The High Priest of the Lowbrow
Kader Khan wasn’t a writer or an actor.
Of course, IMDB credits him with some 110 titles as a writer, and 416 as an actor, and a career in Hindi films spanning four decades, starting from 1971. Op-ed pieces have reasons to sing paeans about his extremely prolific contribution to cinema, proudly propping up the impressive statistics of more than ten films a year on an average before or behind the cameras. His understanding of Hindi, Urdu, Hindustani and their apt everyday usage deservedly won him awards and accolades in equal measure. BUT. Kader Khan wasn’t a writer or an actor. Or just that.
Kader Khan was a concept. Kader Khan was a genre.
The 1980s were a decadent decade. Guess the sexy swag of the flower power was so very evolved and consuming and out-there, that it was kind of tough for the generation after to live up to its legacy. The existing icons were slipping, and the antithesis were getting deified. The spaces in Arts, Literature, Films and Fashion were being redefined, confusing the lows with the highs, and vice versa. Plastic defined the new aesthetics. Loud was the new doctrine. On the real world front, the bumbling buffoons of the Janata Party had mucked up the first non-Congress government and the bumbling buffoons of the country had decided to give Mrs. Gandhi a second chance. The angry young man was ceasing to be as angry. From the suave smugglers, the lalas and budmash bahus were making comebacks as the villains of peace. It was as if all the powers in the world had combined forces to put everything in the regressive mode. The pace had become slow. The bar had become low.
Enter Kader Khan. The high priest of the lowbrow.
Of his four professional decades, it was the 1980s that saw the Kader Khan phenomenon explode. He was involved in the story, screenplay and dialogues of more than seventy films between 1980 and 1989, and almost half of them were hits. From innumerous Jeetendra PT shows like Himmatwala, Justice Chaudhary, Haisiyat, Akalmand, Sarfarosh and Maqsad to the Anil Kapoor-Jackie Shroff bromances Andar Baahar and Karma, from Amitabh Bachchan megamovies like Lawaaris and Yaarana to family tearjerkers including Swarg Se Sundar and Bade Ghar Ki Beti featuring ungrateful sons and vicious daughters-in-law, to the exquisitely convoluted Khoon Bhari Maang featuring Rekha fighting a crocodile, Kader Khan helmed it all.
Here’s the thing, though. Kader Khan did not just create the 1980s cinema. He created the 1980s. He almost decided on the narrative for the decade. He established the world as he saw it. And the world became him. Where the hero could dance around matkas wearing atrocious wigs, sweaters and suits, taming the womenfolk who alternated between playing Thunder Thighs and Pyaar Ki Devi. Where Advocate Shobha and Meva Ram could co-exist with Naglingam Reddy, Desh Bahadur Gupta, Abdul Karim Kaliya and Pinto The Great Smuggler. It was a realm where he stuffed everything he could, and made it large.
The audiences lapped it up. They were indoctrinated already.
There was a method attached to the man’s mission, though. Kader Khan catered to the lowest common denominator without any apology. He was of the people, for the people, by the people, only, louder, shriller and definitely more piercing. The trick was to pick the right elements with the right connect from the world that surrounded him and enhance them manifold. That was the Kader Khan formula, if there was one.
His hero, therefore, was a potent and colorful mix of Chacha Chaudhary’s brains and Sabu’s brawn, complete with the native Amar Chitra Katha sanskaars, and a pair of dancing shoes. His character actors were garish, ear-splitting reflections of how he saw the real world. So the unscrupulous trader from Swarag Se Sundar (1986) isn’t just an unscrupulous trader. He is actually called Milavat Ram in case you miss his blatant beimaani, and his shop is called Do Aur Lo Karaane Waala, in case you still miss his blatant beimaani.
Kader Khan brought the lowbrow out of its cultural closet. Not only did he specialize in it, he basked in it. He genuinely loved the “ghun ki tarah gehun mein pisne waale gadhe” and did his darnedest to give them their place under the sun. His metaphors and similes were not to flaunt his linguistic wizardry. On the contrary, he browbeated them to such an extent that they ceased to be anything beyond this non-nuanced gimmickry of words. This democratization of upma and shlesh alankaars was poetic justice, so to say, for the masses. “Dosti ka thoda atta lete hain. Ussmein pyaar ka paani milaate hain. Phir goonth-te hain. Phir dil ke choolhe par rakh ke ussko pakaate hain.”, says Amitabh Bachchan in Yaarana (1981) while describing how he prepares rotis for his best friend Amjad Khan. Okay then.
He made moviemaking and movie-viewing a watered-down version of what they were, and he wasn’t sorry about it. Crass became mainstream, villains became comedians, comedians became circus clowns. When somebody points out to Mukri in Dharam Kanta (1982) how he is rather short to be a dacoit, he says, “Jab hum chhota daaka daalte hain toh hum chhote ho jaate hain, jab hum bada daaka daalte hain, hum bade ho jaate hain”. And then you sample this Kader Khan truism from Meri Aawaz Suno (1981): “Mera naam Topiwala hai. Maine bahut saare ghamandiyon ke sar kaat kar apne kadmon mein kuchle hain, aur unnki topiyon ko apne paas saja kar rakha hai.”, as you see Topiwala proudly displaying his prized scalps. You can’t get straighter than that now, can you?
The audience roared. Kader Khan worked. Full stop.
