Hindi, 1993; with Sanjay Dutt, Madhuri Dixit; Director, Subhash Ghai

Excerpted with some revisions from Vinay Lal, “The Impossibility of the Outsider in the Modern Hindi Film”, in The Secret Politics of Our Desires: Innocence, Culpability, and Indian Popular Cinema, ed. Ashis Nandy. London: Zed Press and Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 228-59; revised version of the essay with endnotes has been published in Of Cricket, Gandhi, and Guinness: Essays in Indian History and Culture (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2002).

The outsider in the Hindi film continues to elude us. A recent film, Khalnayak (‘Bad Man’), provides the most compelling evidence for my argument. The film opens with the shot of a mother, Aarti (Nirupa Roy), pining for the return of her son, Balu (Sanjay Dutt), whose photograph she has placed amidst the pages of her Ramayana, and who became enmeshed in the world of crime over six years ago. An elderly man, a fellow villager, says in harsh yet imploring tones that she should forget him, for he will not return. What is the use, he asks, of keeping the picture of Ravana in the Ramayana? A son who has entered the world of crime cannot return from it; and what can one say of a son who killed his own father and who stole her husband from her? When he has declared her dead as well, which Balu does while offering testimony before the court, has he not turned himself into a beast, into a veritable outsider to the human community? “A mean bastard who has transformed his living mother into a dead one”, says the old man to Aarti, “such a person should be forgotten.” “But how can I forget”, she implores him, “he is my son.” Thus, as the film establishes Balu as the outsider, the absolute Other, from the outset, it works simultaneously to unravel that impression; and henceforth the film will move dialectically between the two positions.

Nayak nahi, khalnayak hai tu. The son of a poor but honest father, with small prospects in life to raise himself from the conditions under which he is born and raised, and unable to find employment, Balu is easy prey for the evil genius, Roshi Mahanta, under whose influence he readily murders his own father. But, if there are laws of compensation at work in the universe, for every khalnayak there must always be a nayak (good man) as well, and so he appears in the figure of the upright police officer, Ram Kumar Sinha (Jackie Shroff). Balu is caught at the site of the murder by Ram, and the court sentences him to twenty years in prison, but is there a jail that can hold Balu? A battle, at once physical, psychological, and verbal, ensues between Balu and Ram: just as Balu with overweening pride can characterize himself as a khalnayak, Ram is unwilling to admit that there is ever any human being who cannot be persuaded to see the light of truth and reason. Balu, in Ram’s view, is not a free agent; he is the pawn of foreign powers who are determined upon destroying India. Your boss, Ram tells Balu, is a rakshas (demon) — but that man whom Ram describes as a rakshas, Balu is inclined to see as a guru. It is in the name of his guru, and in the name of his mother (now ‘resurrected’), that Balu swears to escape from prison.

And so he does — to be hauled back into jail, eventually, as a convoluted consequence of the efforts of Ganga (Madhuri Dixit), Ram’s consort and a policewoman. Disguising herself as a nautch girl, a courtesan of sorts, Ganga is under the impression that she has won his confidence, although a later scene reveals that he has all along known her true identity. Though Balu lusts after Ganga, he does not violate her, a sure sign that the khalnayak who can take the life of his own father and ruthlessly gun down other political opponents of his guru, is nonetheless a nayak who keeps his conduct within certain parameters. Once her identity is known, she is purposefully retained as a hostage, as a guarantee to a safe passage. It is from this point onwards that the film takes an extraordinary, and from the point of view of my argument, a significant turn. Balu slowly becomes attracted to Ganga, little realizing that she is already committed to Ram, his inveterate foe; Ganga, on the other hand, while filled with revulsion at him, gradually comes to the realization that within him there are the seeds of a good man, the sprinkling of “good Indian blood.” As she puts it to him, “Within every khalnayak some nayak is hidden. Even Ravana had some of the virtues of a nayak.” Ravana, we are reminded, is not the Satan of Indian traditions; Ravana is certainly not the Other in whom we invest all evil. Balu is not so easily persuaded, and there is a certain pride with which he can assert his own villainy. “Man can become an animal”, he responds, “but do you know of an animal that can become a man? I’ve come too far along to get on the right path now.” Balu’s claim to otherness, to being an outsider, is contradicted by his admission that there is a “right path”, a path that he is not following.

