What happens when a masala film starts appearing to be reasonable and logical - and not in a masala sense, either? Does it mean it’s time to get a thorough mental check-up? Or does it mean that the film really is as logical and reasonable as a film can be, without breaking any major masala laws (except for having Rakhee play a dacoit in a film that stars Vinod Khanna!)? Here, let me convince you that my sanity is not really under threat!
Thakur Shakti Singh (Vinod Khanna) is peacefully riding his motorbike through the fields when he happens upon a police-dacoit confrontation. He jumps in, bike first, and helps the police nab dacoit Bhavani Singh (Pran). The police is appropriately grateful, but Bhavani vows to get even. Shakti, true to his name (shakti = strength), remains unfazed by Bhavani’s threat of vengeance. He goes on to argue with the Inspector General (Kamal Kapoor)’s daughter - Ambika (Parveen Babi) - that she must give up her prejudice against marrying police officers. Considering that Shakti himself is about to join the force, Ambika naturally puts aside her prejudices.
Back at home, his stepmom (Nadira) and her cohorts have an entirely different plans for him. She wants him to marry a girl who will bring them a lot of dowry, and then she hopes that Shakti will obligingly die, leaving her and her son all the dowry and all his vast wealth. But the best laid plans of mice and men have a way of going terribly astray - as they do now.
Before he joins the force, Shakti decides to go hunting one last time. On his way, he is attracted by the sound of a woman singing in the jungle, and follows the song. He discovers that the singer is a lovely young woman (Rakhee), and his fate is pretty much sealed! She discovers him listening to her impromptu concert and runs away in confusion. Naturally, they’re fated to meet again. That evening, at the guest house, Shakti discovers that she is Devi, the guest house watchman, Baba’s (Bharat Bhushan) adopted daughter. He is amused to overhear her pithy comments on Thakurs in general and hunting Thakurs in particular.
Devi is amazed to find out that this Thakur is a teetotaller and perfectly happy to eat vegetarian food, instead of the fried chicken she’s usually called upon to make. And once he promises to eschew hunting, her capitulation to his manly charms is complete. The two get married without much ado, and go home to Shakti’s family who are decidedly displeased by the news. Plus, poor Ambika is heartbroken. She does have my sympathies. Having talked her out of her prejudice against marrying a police-officer, the least Shakti could’ve done is to provide her with one!
Back to Shakti’s family. They make it clear that they’re not happy with his hasty marriage, but Shakti refuses to let them get away with it. Devi is his wife, he loves her, and they’d better accept it! They do accept it overtly, but make poor Devi’s life miserable behind his back. Shakti’s younger half-brother, Deepu, makes passes at her and she is too uncertain and ashamed to tell Shakti. Matters come to a head when Shakti has to leave for a few days on official business. She tries to tell him what has been going on, asking him not to leave. But he re-assures her that he will take care of it once he returns, and his family won’t harm her in the meantime. Hah! He has clearly not seen many films!!
The moment Shakti leaves, Deepu locks up his Mom in her room. Then he, his cousin and two friends get started on some serious sexual assault on poor Devi. Just as I was getting ready to use the fast forward button to avoid watching an 80s rape scene, I realised that things weren’t going that way. Devi spiritedly defends herself, managing to wound three of her attackers, and then escapes from the house. In the fight, a fire was started, and after Devi’s escape, the house burns down, killing Shakti’s stepmom and Devi’s wounded attackers. A traumatised Devi runs and runs till she can run no more. She finds herself in a Durga temple where she faints in the arms of a sympathetic man - Daaku Bhavani Singh!
Bhavani takes Devi to his daaku-hideout to recover. Once she regains consciousness, Devi tells the sympathetic dacoits about her traumatic experience, and then begs leave to return home. Bhavani’s lieutenant, Sher Singh (Bharat Kapoor), warns him that this is not a good idea. Not only is she likely to betray their hide-out to the police, she is actually married to Bhavani’s arch-enemy! But Bhavani has adopted Devi as his behen and fraternal ties are far above ties of blood-shed. So he un-vows his revenge and Devi is escorted back to Shakti.
