Ghulam (1998): All he needed was a chance

This is the film that made Rani Mukherji a household name. A good proportion of Ghulam (1998) is devoted to action, and the timing of this post is no coincidence, as we prepare for Aamir Khan's first all out action thriller and entertainer of the decade in Ghajini (all posts here), ten years after the release of this film. (Added an additional promo to the bottom of this post.)

Ghulam (the word means 'slave') is about relationships, therefore inherently about trust and respect. There's a lawyer Fatema Madam (the ever-dependable Mita Vasisht) who trusts Siddharth Marathe (Aamir Khan) will stop being a nuisance to society...

...and there's a a misguided and confused Siddharth who is reminded of his father (favorite filmi father, Dileep Tahil) every time he runs into a social worker who demands respect and equality, much to the dismay of his elder brother and gangster Jai (Rajit Kapoor).

Siddharth (a boxer) and Jai (an accountant) work for the evil Raunaq Singh (Sharat Saxena), a.k.a. Ronnie who, as the don of his community, is feared by almost everyone. But one event triggered by the social worker referred to above changes the dynamic of their organizational hierarchy, and an altercation between the two brothers, of which I would rather reveal nothing -- let their faces express it all -- takes the film into a brilliantly executed climax complete with retribution being afforded an opportunity.

There are several relationships that drive the film forward, and they are well-integrated throughout. One of the most significant is, of course, the one shared by Siddharth and Alisha (Rani Mukherji). Alisha belongs to a bikers club and hangs out with a bully named Charlie (Deepak Tijori). Charlie, however, cannot stand Siddharth, and leads us to the a scene that reminds us that no scene or film should risk a life.

The infamous and ridiculous 10:10 Ki Daud (Race at 10 past 10) scene (watch it here in its entirety -- you must to appreciate what this is about), which won the Best Scene of the Year Award at the Filmfare Awards the following year, comprised a stunt that Aamir did himself. From this intriguing 1998 India Today magazine article (which also discusses Aamir's appeal):

Aamir Khan lies mangled underneath a train, his 5-ft something frame crunched like a toothpick. All the boyish charm turned to blood. 1.3 seconds make these lines fiction. 1.3 seconds was all that remained when Aamir, attempting a dangerous stunt for the upcoming Ghulam, running toward a speeding train, calculating the time when it would hit him, decided it was close enough and jumped off the rails. "It was very foolish of me," he says. "But sometimes you get swayed by your feelings to achieve a great shot."

Foolish indeed, Aamir. But awe-inspiring nevertheless, and one that comforted us during two injuries sustained while filming for Ghajini, which reduced him to crutches and delayed the film by a couple of months (here he is discussing them). In Ghulam, it's only fitting that the signal to run toward the train is delivered by Rani. Their pairing is fantastic. From the scenes capturing their initial attraction... the bolder moments, this immediately followed by a lip lock.

As noted under 'S' in this post, I was in high school when Ghulam released, and I can tell you Rani's performance in this film was one of the most talked-about of the year. She successfully established herself as cute but sexy, and it certainly helped to have one of the most popular songs in the modern era, Aati Kya Khandala, leading people to see the film. (Khandala is a hill station and vacation spot in the state of Maharashtra.) The song is still extremely popular, and its lyrics (Nitin Raikwar, Sameer writes for the rest) still fondly remembered when 'Sun' (listen) is followed by 'Sunaa' (make me listen) are used in daily conversation! Here it is, with vocals by Aamir and Alka Yagnik:

Here is Bhuvan singing to entertain the crowd of over 10,000 while filming the greatest cricket match ever played in Lagaan (2001). Director Ashutosh Gowariker notes that the villagers' applause to the singing was integrated in the film. Much more in the documentary Chale Chalo (2007) included in the official Lagaan DVD set.

Aside: Speaking of Lagaan, here's honorable mention to Amin Haji who played the role of Bagha. In Ghulam, he is Black Tiger the boxer.

The Khandala song is hardly the only good one. Here are some other favorites:

  1. Ab Naam Mohabbat Ke (contains spoilers)
  2. Aankhon Se Tu Ne
  3. Jadu Hai Tera Hi Jadu

I think of #2 as a prequel to a song featuring Aamir and Kajol in Fanaa (2006). #3 is a sentimental favorite for reasons I'd rather not discuss in a public forum, but it is a great song regardless! =) My only quibble with it is that it takes Director Vikram Bhatt to follow an exceptional effort in that train scene with a song in which we are shown Aamir atop what is clearly a stationary motorbike -- that stuff belonged in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958), maybe filming on a real street wasn't as challenging? I see folks from Hollywood film scenes in vehicles what seems like every other Friday in Downtown L.A. alone! It's not that difficult, really.