The woman who came as his death has now come, as Balu imagines, as his life. As he prepares to place the mangalsutra, the icon of wifely devotion, or (as in the feminist reading) the symbol of woman’s enslavement, around her neck, she makes it known that she belongs to someone else. Just then the police appear and surround Balu’s hideout, and Ganga, though seeking only to save Balu from certain death, unwittingly becomes the instrument of his escape. As she states in her defense, she saw him “turning into a man”, and was not prepared to see him killed by the police: what she finds wholly unacceptable is the supposition that Balu must be construed only as an outsider, the repository of irredeemable good, and that such outsiders are to be dealt with by the machinery of death. Violence, particularly when its end is extermination, can only subsist on the sign of the Other; and that violence which the State is on the verge of unleashing upon Balu, fed by the stream of vengeance, threatens to extinguish the flame of self-realization that Ganga, erstwhile the ocean of life, has lit within Balu. For this offence against the state, for the crime of having aided and abetted a criminal, and for the greater crime of having betrayed the oath and principles of her profession, she is taken into custody and put on trial.

The legal quagmire in which Ganga has placed herself is the least of her difficulties, for the force of rumor and public opinion induces a greater trauma. The “whole world” (sari janta) gossips about Ganga’s infidelity, for is it not possible that during her ‘captivity’ under Balu, she entered into an amorous relationship with him? “Ram’s Sita went to Ravana”, says the public, and if the Ram of the Satya Yuga (the age of truth) could renounce his Sita at the word of a mere washerman, then why should not a common mortal like Ram Sinha sacrifice his now tainted beloved? Caught in Balu’s love-nest, has not Ganga committed treachery against her country and compromised her colleagues in the police force? “Now the entire country”, the newspapers report, is calling her a desh-droni, ‘an enemy of the country’. Such is the stigma attached to her name, suggests one newspaper, that even Ram Sinha is unable to erase that mark against her name, and like his namesake, the Ram who presided over the destinies of Bharat, he is thinking of sacrificing her: “The crux of the matter is that today’s Sita cohabited with Ravana and demeaned Ram.”

Khalnayak, then, as I have been suggesting, must be viewed as performing an interpretation of the Ramayana. While I do not wish to pursue that line of argumentation much further, as it takes us far beyond the parameters of this paper, it is critical to note that the film does not accept a conventional reading of the Ramayana story. The story of Sita’s banishment has always been a difficult moment, not only for the devotees of Ram, but for Indian civilization itself. If Ram could banish and outlaw his chaste wife owing to the demands of a public inclined to think of Sita as having been defiled by her long captivity, what kind of example can he — the noble and just king, the devout husband, the very incarnation of the Gods — be said to have created for his subjects? Is not the effect of Ram’s banishment of Sita to render her into an outsider to civilized society, the Other of his conscience? Must not standards of morality appear to be altogether shifting and arbitrary if Ram can place Sita outside the framework of an inclusive morality? As Ramachandra Gandhi has so poignantly observed in a recent work, the story of Sita’s banishment can, in fact, be located within a framework where Sita is not rendered into the Other. For their repeated violation of the ecological order, as when Ram takes the life of Marica, or when Ram shoots dead one of a pair of curlew birds engaged in love-play, Ram and Sita too must enact, by way of atonement and compensation, and by mutual consent, the pain of separation; and this story, when placed into the hands of patriarchs and chauvinists, becomes “distorted into the sexist banishment of Sita by Rama for suspected infidelity in Lanka.”

If Sita can be recovered, if she is not the outsider that she appears to be, the recuperation of Ganga in Khalnayak might well be expected. Once Balu finds that he has been ‘spurned’ by her, that he cannot win her love, he returns to the path of villainy — but this return, as the film establishes, is only imaginary. His stated ambition, as Balu declares before his guru, Roshi Mahanta, the corrupter of youth and the sworn foe of India, but a shadowy presence in the film, is “to become the world’s worst man”. Yet the nayak in him has triumphed over the khalnayak, his real self has established its lordship over his ignorant self, and he will eventually locate himself within an inclusionary polity, and render himself subject to the laws of the community. Thus, towards the end of the film, as Ganga is sentenced to seven years imprisonment for aiding and abetting a dangerous criminal, and Balu appears to be ensconced as the new head of the empire of evil, he appears suddenly in court and bares forth the truth. But, before an audience to whom the word of a notorious criminal is not worth much, what can he do to persuade them that the account he is about to render of Ganga’s captivity — an account that Ravana was prevented from giving to the citizens of Ayodhya — merits belief? Though he cannot swear by the Gita, the Bible, or the Quran, he is prepared to swear by his mother — for she is his book. The Sita that he has known, Balu tells the court, is pavitra, pure, and in every drop of her blood there is Ram. Seeking the penalty due to him, Balu pleads that this Sita must not be separated from her Ram. With an ending that one has come to expect of Hindi films, Ram and Sita are conjoined together, and Balu, having separated the ephemeral within him from that which is enduring, is drawn back into the arms of the human community.