Aks (2001), aka, Bollywood Face/Off?

For years, I have wondered why there is no Bollywood adaptation of Face/Off (1997). The story and the OTT performances seem perfect for the filmi treatment. Bollywood loves the following key elements of this beloved classic:

  • convoluted, unlikely scientific processes, complete with bubbling lab equipment
  • brothers
  • grieving parents
  • mistaken/misdirected identities signaled by accessories 
  • showdowns in religious buildings
  • a generally  “more is more” approach
  • exploring duality, duplicity, reunion, and overt moral designations through lookalikes—usually twins, but there’s no reason not to use face-swapping enemies. 

It is because of complaining on Twitter about the lack of such a sure-to-be massive hit* that I was directed to Aks (“Reflection”)…which turns out to be less Face/Off than I hoped, instead using the supernatural/religious element of Gregory Hoblit’s Fallen (1998) with Denzel Washington (which I have not seen and which looks far too scary for chicken-livered me, so please excuse its absence in the rest of this piece). 

I love hearing people try to outline the plot of Face/Off. Even if you’ve seen the film and know what they’re saying is correct, it sounds like the middle of a fever dream. Aks is not as majestically goofy; maybe this is a tempering effect of Fallen or maybe it’s an attempt by writer-director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra not to distract from the absolute spectacle of the two lead actors (more on them in a moment). 

We meet police officer Manu Verma (superstar Amitabh Bachchan, last seen on the Gutter in Shaan) on duty protecting India’s defense minister in Budapest (* shrug emoji *), where he…kills India’s defense minister, steals a floppy disk containing information about an assassination attempt, and leaves behind a chain with a little mask pendant on it (I scribbled “face keychain” in my notes)?!?

But no, that was master assassin Raghavan (Manoj Bajpayee, who has somehow not yet appeared on the Gutter—my apologies, Manoj!) wearing a very lifelike rubber mask.

Back in India, Raghavan reunites with crony Narang and his brother Mahadev, who makes the masks and lives in a room full of masks that look very much like the pendant. Wearing yet another mask, Raghavan kills a gang lord (a too-brief turn by the great Vijay Raaz, whom western audiences should remember as the wonderful Dubey in Monsoon Wedding) and leaves behind another pendant. Manu is called in to investigate with his old buddy Pradhan. Pradhan mentions looking forward to retiring and enjoying the monsoons back in his village, which means he either knows exactly what kind of movie he’s in or has no idea at all.

A friendly dinner with cops’ families, where we meet their wives (notably Manu’s wife Supriya, played by Nandita Das), is contrasted with Raghavan’s social world: a nightclub, because it is definitely time for a musical number! His girlfriend Neeta (Raveena Tandon) is the lead dancer in a song that, to my eyes, has influences of both Britney Spears and the Spice Girls while simultaneously advancing the mood and plot of the film—high praise indeed. 

Thanks to an informant, the police are soon on Raghavan’s trail. Pradhan’s investigations lead him to the nightclub, where, as he himself invoked a few scenes ago, Raghavan kills him. Manu eventually catches Raghavan in a cave by a waterfall—where else?

Madhu, Supriya, and their daughter have a very charming song using scenes from the Hindu epic Mahabharata about evil before Madhu returns to the prison for Raghavan’s hanging. In a final confrontation, Raghavan manages to get a gun from another officer and shoots Manu, but Manu also manages to fire at Raghavan, killing him. 

In the process, Raghavan’s spirit transfers to Manu, quickly making itself felt as he taunts and then kills Narang, in a spooky throwback to an earlier scene between the two, in case we weren’t entirely sure who Manu had become. Manu-as-Manu realizes what’s happening but cannot control his reactions at home, and Supriya, worried, seeks advice from their guru. He says her love will protect her, which…I don’t know. If my husband were shooting up all the pillows in our living room because he thought a dead criminal was lurking there, I’d probably do more than just try to love him some more, but then again, I wouldn’t marry a cop or seek guidance from a guru, so YMMV. 

Raghavan-in-Manu takes off for the nightclub to scare the bejeezus out of Neeta and Mahadev, who eventually believe him and help him scatter Raghavan’s ashes in the waterfall. I’m not sure if this location is particularly significant, but it does give Bachchan and Tandon the chance to do the “king of the world” pose from Titanic, so there’s that. Raghavan-in-Manu continues to take revenge on various people who did Raghavan wrong, then returns home to celebrate Manu and Supriya’s anniversary, resulting in rape.

