Akshay Kumar is back with Khiladi 786, his eighth Khiladi (The Player) movie over the past 20-odd years. It’s been a dozen years since he released a film with that title, but he has far from abandoned the character he perfected in the ’90s. The last few years have seen Kumar playing the same over-the-top hero character in masala film after masala film to typically very good box office results. In fact, whenever Kumar tries to stray from the path he built for himself with offbeat films like 8×10 Tasveer, Blue, or Joker, audiences tend to stay away in droves. In a way, even though this film doesn’t have an original bone in its body, I’m kind of glad that he has accepted his role as the clown prince of Bollywood. It suits him.
In Khiladi 786, Kumar plays Bahattar Singh, a Punjabi police officer and bad ass mofo. When I say that he’s a hero, I mean it in the most literal sense. However, beneath the punishing exterior that pounds fear into the hearts of criminals, there is a soft spot looking for love. Bahattar Singh is lonely, and all of his proposals of marriage have been rejected, but one young matchmaker is determined to put himself on the map and conspires to marry Mr. Singh to Indu (Asin) the young sister of a notorious crime boss played by Bollywood’s original action hero, Mithun Chakraborty. Crazy misunderstandings, bouncy disco numbers, and plots of revenge fly at the audience left and right in this throwback to the glory days of late ’80s-early ’90s Indian action.
I had low expectations going into Khiladi 786, in fact, if you look back at my announcement when the trailer hit, I was even underwhelmed by that. However, the film really took me by surprise. This is a goofy action comedy that knows exactly what it is and what its boundaries are, unlike Son of Sardaar, which tried to grab the audience by the throat and choke laughs out of them, Khiladi 786 simply allows the comedy to flow freely, like so much wind from a whoopie cushion. The result is a very entertaining and very silly film with just enough heart to get by and more than enough enjoyable moments to make the journey worthwhile.
Part of the fun of the film is recognizing all of the little bits and pieces that director Ashish Mohan throws into the mix just for Bollywood fans. Primary among them is the placement of Mithun Chakraborty as crime lord TTT (Tatya Tukaram Tendulkar), in a stunningly awful fake mustache. Mithunda is kind of like Akshay Kumar’s lucky charm; where they go as a team, there’s sure to be something enjoyable to watch.
But he’s not the only blast from the past given a chance to shine, Bollywood’s most famous comedian of the ’90s, Johnny Lever, also has a moment in the spotlight, which always gets a smile out of me. Lever was in damn near every Bollywood film of that decade, but since he’s begun his own TV evangelist career, his film roles have been few and far between. In fact, the last time I saw him on the big screen was in the Deol family epic, Yamla Pagla Dewaana, and even then his 30 seconds of screen time gave me a chuckle. The references and bit parts go on and on, and are a lot of fun for those in the know, especially an epic disco sequence in which a club is having an RD Burman night; really, either you get it or you don’t.
The bottom line on Khiladi 786 is that this is a film that wears its affection for its antecedents on its sleeve. The technology and the wire fu capabilities might be slightly better than they were 20 years ago, but a good gag is a good gag no matter when it is shot. I can’t really give a reasoned, rational explanation regarding what separated this film from the pack of other similar projects that have been released lately, but I think it probably has to do with my softening toward Kumar over the years. Or maybe it’s just the fact that Khiladi 786 is good, wholesome (for India), cartoonishly violent fun.