That's okay, though, and not something I hold too much against the film. This frame is from the song Tujhko Kya, in which Aamir's voice Udit Narayan provides a song which is almost a sequel to the fun-filled Yaaron Sun Lo Zara in Rangeela (1995).

The classic from Howrah Bridge (1954), Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu, also makes an appearance. Here it is, sung by Aamir the bully (could not find a video with English subtitles):

Ghulam does have its flaws, the most glaring being that Rani's voice is dubbed (she does have a very sweet and atypical voice, and in hindsight, one misses that). And once the climax begins, it does become slightly predictable. But here is a film that, despite sticking to the conventional recipe, delivers in fine fashion while being engaging and entertaining. I'm going with close to four stars for a memorable film which warrants a viewing for the amazing chemistry between Aamir and Rani, and very effective performances by the supporting cast, if not for some fantastic action sequences. It's the intangibles that make it work very well.

Movie Rating: 3.75/5 (Very very good!)
Sarfarosh (1999) was a much better film overall, but if you liked it or Rangeela (1995), I think you will enjoy Ghulam, especially if there is a part of you that likes Aamir or Rani. Think of this as somewhere in the middle as far as the subject matter is concerned. I haven't seen the English film this is said to be a remake of, On the Waterfront (1954). (The Bhatts seem to specialize in the category, so it wouldn't be surprising at all if true.)

Music Rating: 3.75/5 (Very good!)
Excellent integration, most songs fit in well and are well choreographed.

My Classification: R (for violence, language)

And finally...
Remember the theme: training (this just appeared on a feed) for a street fight, a train scene, retribution. Remember Ghajini... :)


Anonymous said...

Nice post hai. I had written down Ghulam on my "to watch" list and it was sort of pushed to the bottom, but I need to move it up. Thanks for reminding me!
All the best,

theBollywoodFan said...

Adab Sita-ji: Ghulam has much less political commentary and is a lot more masala than Sarfarosh, which I know you enjoyed. I think you'll like this, though, and would love to hear your take on it! Thank you for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

Rani's voice may have been dubbed to fit it in the character. And dubbing actually made her film better.

And Aati Kya Khandala is my favorite. I am popping in the DVD to re-watch this film, as the college holidays have been started!

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

This is the 1 Aamir movie I've never seen! Probably because when it came out, I was graduating from school and really busy, and then somehow it just never happened- v embarassing :D

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the recommendation, BollywoodFan. Besides 'Kuch Kuch Hota Hai' and 'Chaiyya Chaiyya' I don't remember much from Bollywood in '98. Is Ghulam Aamir and Rani's only film together? The only other time I can think of them working together is in this (item?) song:

Anonymous said...

I loved this film, saw it early on in my Hindi-film-watching career (saw most of Aamir's films early thanks to Lagaan) and totally loved Rani in it---and the Rani-Aamir jodi.

theBollywoodFan said...

Thank you all for your comments!

Saurabh: I hope you had fun re-watching! I appreciate more that some enjoyed the dubbing of Rani's voice. But I think she can sound very much like the character she was playing, so I didn't like it much. Then again, I have always been a fan of sync sound (and Rani and everything she brings to the table), so maybe that has something to do with it :) Enjoy your holidays!

Shweta: Hope you have an opportunity to check it out! It's not Aamir's best film, but it's still pretty good because of the performances and music. I think you'd enjoy it.

Salek: How's it going? Long time, buddy. Aamir and Rani were great in Ghulam, and their popularity prompted a special appearance in that song you recall from Mann (1999). They also acted together in Mangal Pandey (2005), in which they were very good as well. In fact, Rani was also almost cast in Lagaan (as Gauri), but it was Gracy Singh's dancing skills that made her the obvious pick.

Aamir and Rani seem to be have been very good friends in real life ever since Ghulam, and I think they work very well together.


theBollywoodFan said...

Hi Memsaab: Rani was great here, she came across as really sincere and was justifiably accepted by everyone. I think that Khandala song was a great intro vehicle, overwhelmingly popular. Glad you enjoyed it, and yes, the Rani-Aamir jodi is really quite good!

Anonymous said...

I need to watch them both again to be sure, but I think I liked Ghulam just a bit better than Sarfarosh. Aamir is great in both, but when it comes down to it I like Rani more than Sonali Bendre.

But like I said, I'd need to watch them both again to be completely sure. What a hardship! :-D

theBollywoodFan said...

It *is* great hardship, Emily, and mighty fun! =) I'm quite certain I like Sarfarosh more because of a more powerful version of the theme in Ghulam (think scalability), but both films are very enjoyable, and I think make for fun repeat viewings. Rani and Sonali were great (the former is clearly the better actor), although their roles were somewhat limited in scope. It'd have been great to have them in positions with greater authority (Sonali the cop? then the initial anonymity would have been dealt a blow), but this argument applies across the Bollywood (and, in some ways, Hollywood) landscape, so excuse the tangent.