And Kader Khan continues to work. In Sambit Patra & Co. on news channels. In Bharat Mata Ki Jai Whatsapp forwards. In Tanishk Bagchi remixes. In The Kapil Sharma Show. In over the top characters and situations, dialogues laced with obtuse humor, vulgar misogyny, hahaha jokes and the dholak beats to highlight the punchlines. One may complain, get offended, feel repulsed, and rightly so. And then one may snigger when nobody’s watching. Because the lowbrow charm scores. Every single time.
“Mujhe swarg nahin jaana hai kyonki swarg jaane ke liye marna padta hai”, said Kader Khan in Ghar Sansar (1986) as Girdhari Lal.
Both Girdhari Lal and Kader Khan must be having a good laugh right now.
Thank you for the lowbrow magnificence, Papa
(Revisiting this review, since Papa is back in the news. See you soon in jail.)
The last time somebody was referred to as Papa The Great in a movie was Kishan Kumar, paradropped on the innocent audiences in the eponymous movie released in the year 2000. Kishan Kumar was the resident rajah of graceless grunge, a producerputra (he was the younger brother, if we are to get technical) inflicted on us in at least five movies between 1993 and 2000. From Aaja Meri Jaan to Bewafa Sanam and from Kasam Teri Kasam to Papa The Great, KK was on the mission impossible, gunning for the unachievable. But he kept trying. Diligently, self assuredly, continuously. Despite a face that only his mother would have found palatable, and acting skills that even his mother would not have found palatable. Papa The Great was one final assault from the Karolbagh Kumars, till brother Gulshan became wiser and moved on to the non-Kishan things in life. But the movie, and everything about it, remains an unforgettable piece of awkward awesomeness. Exactly what gives Kishan Kumar a hallowed place in the history of Hindi Cinema.
Poetic, therefore, that fifteen years later, the contender to topple and gobble the peachy coarseness of Kishan Kumar is another Papa The Great. Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insaan. The Messenger. The Artist Formerly Known as the Messenger of God.
And this Papa does not fly solo. He comes all guns blazing, with stadiums full of people chanting his name and carnivals dedicated to his bonbon affability. As he portrays the middle India messiah, the middle class master blaster. Hell, I was the only person at the theatre when I watched the movie, yet I was dancing in the aisles! That’s what Pitaji does to you. Before you realise it, you become one with him, mildly suffocating though this sounds considering the kilos surrounding him. He builds your confidence, one fat cell at a time, layering one adipose tissue over another, and soon enough, you start believing that you can conquer the entire world. Like Papa.
All that you need to win the world over is extreme self belief. I don’t know what this Satguru does in real life, but if I were to just go by his film persona, he left me totally charged, yes sir. That you can look like a complex cross-pollination-product combining Hagrid, Govinda, Barbie and Austin Powers and mesmerise millions with that persona is reason enough for me to believe that I can score and more with whoever I want to. That you can wear red-colored slacks purchased from Sarojini Nagar Market and yet make enough money to buy red colored helicopters, is motivational for the multitudes including me. That you can be a dreadful singer and an awful dancer, and still change clothes ten times in a music video and have three laadli betis, including a firangi, as your heroines, brings spring in my step, with both my left feet raring to go. Don’t think any of the Khans can do this to me or any of their viewers. We get out of that dark cinema to our dull and dreary lives, knowing very well that Raj, Rahul and Prem are best placed on that screen. MSG gives us hope, confidence and faith.
The film also underlines that it is okay to be lowbrow. Why, it takes pride in it! The villain Chillam Khurana is a throwback to the over-acting Jogindar of yore, Gaurav Gera digs his nose and throws booger-balls at the bald head of the villain, a prostitute mouths lines like “Hum chalti phirti gaaliyan hain” and there are supposedly funny dialogues in form of “Main gas chhodunga” and “Because Guru ji is god and you are dog”. Crummy computer graphics meet Punjabi Baroque sensibilities, and the resultant set of dolphins and lotus pods in a swimming pool, to give just one example, are delightfully cringe-inducing. The blind set of followers in the film is what the film wants to achieve in real life, and it does an awesome job of it. By continuing to salute the embarrassing ensemble that it is! You stop feeling sorry about your own sorry self when you leave the theatre.
At the same time, Pitaji immortalizes the spirit of the new India where it is okay to work hard and party harder, flaunting what one has worked hard to achieve. He keeps calling himself ek adna sa fakeer. And yet, every single part of his rotund frame, and every single frame featuring every single part of his rotund frame, has bling on it. Everything around him is a by-product of shiny disco balls. His jhadoo, bicycle, motorbikes, cars, thrones, carpets, swimming pool and even the hot air balloon from which he makes one of his entries, AND his hair follicles, all shimmer and sparkle. Unashamedly. The sets seem loud, ostentatious and trippy, almost as if they have been designed by a poor man’s Sanjay Leela Bhansali on bad quality ganja. But this blatant display of his glaring wealth is very matter of fact. With a singular underlying message. Don’t denounce the world, but love and celebrate it. And that sometimes it is okay to cross-dress.
Thank you, Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insaan. Thank you from taking over from where Kishan Kumar left us. Thank you, Papa The Great. Thank you for the lowbrow magnificence. Thank you for the gauche pomposity. Thank you for the boisterous flamboyance. And thank you for reaffirming my faith in high art. :)
(This article first appeared on firstpost.com)