The spirit leaves, and Manu-as-Manu and Supriya go back to the guru, and it turns out that an eclipse—when day is not day and night is not night—is the only chance they have to get rid of the spirit completely, without it choosing a different host. The rest of the film is a series of confrontations involving different combinations of characters, and one of them in particular is so interesting that I don’t want to describe it ahead of your viewing. The finale involves most of the remaining characters and, while not as dramatic as some of the previous showdowns, is effectively confusing as the spirit fights dirty as it battles for continued existence in whatever host it can claim. 

I mentioned at the beginning of this piece that dramatics are one of the qualities  that should make Face/Off not just ripe but downright irresistible to Bollywood filmmakers, and Aks takes this idea and runs several victory laps with it. I would never have thought to pair Amitabh Bachchan, the biggest superstar in 110 years of Hindi cinema, and Manoj Bajpayee, a highly regarded actor generally known for less mainstream projects, especially when this was made, in a setting in which they need to reflect each other so much. But I was so impressed with them as a unit in this film. Aks simply would not have worked if the performances of Manu, Raghavan, and Raghavan-in-Manu felt unbalanced or unconnected, and the two actors twine them together so effectively. By the time the titles rolled, Raghavan has already killed the defense minister and Bajpayee has cackled and wheezed through  a soliloquy inspired by scriptures of the Bhagavad Gita (or so the subtitles say; please correct me if I’m wrong). I initially thought, “Hooooo boy, we’re in for long slog,” as he acted his face off (I’M SORRY but there is just no other phrase for it). See the scene here. This seemed especially fraught because Bachchan, while unparalleled in his ability to connect with Hindi film audiences in a range of approaches to acting, does not always choose the flavor of histrionics that I personally find enjoyable.

Knowing the basic gist of this film going in—that Bachchan will have to impersonate the villain first played by Bajpayee—I was bracing for 90 minutes of bellowing. Instead, there’s something truly thoughtful in how Bachchan takes over Bajpayee’s theatrics, making them related, but distinct. It helps that Bajpayee never disappears from the film, sometimes returning as Raghavan so that the two can argue with each other in mirrors (see it here) or Raghavan can deride Manu from across a physical distance. 

Aks is also an interesting study in the relationship between a film and the celebrity of its biggest star. Star power is a huge factor in the success and endurance of movies in India, so when someone like Amitabh Bachchan does a project that’s unusual not just for him but for the industry overall, it’s worth considering what’s going on. Aks also comes at an interesting juncture in Bachchan’s filmography. In the mid 1990s, he took a few years off from making films. Aks wasn’t his comeback (he had already made around a dozen films by the time it released), but it did mark a departure from the work he did in his heyday as well as more recently. This is not an era of Hindi cinema that I know well, so I asked Asim Burney, lifelong Bachchan fan and Bollywood podcaster, for commentary. 

“Thinking of Aks releasing in 2001 makes me realize what a year that was for Bollywood. There was just a sense of innovation and change in terms of genres, production, approach and even music. We tend to always talk about the Lagaan, Dil Chahta Hai, and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham of the world [note from Beth: for those uninitiated, I’d describe this group as well-resourced films with solid, enduring emotional appeal], but it’s also the year Lajja [a laundry list of ways society abuses women], Asoka  [a fantastical biography of the ancient Indian emperor], and Aks were released. These movies weren’t box office hits but were trying something different, actively breaking away from the masala genre, not always succeeding, neither critically nor at the box office.

Even the biggest of stars usually has to adjust as he ages, and it’s a process that repeats with slight variations with each generation. And even Bachchan had missteps in the process, which Aks is considered by some viewers to be. I asked Twitter for opinions on how Aks did (or didn’t) fit in Bachchan’s career trajectory, and journalist and author Karishma Upadhyay responded that “it did send out a signal that he was ready to experiment; that he wasn’t bound by the ‘leading man image’ anymore.” Critic and podcaster Shah Shahid said “It had the shock value of seeing someone like [Bachchan] get so dark.”

Asim continues: 

It’s interesting to see that the push to change was not only felt behind the camera but also by the stars that had been dominating their industries, not only by Amitabh when he went “dark” but also by the legend of [Tamil films] Kamal Hassan in Abhay/Aalavandhan. Both of them were lured by darker roles, pushing away from the “hero” images they had built up in the previous eras.

