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40 years of Karz (1980): Rishi Kapoor’s crackling energy lights up this deliciously entertaining, glitzy musical

Subhash Ghai's film may not have done blockbuster business when it was released, but it has become one of the more memorable and influential films in popular culture.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Rishi Kapoor in a silver outfit, gyrating effortlessly on a giant revolving gramophone stage singing 'Om Shanti Om', is the quintessential image from Karz (1980), the film that in so many ways defines what filmi means in popular Hindi cinema.

Directed by Subhash Ghai, the visually exuberant reincarnation story was a curious departure from the action films Kalicharan (1976) and Vishwanath (1978) that he had made prior to this.

Though it was inspired by the Hollywood film The Reincarnation Of Peter Proud (1975), Karz was a clever adaptation that kept in mind Indian beliefs and sensibilities while exhibiting for the first time Ghai’s penchant for big, spectacular films that was to earn him the moniker, ‘showman’.

But making such a film was a huge gamble for several reasons — it was a musical at a time action films, mostly led by Amitabh Bachchan's Angry Young Man, were ruling the box office. In addition, the story of Karz was that of the hero Monty (Rishi Kapoor) and the vamp Rani Sahiba aka Kamini (Simi Garewal), making the role of the heroine (Tina Munim) secondary. The main star of the film was Kapoor as Munim was still a newcomer at the time. In the November 1991 issue of Tinsel Town magazine, Ghai said of the film, “It was an impossible project — but I repeat, Subhash Ghai likes doing impossible things!”

Karz artfully wove the reincarnation theme with revenge and the idea of karma while presenting a well-etched-out role of the vamp, who was not relegated to the sidelines but was at the heart of the narrative. In the same interview, Ghai commented on creating the role of Kamini and said, “That woman, a cold-blooded murderess, was naturally to be the protagonist of the film. And yet I did not want to make her a typical vamp. I wanted to create a believable character, a negative one but a strong personality, not a flippant caricature.”

Known for his keen musical sensibilities, Ghai was very particular about the music in the film, which, of course, remains popular till this day. In his autobiography Khullam Khulla (2017), Rishi Kapoor revealed that the song ‘Dard-e-Dil’ was choreographed by Ghai himself! Kapoor wrote, 'He offered to bring in a choreographer and reshoot it if I did not like his effort. But just two days into shooting I realized that the man really knew what he was doing. He had done his homework. He had all his ideas clearly worked out in his head, much like how Nasir Husain sa’ab planned his sequences.'

Karz did good business at the time of its release but it wasn’t the blockbuster hit that Ghai had perhaps hoped for. However, in time, the film gained enormous adulation from the audience to become one of the most influential films in popular culture. The reincarnation, mysticism and notion of justice meted out were all themes that were picked up by several films later on.

In recent times, Farah Khan paid tribute to the film through her 2007 film, Om Shaanti Om.

Despite several superlative performances in the film, it is Rishi Kapoor’s exuberant physicality and electric energy that light up each frame. Who else could have rocked that silver suit with such aplomb!

Watching the film now, 40 years after its release, makes one think of how it was certainly ahead of its time. In the 1991 interview, reflecting on his work, Ghai said, “Nevertheless, despite the fact that Karz was nowhere a grosser as my later films, it remains THE film which I made almost cent per cent according to my liking, my convictions, and with the barest minimum of concessions for commercial reasons.”

It also remains one of the more memorable films of Hindi cinema.