Mother Mary ki qasam, main tera khoon piungi!”