Amitabh was one of the hardest working actors of that time, as he needed to rise from the failure of ABCL [his production company]. [Director-producer] Yash Chopra had given his career a new lease of life after Mohabbatein as a supporting character, but it came with the realization that he was not the hero anymore. In a way, this is the era that 1990s and 2000s superstars Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, and Salman Khan are in now: they need to act their ages, innovate, and act with women who are their contemporaries but also hold on to what made the public love them. I loved Aks (I still have the VCD) but I also get why it didn’t work for audiences. Maybe it was too esoteric, maybe it was too dark…. Amitabh continued to explore this gray area with Kaante and Aankhen, and I think it took a while for his fandom to understand what he was doing. Aks just fell within that twilight zone.

There are a few people who make no impact at all in Aks—which is fine, because we either don’t need them to or there’s no room for them to do anything anyway. Foremost in this group is Manu’s partner in the police after Pradhan’s death, a goody-goody named Srivastava (Abhimanyu Shekhar Singh), who I suppose is solid enough as an investigator but who is not written in a way that adds anything to the goings-on. Neeta mostly does what molls do, and she’s somewhat more than a sexy lamp, but not much. (There is one aspect of Neeta’s arc that I did not see coming, and it impacts Raghavan’s decision-making, so I don’t want to spoil it for you.) Raghavan’s relationship with his brother has more heart than the romance does. Nandita Das, better known for art films than mainstream projects like this one, elevates the material for Supriya, especially in the upsetting depiction and fallout of the rape. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Hindi film character get to say to her attacker “you raped me”—to control the narrative about her experience in her own words. The script also acknowledges the 27-year age gap between Das and Bachchan, and she plays Surpirya with more complexity and maturity than others might have. Supriya could have come off as a naive child in contrast to her much older, more powerful husband, but Das gives her dimension and strength as she navigates the alarming situation Raghavan thrusts upon her family. 

The atmosphere throughout Aks adds a lot to the overall spookiness and tension. To my eye, this is mostly done through dark lighting that feels thoroughly suitable, and the songs also work towards this, demonstrating how Hindi cinema can always integrate songs into narrative or emotional development. This might be my favorite work by composer Anu Malik, whom I wouldn’t have slotted for the job of dark and somewhat unsettling music. For any readers who aren’t familiar with Hindi film conventions, it’s very unusual for an actor to sing for themselves (Indian actors generally are lip sync pros that put all Drag Race contestants to shame), but Bachchan has two songs in this one; if I had to guess why, I’d say it’s a chance to remind the public of how much they like his many talents, and an impressively bass voice is one of them (see his many turns as a narrator in films he does not appear in ). The songs all feel ambitious, even if they are fairly simple musically, with at least one important idea or objective in each. 

It’s quite a statement to say that a film with a room full of creepy masks, three nightclub set pieces, an irrelevant trip to Budapest, a man trying to wrest a knife away from himself, repeated religious mutterings, and a well-timed solar eclipse is “less gleefully ridiculous” than…well, anything. But Aks definitely is less ridiculous than Face/Off, and it is generally successful in playing with contrasts of good and evil at multiple levels and iterations. While the police officer in Aks never knowingly gets to be the pleather-wearing bad boy in Aks like he does in Face/Off, it’s still fun to see the gruff, competent Manu become a slimy, opportunistic Raghavan…until he goes too far and it isn’t. Maybe this is the sobering influence of Fallen, which, from what I read, does sound more interested in the supernatural/spiritual than in exaggerated medical procedures, boat chases, and magnetic prisons, keeping the scale more personal. No matter the source of its content, and not to diminish the contributions of writers Mehra, Rensil D’Silva, and Kamlesh Pandey, Aks is putting forward some ideas about what lurks inside or infiltrates our most private spaces and interactions…while keeping the weirdness on a persistent simmer that makes the whole effect more interesting and uncomfortable. 

Aks is available on Youtube with English subtitles. Listen to Asim Burney’s excellent podcast Khandaan on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Youtube, and all the other usual places. (If you’re new to Indian cinema, try a recent episode on RRR, the Telugu film that’s all the rage on Netflix even in the US. If you’re already a Hindi film junkie, try their discussion of a classic like Baazigar.) Read Karishma Upadhyay’s excellent biography of Parveen Babi, star of Shaan! And try Shah Shahid’s Split Screen Podcast!

* It’s not too late to make a Hindi version of Face/Off —after all, Bollywood’s take on Forrest Gump is just releasing this August. Besides, the best possible cast is still at the ready: Aamir Khan in the Travolta role and Shah Rukh Khan in Cage’s. They’ve both done double roles, they’re both comfortable playing villains, and they’re both champion hams. I will hear no argument on this matter.  


Beth Watkins hopes people get on filmi Face/Off soon.

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