Although I doubt I will rewatch Khel Khel Mein, I am glad that I stuck with it. It opens as an unfunny comedy; it later becomes a mystery that, while not particularly mysterious, is psychologically compelling. Individual moments, scenes, and songs—especially in that latter half—occasionally rise to the level of the transcendent. And if, like me, you are easily swayed by mid-’70s character actors or easily distracted by go-go boots, it should not take too much mental resolve to make it through the unpleasant bits. One warning is in order: this film features some stunt-casting. That fact is well enough known that I expect most readers of this blog, even without having seen Khel Khel Main, will know “who done it.” Should you happen to have made it forty-five years without being spoiled, avoid looking up the film on IMDB or the like; character names may give something important away. (The summary below does not.) Khel Khel Mein was directed by Ravi Tandon from a screenplay by Sachin Bhowmic and story by Shelly Shailender; Ravi Malhotra* produced it for R. M. Films.
Ajay (Rishi Kapoor) is a newcomer to the college where Nisha (Neetu Singh) and Vicky (Rakesh Roshan) are Cool Kids in residence. Both friends take a shine to him; eager to please them, nervy little Ajay is soon enmeshed in their friend group and its ongoing series of pranks and dares. He is equally quickly smitten with Nisha. Ajay can only muster the courage to deal directly with their relationship in brief, self-destructive bursts; not even the comparative emotional intelligence of former admirer/current wingwoman Urvashi (Priti Gangooly) avails much in getting them together. We are meant to understand that, despite their continual troublemaking, Nisha and Ajay are at heart good kids. Vicky has the capacity for serious wrongdoing; his girlfriend is named “Sheri” and played by Aruna Irani, for goodness’s sake! Therefore, when the kids overhear something unsavory about a shopkeeper (Jankidas) whose store is opposite their usual hang-out spot, it is Vicky who proposes turning that knowledge into money. He even knows the name of a local gang they could invoke. The others have misgivings, but all three ultimately reassemble at Nisha’s family’s place and use her typewriter to write up an extortion letter. Although the college they attend only passingly resembles any real-world educational institution, it is apparently not meant to be a secretarial school; designated typist Ajay misplaces zeros to the extent of Rs. 50,000 rather than the proposed amount of 500. Despite this mistake, the shopkeeper drops off the inflated amount as requested. Ajay, Nisha, and Vicky are busy squabbling over if and how to return the cash when they learn that their mark has been stabbed to death, the only clue in the hands of the police being a typed extortion note.
There are two things that prevent me from wholeheartedly enjoying Khel Khel Mein. In the first place, the titular theme of ragging and practical jokemaking does not compel. That may be due to my own lack of imagination; either pranking was not an established facet of student culture where I went to school, or nobody thought I was hip enough to be informed about it. Many and many a Hindi college film, on the other hand, presents ragging as an insidious problem. I presume the depiction has some basis in truth. I get the sense that the film is meant in part as a cautionary tale, an “issues” movie about an issue that seems pretty difficult to be caught up in. From my own limited perspective, it’s difficult to see the remotest hint of coolness in these kids tormenting their purported friends and smashing up the poor canteen guy’s furniture and smoking in the library (!); I had questionable enough tastes at eighteen, but I wouldn’t have thought they were cool then, either. In the second place, the screenplay is inattentive to detail. Despite the amount of screentime spent at the college, it never comes across as a functional institution. Poor Satyen Kappoo must be the most overworked professor in academe, since he seems to coach the field hockey team on top of lecturing on such diverse topics as literature, music, and religious history. Vicky doses somebody’s orange juice with whiskey, a plan that sounds literally unpalatable and that turns the orange juice (clearly visible in a transparent glass) an unnatural color; not only does this plan go undetected, it gets the victim fully sozzled within a couple of sips. Both of those details could feasibly be played as jokes, but they aren’t.
