Almost three decades since its release, Baazigar positively doesn’t fare as a masterpiece. What it is, is a trip down the Bollywood nostalgia lane
Shah Rukh Khan jaywalked into the hearts of audiences and the commercial cinema sphere in 1993 with Abbas Mustan’s revenge saga Baazigar. After his feature film debut alongside Rishi Kapoor and Divya Bharti a year ago in Deewana, the actor went on to lead middling films like Chamatkar, Dil Aashna Hai, and Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman. But Baazigar turned out to be Shah Rukh Khan’s breakout movie, and his turn as a bloodied, revenge seeking Vicky Malhotra made him the face of the “revisionist anti-hero” of Bollywood cinemascape of the early 1990s.
Baazigar wasn’t flawless by any stretch of the imagination. A 2021 revisit renders the thriller dated. Yet, there is no denying that the film offered a look into a "consummate anti-hero." History has it that the role was rejected by the likes of Akshay Kumar, Anil Kapoor and Salman Khan, and film distributors were unsure of the appeal of the anti-hero to an audience that loves to celebrate its actors as “screen idols.” They argued SRK was too cutesy to be able to pull off a sinister character. They were also apprehensive about killing off the character in the end.
The release of Baazigar dispelled all doubts regarding the saleability of morally-ambiguous characters and ushered the new age of anti-hero SRK, which the actor mined in both Darr and the relentlessly morbid Anjaam. In Baazigar, SRK’s character goes on a serial-killing spree because a crooked man had usurped all his family fortune. As ludicrous as the characters’ motivations for killing innocents might be, SRK’s earnest performance and infinite charm ensured the character’s redemption in the climax did not feel ill-conceived.
So here was SRK, playing Ajay Sharma, the son of an industrialist whose family was driven to penury by a wily man Madan Chopra (Dalip Tahil). The film teases scenes from Ajay Sharma’s hapless childhood, in which we witness a young boy seething in rage while taking care of his ailing mother. He cooks, cleans and strategises about destroying the family of the man responsible for his misfortunes. After a fleeting prologue, the movie zooms to the present, where SRK plays a college-goer and the secret paramour of Madan Chopra’s elder daughter Seema (essayed by Shilpa Shetty in her film debut).
To savour the borderline ludicrous film in 2021, one might have to completely submit to the outlandish world of Abbas Mustan, where a forgetful head servant propels the story forward, or contact lenses become the decisive difference between the two personas of SRK — the romance hero and the cold-blooded murderer. The setup is ruefully simplistic and most of the characters in the film, be it Seema, or the police inspector helping Priya uncover the mystery surrounding Seema’s death, are painfully gullible. There are too many logical snags to take the movie at anything other than face value.
Nonetheless, despite the countless voiceovers and piece-to-cameras while breaking the fourth wall, SRK makes the character believable. Bespectacled and almost goofy, Ajay Sharma is a portrait of easy charm. There was a conviction in SRK’s performance that made the audience believe in the character, if not empathise with him. Thus, when SRK says, “Kabhi kabhi jeetne ke liye kuch haarna padta hai….aur haar kar jeetne wale ko baazigar kete hai'' the first time he meets Priya (essayed by Kajol in her first commercial hit), it does not feel misplaced. Neither does Priya’s naivety, when she declares to her sister that she had fallen in love with a man she exchanged three-and-a-half words with at a race course. SRK is chilling as the boy-next-door anti-hero, who pushes his girlfriend off a high rise minutes after whispering sweet-nothings to her about marital bliss.
Ajay Sharma uses the alias of his childhood friend Vicky Malhotra to paint a sob story about his family’s death in an airplane crash. But the knowledge that Sharma himself has had an immensely challenging childhood mitigates, to an extent, the character’s abject villainy. On the other hand, Kajol’s Priya also broke new ground. In one scene early in the film, Priya is hounded by burly harassers on the road. But she’s not a damsel in distress. She dives headfirst into the confrontation with them, taking them down one punch at a time. Neither is she a dispensable accessory in the film — She is the only one convinced that her sister was murdered and pushes the investigation to be continued. Even in her appearance, Kajol broke the conventions of a cookie cutter heroine, proudly owning her dusky skin colour and unibrow in a country where regressive standards of beauty are nurtured and perpetuated.
Baazigar was liberally “inspired” by the Hollywood film A Kiss Before Dying. What Abbas Mastan added to the narrative was a terrific Johnny Lever as a terribly incompetent servant Babulal. Most of the scenes with Johnny Lever have no direct bearing on the events of the film proper. Yet, “Anarkali ka phone tha, ice cream khana bahut zaroori hai '' is perhaps the most iconic line from the film, after of course, SRK’s aforementioned definition of baazigar. In fact, Baazigar sustains a nimble pace and a feather-light tone even in the most disturbing sequences. Seconds after Seema’s sudden death, Babubal is seen hammering a nail into the wall to hang the deceased’s framed picture — only he tries to hammer the nail head to the wall. Such elaborate comedy asides are peppered throughout Baazigar, which makes the film different from Anjaam, which offered little to no comedic respite to the viewers.
The film’s songs also attained cult status, be it Kitabein Bohut Si, the Baazigar title track of Yeh Kali Kali Aankhein. Even when the film stumbled, the soundtrack sustained the audience attention. Indeed, clocking in at almost the three-hour mark, Baazigar had all the ingredients to buoy the film for its runtime. But with its moon-sized loopholes, shoddy editing and convenient narrative turns, Baazigar positively doesn’t fare as a masterpiece. What it is, is a trip down the Bollywood nostalgia lane. And for that alone, and SRK, Baazigar will always claim a special position in the annals of Hindi cinema.