Welcome, thank you for your comment, and please do visit again :)

ajnabi said...

Yay! This is in my queue. I think I'll bump it up a bit. ;-) Bummer about Rani's voice, though; I think it's funny that the filmi pandits considered it unappealing when every American guy I know who hears her says, "Whoa, sexy!" LOL

theBollywoodFan said...

They're all very true, Ajnabi, we trust Rani to bring sexy back! ;) I think it's fair to say most 'pundits' would agree in hindsight that Rani would have sounded just fine with her voice. The quality of dubbing is really not bad, it's just that we all love Rani the way she is! Do stop by after you see Ghulam, I'd love to know what you think! Thanks for stopping by.

Nicki said...

I looove Ghulam. Actually after this movie, I knew Aamir could do no wrong in his film choices. And yep, I'm right. :)

But the dubbing from the Bhatt's can get annoying.

Jugal said...

Yo, You're IT :)
Send me a list (with links) of all the op-ed pieces on your blog (something like the Lagaan story) -- jugal.mody AT

And I <3 Ghulam :) I loved the fight sequences in the film -- Aamir in all his anger! And I'm generally a sucker for such rebel oriented stories hehe but yes, the film worked only because of Aamir.

theBollywoodFan said...

Nicki: Aamir's been on a heck of a run for a while, and since Ghulam, his only film that did not strike a chord with the masses was Mela. The law of averages says he's due for a not so successful film, but I know you're as confident as I am (perhaps more) about Ghajini's potential, so let's hope the streak keeps up!

Jugal: What a privilege! I'll be writing to you soon :) The fight sequences in Ghulam were great, yes! I think Aamir is really quite good at action-oriented roles, I was surprised at how well he did in Sarfarosh the following year, then Mangal Pandey. Fingers crossed for Ghajini.


Crazy on Bollywood said...

I love that film.The train scene was very very scary even it would have taken Amir's life.I appreciate his guts.Good watchable movie.

theBollywoodFan said...

It is a great scene, I only wish Aamir wouldn't risk his life for it. Talk about increased risks! In the bigger picture, it's only one scene. Having said that, I completely agree Ghulam stills works, 10 years down the road. Fun stuff! Thanks for your comment, Crazy on Bollywood!

Anonymous said...

Ghulam is indeed inspired by On the Waterfront, a Marlon Brando starrer directed by Elia Kazan.

The scene just after the boxing match where Aamir tells Rajat (who asked him to throw the match on orders from his boss) that he could've been someone takes its inspiration from what is probably the most famous scene in the original. Brando's speech in that scene, including the line "I coulda been a contender, Charlie" has been parodied and references God alone knows how many times. The role fetched Brando his first Oscar for Best Actor. (He rejected the second when he won for The Godfather, but that's another story.)

The story of On the Waterfront being made is itself interesting. Elia Kazan was one of those who testified during the McCarthy hearings, as a result of which a number of people in the film industry got blacklisted for being Communists. Many never forgave him for it -- even a few years ago, when he won the Oscar for lifetime achievement just prior to his death, some actors were conspicuous in their protest and did not stand up to applaud him.

Kazan himself felt that he had done what he did on the basis of the principles he lived by. On the Waterfront was his way of defending himself -- the story of a man who breaks the code of silence and blows the whistle on some corrupt men.

Ghulam, I think, references that story through the flashback involving Siddharth and Jai's father, but puts an additional twist by casting it in the light of the freedom struggle. This way, he creates a situation whereby the father could've demonstrated courage by not testifying against his friends and fails to do so, whereas the son demonstrates courage by testifying against Raunaq Singh.


theBollywoodFan said...

Hi Ramsu, and thank you for all the great information! I definitely need to see 'On the Waterfront' now, it seems to have so much behind it. Kazan sounds interesting, from his socialist tendencies to McCarthyism, and using film as the vehicle for a message.

I liked the way the flashback was rolled out in Ghulam, progressing with each step. And casting it in the light of the freedom struggle worked well.


Anonymous said...

I love this movie..Rani and amir couple is gr8...
Rani's dubbed voice is nice but I prefer her original voice...

theBollywoodFan said...

Welcome to the blog, Leil@! Agreed, Rani is awesome here, and I do wish she and Aamir had done more together than just Ghulam and Mangal Pandey.

redsarah said...

I know the lighting makes it look fake but that isn't a stationary bike he's on during the song Jaadu Hai Tera Hi Jaadu. If you watch the last shots, you'll see he takes off his cap to wave it, lets go of it and turns as the cap flies off down the street, landing on the road behind him.

Not that I spend my time watching these songs very closely, you understand.... ;-)