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15 years of Khakee: How Amitabh Bachchan’s improvisation became the film’s defining moment

On the film’s 15th anniversary, D Santosh, who played the important character of Constable Mhatre, goes down memory lane and recalls the experience of the shoot. 

Keyur Seta

The era of hero-centric, over-the-top action, masala cop films began in this decade with Salman Khan’s Dabangg (2010). This was followed by the likes of Singham (2011), Rowdy Rathore (2012) and the most recent, Simmba (2018).

But much before that, the audience was treated to a sensible, emotionally appealing and yet entertaining saga about policemen. Rajkumar Santoshi’s Khakee (2004) revolved around bringing a suspected terrorist, Iqbal Ansari (Atul Kulkarni), to Mumbai from Chandangadh. The audience was led on a parallel journey that proved to be overwhelming, yet impressive.

Starring Kulkarni, Amitabh Bachchan, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Tusshar Kapoor, D Santosh and Kamlesh Sawant, Khakee received a lot of acclaim. Unfortunately, the film didn’t turn out to be a box office hit.

On the film’s 15th anniversary (it was released on 23 January 2004), D Santosh, who played the important character of Constable Mhatre, went down memory lane to recall the experience of the shoot.

After acting in The Legend Of Bhagat Singh (2002) with Santoshi as director, where he played the iconic Rajguru, Santosh had developed a good rapport with the filmmaker. This led to Santoshi calling and narrating the script of Khakee to him.

“At that time I wasn’t told that he wanted to cast me. None of the actors were finalized. Raj ji is a brilliant narrator. He is famous for that in the industry. After 4-5 months, I was asked if I would like to do this role. I agreed to do the film on the phone itself. At that time I didn’t know there were such powerful and experienced actors. For me it was a great opportunity to get an experience with such a cast,” Santosh told Cinestaan.com.

Not many would know that Akshaye Khanna was supposed to play the character of Sub-inspector Gupte. Santosh revealed that Khanna quit the film at the last moment and was replaced by Tusshar Kapoor.

As most of the shoot was outdoors, the cast would head to the hotel directly after winding up, which gave Santosh a good chance to interact with them. “Else in Mumbai people go to their respective homes or offices,” he said. The film was shot in Mumbai, Lonavala, Pune, Alandi, Nashik and Deolali.

Santosh shared that Santoshi enacts a single scene in different ways. “Once when the entire cast was present, Raj ji enacted a scene in front of us. He was so good that Amit ji suggested that he should start acting. He had performed all intense scenes of Amit ji himself. Amit ji became hairaan [surprised] seeing it,” he said.

Santoshi was also responsible for honing Santosh's acting skills. “When I did my first film with him, I didn’t even know how to face the camera and other technicalities as I was from theatre. But Raj ji teaches you so much about cinema that even if you just listen to him, you can act well. And his own preparation for each and every character is amazing,” he said.

Like many other co-stars, Santosh also felt that Bachchan transforms into another character once the scene commences. He got to spend a lot of private time with the superstar in scenes where he is driving the van and Bachchan is sitting beside him. “We both used to be there first at 5.30 am near Tryambakeshwar. There were scenes in which they used to shoot us from the front. We were in the van where he spoke a lot about his home, health and old experiences,” he said.

Santosh’s character’s most defining moment was the scene where he is forced by Devgn’s character to slap Bachchan. Funnily, the day they were shooting the scene was Santosh’s birthday. “Amit ji jokingly said that in case he gets hits hard, his bodyguards will take care of me,” said Santosh.

During the first take of the scene, Santosh performed with the right emotions. However, someone from the crew got in the frame and the cinematographer had to cut the scene. “Bachchan scolded him saying that if the actor is unable to perform with the same emotions again, the whole scene will get ruined. He said that one should ensure that such technical faults don't hamper an actor’s performance. He is so concerned about his co-stars,” he said.

Thankfully, the scene went off well. “He got slapped thrice. Once by the other constable [Kamlesh Sawant] and twice by me. We did that scene in one take,” he said. After the scene, Bachchan personally brought a cake for Santosh, in addition to the cake brought by the crew.

Santosh’s character name Mhatre got etched in Bachchan’s memory after this film. When Khakee was about to be released, Santosh had already started working with Bachchan in Milan Luthria’s Deewar: Let’s Bring Our Heroes Home (2004) and later did a scene with him in Bhootnath Returns (2014). “He used to address me as Mhatre even on Deewar’s sets. Ten years later I did Bootnath Returns (2014) where I had a scene. Even there he addressed me as Mhatre,” he said.

Apart from the aforementioned films, Santosh also delivered a quality performance in Shimit Amin’s Rocket Singh: Salesman Of The Year (2009), where he played a cunning and intelligent IT guy.

It was during the making of Khakee that Bachchan saw Santosh’s performance as Rajguru in The Legend Of Bhagat Singh (2002). “He was very impressed by my performance. He told Raj ji that he felt that even he should have been a part of the film,” recalled Santosh.

Santosh had a funny moment in Khakee with Akshay and Aishwarya’s characters. Whenever Akshay tries flirting with Aishwarya, Santosh purposely invades their privacy and pretends to be clearing his throat [ahem]. “It was an improvisation. While rehearsing, I made a sound of clearing my throat. Raj ji laughed and said this should be retained. And then and there he suggested Akshay should say, ‘Mhatre, khaansi ke liye kuchh le rahe ho ya main doon [are you taking something for your cough or should I give you]?’”

The most emotional moment in Khakee was when Kulkarni’s character dies and Bachchan expresses grief saying, ‘No, you can’t die. Get up.’ Santosh revealed that even this scene was not in the script. Bachchan suggested it, but Santoshi wasn’t keen because he felt that a DCP shouldn’t be so weak. Finally, Santoshi decided to just shoot it and see later. “But Amit ji performed it so well. If Raj ji loves a scene, he retains it. He did it here,” he said.

It is the era of sequels and Santosh wishes that a sequel to this film is made some day. “I wish there comes a film where all our characters reunite and shoot together. But that won’t happen because Raj ji doesn’t like repeating his films,” he said.