The aspects of the film that successfully made me laugh were mostly incidental touches independent of the half-baked script, like two students having a tickle-fight in the background of a scene or the ubiquitous Prof. Kappoo tapping out a tala against his lectern when the students interrupt his class with music. Similarly, the second half of Khel Khel Mein proves comparatively effective because its thrills live in the performances rather than the plot. This is not the type of mystery the viewer is meant to keep one mental step ahead of. Nisha and Ajay in the midst of that mystery make for compelling viewing as they squirm and panic and catastrophize. On several occasions, they evade discovery because interested parties assume the shopkeeper would have been under pressure from reasonable, well-considered, profit-minded blackmailers and not some idiot kids acting on a whim. Upon discovering that Vicky did not dispose of the payoff money as proposed, Ajay and Nisha’s brilliant plan is to yeet the wad of cash in the general direction of a police station! Indeed, many of their actions following the murder seem more authentically within the capacity of college-aged knuckleheads than those in the first half.
Individually and as a pair, Rishi and Neetu are this film’s saving grace. I very much doubt I would have weathered the first half without such magnetic leads to keep my eye fixed on the ridiculous goings-on. I am on the record as a stalwart Neetu fan, even when she’s given mere cyphers to play; Nisha, happily, is a dynamic character. Of the students, she starts from the most unsympathetic position and musters the most growing up. I am not typically as enthusiastic about Rishi, but Ajay is almost the platonic ideal of an early Rishi character: tentative, kiddish, conspicuously oblivious to the searchlight-esque charisma beaming blindingly off of him. A small army of favorite character actors round out the cast. It is often rewarding to watch what the background players get up to in the comedy scenes. Hari Shivdasani, Chand Usmani, and Kamal Kapoor were particularly welcome as various of the main trio’s parents; getting some sense of the students’ pre-collegiate existences helped me conceive of them as more holistic personalities, in Vicky’s case especially.
R. D. Burman’s soundtrack is not much to my taste—and is also sufficiently popular that I had grown to dislike most of the songs years before I got around to seeing the movie. Happily, the songs reward being seen in context. They are well-choreographed and most of them feature Nisha and Ajay cavorting adorably about. “Aaye Lo Pyar Ke Din Aaye” is one of the more musically pleasing selections. Aruna’s requisite item number, “Sapna Mera Toot Gaya,” was simply bizarre. Imagine being in the audience at that club, planning a pleasant night on the town, only for the chanteuse to declare that the show must go on while actively suffering a mental breakdown. She actively badgers individual members of the audience for their comparative luck in love. I think I would rather just enjoy my drink in silence! Or to the accompaniment of the synth-heavy pseudo-jazz background music, which is pretty rad.
Then there’s “Humne Tumko Dekha,” perhaps one of the most enticing songs ever put on film. It perfectly demonstrates the actors’ roles in “selling” a song and how much a thoughtful picturization, even when extremely simple, can add to a movie. The only version I’m finding on YouTube is out of focus and letterboxed half to death, but still demands urgent viewing if you, like me, had only ever heard the audio. Nisha hustles Ajay onto stage at the annual college function. “Ek minute,” she mouths while struggling to queue up the tape he’s supposed to be dancing to; people in the audience start to boo. From the opposite wing, though, he has divested himself of his stern jacket and returned bearing a non-plugged-in electric guitar and a scarf nearly twice as long as he is tall. (This is Shailendra Singh’s only appearance on the soundtrack, by the way; much though I like Kishore, who sings for Rishi in all the other songs, this is clearly the combination that g-d and nature intended.) After Ajay has collected a couple of other friends from the wings of the stage to join in the dance, Nisha is already preemptively shaking her head. Once he pulls her onto stage, too, the first thing she can come up with is awkward and strangely elaborate, as though she’s relying on the muscle memory of a different dance that she once did to a different song. Ajay applauds her cheerily. Finally, once Nisha’s self-consciousness is worn away, they catch each other’s eyes and one beat later jive. It’s glorious.
*Thanks to this unfortunate subtitle from Kaala Patthar, I braced myself to be terrified.