This is where I get my second surprise. Shakti does not go all masala, talking about his duty or accusing her of killing his Maa. He is only upset that by not surrendering to the police immediately after the incident, she has weakened her chances of pleading self-defence! To keep the masala tradition alive, he does arrest her, but promises to help her defence. There are further surprises in store for me. The murder trial begins with the prosecution opening the case and presenting witnesses that the defence then duly cross-examines. I can hardly believe my eyes. An almost “real” criminal trial?! Clearly this movie will NOT get it’s masala license.
The prosecution brings on their two star witnesses - Shakti’s stepmom’s brother and his son Rejeshwar - both of whom claim to be eye-witnesses. Rajeshwar was actually one of her attackers, and Devi is not prepared for his testimony. He claims to be a long-time lover of hers, and goes on to say that in her insatiable appetite for men, she made passes at Deepu and his two friends. When they resisted, she murdered them! His father also corroborates his testimony. The defence attorney points out the absurdity of four healthy males unable to defend themselves against one knife-wielding female. But Devi is horrified at the turn the trial is taking, and convinced that she will be found guilty after all. And she isn’t the only one. Bhavani, attending the trial in disguise, thinks so too. He grabs her as she comes out of court at the end of the day, and using a bomb to create confusion, manages to spirit her away. This time, Devi is convinced that there is no going back to lawful life for her, ever. Shakti though, is still defending her actions to his fellow police-officers and hoping that justice will prevail.
In full dasyu-sundari (dacoit beauty - term used for female bandits) mode, Devi rides out to take revenge against her surviving attacker. After dishooming him and punching him with the butt of her gun, she shoots him dead. With that murder, Devi confirms her outlaw status and Shakti finally recognises that his wife is now lost to him forever - either to the dacoits or to jail. So he takes to drinking, and not all Ambika’s entreaties will get him away from the bottle.
And then something even more dramatic happens. Devi is pregnant! We only find out when she is about to give birth and Bhavani is frantically trying to get a mid-wife to her. When that is not possible, he carries her to a neighbouring village and bullies an old man into giving Devi shelter while he goes to fetch a midwife. The old man is none other than Devi’s Baba, her foster-father! Unfortunately, Baba does not see her face which is heavily veiled. He grabs the opportunity presented by Bhavani’s absence to call the police. By the time they arrive, Devi has delivered a baby boy and and the old man has realised that he’s summoned the police to capture his own Devi! Does he tell her that she’s smirched the family honour and that she is now dead to him? Amazingly enough, no! He is horrified that he may be handing Devi over to the police, and helps her and Bhavani escape by creating a diversion. In the process, he is shot and fatally wounded by a police bullet, but lives long enough to tell Shakti that he is now a proud Papa!
All this, and the movie is barely two thirds done. Which way will it go now? Will Rakhee get to do some more Bandit Queen stuff? What will happen to Shakti and Devi’s kid? Will we ever solve the mystery of Shakti’s resistance to
Parveen Babi Ambika’s charms? Will Pran sing-n-dance? A big YES to the last!
Apart from the fact that I found myself unable to predict where this film was going (it breaks so many masala conventions that I am amazed it managed to get a Censor certificate at all!), I was also surprised at how quiet and understated all the dramatics were. The acting was mostly restrained and the dialogues actually sounded like words that you and I might say (yes, that’s what happens when Rajinder Singh Bedi does the writing!). The characters were mostly sensible - as sensible as normal humans usually are - and nobody seems to falsely doubt anybody else. Shakti never wavers in his love and trust for his wife, and the two seem to communicate way better than any filmi couple has any right to! Best of all, while the film is not exactly a feminist vehicle, the women do get to have a voice and do things, AND nobody talks about Devi’s izzat! The only time she brings up izzat - her husband’s - he tells her that it was not sensible of her to uphold his honour at the cost of her safety!
This film reminds me a bit of Bimal Roy’s masala films - absurd stories presented in a fashion that makes them seem quite plausible! I’m just surprised that such a film came out of the 80s decade. It may not perhaps appeal to all you masala connoisseurs since it lacks all the zaniness of an over-the-top masala vehicle, but you might want to watch it for all the beautiful people and the cute Vinod-Rakhee romance.