For those of us who did not grow up watching Bollywood films (and maybe even for those of you who did, depending on how closely an adult monitored what you were watching when or after this film came out), there is a particular threshold that each of us crosses in our filmi journey. That threshold reveals itself to each of us at a different time—I like to think at the exactly right time—and affects us in particular ways.
But there is one commonality in the experience: after this line it is crossed, there is no returning, no backtracking, no un-knowing. You can never un-see the stars of Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi (Rekha and Akshay Kumar) frolicking in a pool, drizzling each other with chocolate sauce, and wrestling in the mud while a song inspired by Madonna, Laura Branigan, and Samantha Fox moans about naughty girls needing love.
Having been told repeatedly that Rekha’s performance in this film is amazing above and beyond this notable song, I decided I needed to see for myself what in the world could possibly have spawned it. The easy answer to that question is the 1990 Jean-Claude van Damme film Lionheart, whose plot this loosely follows. In our version, an army officer Akshay (Akshay Kumar) travels to the US for his brother’s wedding and meets his true love Priya (Raveena Tandon) along the way. Akshay’s brother is missing and is discovered to be in the clutches of underworld don/wrestling organizer Maya (Rekha), who of course happens to be Priya’s sister. The three are increasingly entangled as Akshay pretends to be in love with Maya in order to infiltrate her criminal activities, free his brother, and bring her to justice.
The romance between Akshay and Priya is cute and provides for boppy songs, but its run time is sacrificed for more action, which hero Kumar is known for, and general villainy sequences, probably the right call for the audiences both of the time and now. The only ingredient I disliked was the horrible acting in the more light-hearted bits by the hero’s friends, but of course this is to be expected in at least half of all Hindi films made since the mid-1980s. Given that the main romance is so lighthearted, I’m not sure what the friends’ attempts to be funny was supposed to add.
A brief aside about comedy: having lived in Toronto for two years in the mid 1990s, I could not stop laughing at how often the characters mentioned being in America when they so clearly weren’t.
Don’t worry, little buddy, you won’t! The giant CN Tower, the tallest structure in the world for over three decades, is very hard to avoid in almost any view of downtown Toronto.
Here it is again next to the Gardiner Expressway. Hiding under here is not recommended because this structure tends to shed chunks of concrete. Why didn’t the writers just change “America” to “Canada” and be done with it? Did the Canadian government not want them to sully their good name by depicting Toronto as a hotbed of lethal wrestling and a corrupt chief of the amazing all-Hindi-speaking police force? Star Kumar is now a Canadian citizen, has served as a tourism ambassador, and has co-produced the hockey movie Breakaway with everyone’s favorite 1990s Mountie Paul Gross, but I don’t know whether this film inspired or is the result of Kumar’s Canadaphilia.
Songs also teleport to Russia for no apparent reason. The Soviet Union had a deep love of Hindi cinema during a time western films were frowned upon for inappropriate political and moral stances, but the current republics are not a common setting for Bollywood sequences, which usually go globe-trotting to western Europe and other major centers of the Indian diaspora. Spot the Mosfilm truck!
Like the last Rekha film discussed on The Gutter, Khoon Bhari Maang, there are also many wonders to be found in Rekha’s costumes, not only because they are dramatic and fascinating but because they fit so well with her character. Her character’s name means illusion, and all of Madame Maya’s accoutrements are part of the facade she projects. She’s not judged for wanting to look a certain way—granted, she’s already a high-ranking villain, but there’s no sniggering or eye-rolling, no accountant asking her if her wig budget really needs to be so large.
Rekha chomping through the scenery as a flamboyant, dramatic villain is by far my favorite aspect of this film. She is an award-winning actor who is not above digging into diva excesses when the role calls for it. A fellow Bollywood blogger has written that Rekha is a “heroine who fought hard against playing motherly roles when she was deemed to be past it by many, even if it meant she played ridiculous characters.” There is certainly a lot of WTFery in this film, and almost all of it is centered on or somehow related to Rekha, meaning that she bears much of the weight of the ridiculous. This is no small task in a film that has multiple WWE-style fights (sometimes with real WWE wrestlers), tons of lunk-headed beefy bodyguards who should never have tried to speak a line on camera, and the aforementioned wig parade and song. She has a dignity, a style, a presence that not even this movie can crush.
At approximately 41 when this movie was filmed, Rekha has the acting experience and gravitas needed to make such an exaggerated, imperfectly written character in a contextless setting work. Contrast her with Gulshan Grover, the other main villain (King Don), who despite his own vast career as a baddie is no more menacing than Joey Tribbiani doing his best example of a daytime soap opera villain. In addition to being unimpressive, King Don isn’t particularly fun. He’s just some guy in big suits using a weird voice. Rekha, on the other hand, clearly put a lot of thought and effort into this performance, making the best of what was given to her, and she absolutely sells it. She shows the imperfections in Maya’s steely persona at exactly the right time to give them maximum impact and, I must admit, evoke my sympathy. Even in her plainest dialogues, she’s working to give them some bite, some animation, some oomph. Maya may be ridiculous, but Rekha is not. What a fine line that is—and how well she walks it.
Madame Maya is a fascinating character. On one hand, she is confident, powerful, and successful in her profession and operates in a world entirely populated by men. No character seems to doubt her place and ability in that world. I don’t think there’s a single line about “What does a woman know about fighting?” or “Let the men handle it.” She is unquestionably awesome in the life she has chosen for herself.
Based on the subtitles, Maya’s criminal existence is remarkably uncomplicated. She likes working the fights because she likes the lifestyle that comes along with that wealth. She does not seem to have any bone to pick with society, any particular institution or government, or any person in her past who did her wrong or led her to a life of crime. There’s no indication of her doing much useful for her sister Priya or protecting Priya’s “values and culture” (another doozy from the subtitles) other than putting her up in the palatial “American” house and fussing at her for having a male visitor.
But on the other hand, she is given a few emotional arcs that I think most male villains probably would not have, and these are both her undoing and her ultimate salvation. They also give Maya texture that is interesting to discover and provide Rekha more to work with. Female villains of this caliber—real bosses, not just decorative prey—are so unusual that I don’t know what to make of this one having such a strong conscience. While Maya is shown at various times to have a heart—and to deeply resent the times in her life that emotional happiness was taken away from her—she is not at all religious. We’re so accustomed to seeing non-heroine female characters like grandmothers and mothers behaving piously that it’s a surprise to see one who doesn’t give a rat’s ass. This makes her strength more impressive for being presented and conceived of as entirely internally derived…and, for story-telling purposes, makes the contrast with the hero’s devotion even more delicious. It’s significant that other fierce females, the Hindu deities Kali and Durga, are required to defeat Maya’s henchmen.
Maya herself is brought down by women as well, mostly Priya’s pleas to her better nature, which the film implies is her true self, one that has been lost over the years as she has raged against the world in order to provide Priya a better life. I love that this woman was never defeated by a man and what finally conquered her was conscience, not violence. Maya is so in control that she chooses her own demise. What sits less easily is the question of whether a woman in Bollywood almost has to be a villain in order to have that kind of freedom.
Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi is silly, entertaining, and interesting. Everyone but the three leads is pretty dreadful and had little by way of workable plot or dialogues, but their performances are charismatic enough to carry me through the predictable back story and the side characters I didn’t care about (Akshay’s brother and the gang of dimwitted friends). Even if you don’t care about fight sequences, this is one to watch simply for Rekha’s performance in an unusual and intriguing role.
Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi is available on Youtube with English subtitles here.
Beth Watkins is a villain of the highest caliber.