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Ghayal - 25 years later

As Sunny Deol prepares to release the sequel, 'Ghayal' remains one of the most memorable films of the 90s decade. It launched Rajkumar Santoshi and placed Sunny Deol in the pantheon of action stars. A take on the reason why the film remains immensely watchable even today.

Shriram Iyengar

Corruption is a popular topic among action filmmakers. A conflict of ideals, oppression, an immoral villain lead to a predictable, but entertaining climax. Rajkumar Santoshi's debut 'Ghayal' stepped out of this circle. The film dealt with corruption and oppression; not as the end but as the means to injustice. It was not a film that was interested in the social consequences of corruption, but in the consequences faced by its protagonist. It was a film about an individual affected by corruption, who becomes a law unto himself. Perhaps this is the reason audiences in the 90s decade found it to be cathartic. Having assisted Govind Nihalani in the making of 'Ardh Satya', Santoshi was familiar with the subject of good men caught in the webs of corrupt individuals. In 'Ghayal', he found his own Ananth Velankar in Sunny Deol and established him as the new 'Angry Young Man' of the decade. The film was such a landmark for Deol that 25 years later, he is seeking to reinvent the same anger in his new film 'Ghayal Once Again'.

Contrary to popular opinion, Sunny Deol was not established as an action hero when Ghayal released. Ghayal falls into place as a progression from Rahul Rawail's 'Arjun' (1985). In the 'Ghayal', Ajay is an individual seeking vengeance for his brother's death. He is not doing it to improve life around him. He is not interested in the people oppressed by the same villain. The friends he makes in jail are but a means to an end. The police's impotence in the face of injustice adds to his anger against society. “Utaar ke phenk do ye wardi aur pehan lo Balwant Rai ke naam ka patta apne gale mein.,” he screams in a line that has outlived the film. It is this denial of his right that drives him to take the law into his own hands. He is insulted, destroyed, and completely lost. Vengeance seems to be the only rightful action to take. Under Rajkumar Santoshi's hands, this staple Bollywood revenge plot progresses without seeming hyperbolic. In the end, when Ashok shoots down Balwant Rai in plain sight of the police and the public, it feels like a cathartic end to the violence that preceded it.

The actions of a hero are often decided by the actions of a villain. It is the Joker who determines the limits of Batman. Similarly, Ashok Mehra's sense of vigilantism is only rivalled with the calm of Amrish Puri's Balwant Rai. Balwant Rai is the stereotypical villain for the 90s decade – politically aware, rich, connected, and seriously involved in the business of murder. In one scene, Balwant Rai walks into the newspaper printer's office, stabs the editor, and walks out without a flicker of guilt or fear on his face. This sense of invulnerability evokes in audiences a sense of fear and awe. This is a man who cannot be touched by anything but pure violence, which, traditionally, the hero abhors. In this, we can find a veiled homage to Ardh Satya's nemesis, Rama Shetty.

'Ghayal' would go on to win five Filmfare awards. It marked the beginning of the burning 90s with films about lone vigilantes seeking justice. It also launched Rajkumar Santoshi's career and bagged Sunny Deol his first Filmfare. Action films often age badly. The bombastic lines, once thrilling, sound comical. Action sequences feel jaded. Ghayal, somehow, manages to escape this syndrome. This may be because of the prevalent social conditions. Individuals are still hampered by political and police inaction. Their helplessness finds a natural answer in Rajkumar Santoshi's film. It is for this reason that Sunny Deol's anger still holds an appeal for audiences in the country 25 years since its release.