Millennials Review Classics: Vinod Khanna’s Hit-and-Miss ‘Achanak’
Vinod Khanna passed away on 27 April, just days after I watched ‘Achanak,’ my first taste of his legendary talent.
(Actor Vinod Khanna died on 27 April 2017 after a reported battle with cancer. This article is being reposted from The Quint’s archives as a tribute to the veteran actor’s illustrious career.)
(Maanvi is 24-years-old. She saw Achanak (1973) for the first time and reviewed it here.)
At the heart of Gulzar’s Achanak lies a simple question — on life and death. The 1973-film starring Vinod Khanna is loosely based on the infamous 1959 KM Nanavati case.
Major Ranjeet Khanna (played by Vinod Khanna) shoots his wife, Pushpa (played by Lily Chakravarty), and his best friend after he discovers that they are having an affair. For his crime, Ranjeet is sentenced to death by a court, which unlike the original Nanavati case, is not a jury trial. However, Ranjeet is fatally shot while escaping from the police and is admitted to a hospital, where doctors are confident he won’t survive beyond a few hours.
But surprisingly, proving everyone wrong, Major Ranjeet Khanna fully recovers — leading doctors to call him a ‘medical miracle’ — until the time comes for him to be hanged to death. The age-old dilemma of dharma and justice is presented to us through a veteran cast of actors, including Om Shivpuri, Farida Jalal, Asrani and Iftikhar.
Disappointingly though, Achanak squanders a fantastic premise (and a brilliant Vinod Khanna) on unnecessary chase sequences, weak scripting and incoherent logic. Achanak asks all the right questions but doesn’t take the time to explore the answers. And for a first-time 24-year-old viewer, it is a thought-provoking, but ultimately an exasperating film to watch.
Watch the video review here or continue reading the review below the video:
A Flawed Nanavati, And A Moral Dialogue
The KM Nanavati case in 1959 has provided ample fodder for Hindi cinema, with National Award-winning actor Akshay Kumar’s Rustom (2016) being the latest adaptation. (Ahem.) In a newly-independent India in 1959, Commander KM Nanavati, a Naval Commander shot Prem Ahuja, his wife Sylvia’s lover, after discovering their affair.
The ‘crime of passion’ captured the country’s attention, with a large chunk of public opinion supporting the upright Commander. Nanavati was declared not guilty by a jury, until the verdict was later overturned by Bombay High Court.
In Achanak, Major Ranjeet Khanna is an Army officer, not a Navy commander. And apart from stabbing Prakash, his wife’s lover, he also ends up strangling his wife (played by Lily Chakravarty).
But, in both instances of murder, it is portrayed as a pre-meditated act where Ranjeet harks back to his Army training to kill (and later escape). He never confronts them about the alleged affair.
This cold-blooded approach to murder makes it difficult to empathise with Major Ranjeet Khanna, despite every character in the film around him emphasising his bravery and integrity.
For a film which centrally poses a moral dilemma to the viewer (ie, is murder really a crime if committed by an upright and brave soldier?), it fails to make the space for empathy with the main character.
At the end of the film, as Ranjeet Khanna is being led away to his death sentence, I was unable to feel sorry for a sobbing Nurse Radha (played by a young Farida Jalal, a moment in time I was sure never existed). For I kept thinking, Major Ranjeet Khanna may be a Param Vir Chakra awardee and a ‘medical miracle’, but hadn’t he killed two people he loved without confronting them about the apparent affair?
Major Ranjeet Khanna’s training as a soldier enables him to be a murderer. He thinks of his lessons in the Army, where he learnt which nerve to apply pressure to if you want to strangle someone, before killing his wife.
But why is killing someone on the battlefield awarded with a medal of bravery, and killing someone at home awarded with a death sentence? It is a question posed by Dr Chaudhary (played by Om Shivpuri) verbatim in the film. And it is philosophical questions like these, framed in sparkling dialogue, which are the high points of the film — incisive, shattering and thought-provoking.
A Scorching Vinod Khanna on Screen
Vinod Khanna is in fine fettle as the foul-mouthed, brave and a doting husband, Major Ranjeet Khanna. As Ranjeet explains to his wife how all Army men swear and drink copiously, Vinod Khanna gets the slight arrogance in his tone just right. When his superior, Colonel Bakshi (played by the eternal cop and Army man, Iftikhar) reprimands him for listening to his wife’s songs and not focusing on his training, Vinod Khanna plays his defiance beautifully. Unfortunately, his intensity is barely matched by Lily Chakravarty, who plays his wife Pushpa.
Before watching Achanak, I’d never seen a Vinod Khanna film before. I knew of him as Akshaye Khanna’s father and a film star politician, but I had never been introduced to the joys of watching a well built, towering Vinod Khanna establish his screen presence with just a smile. It’s a joy I will cherish in the future.
More of the Hospital Gang, Please?
The film swings back-and-forth between the hospital and Ranjeet’s life.
The hospital scenes are some of the strongest in the film because it is here that a bunch of doctors and nurses grapple with the question: Can a ‘good man’ really be a ‘criminal’? Who decides?
Dr. Chaudhary (played by Om Shivpuri), Dr Kailash (played by Asrani) and Nurse Radha (played by Farida Jalal), all regard Major Ranjeet Khanna as a ‘medical miracle’ — as we’re repeatedly reminded, he defied impossible odds to survive.
At the end of the film, Major Ranjeet Khanna is sent to the gallows. A new patient is brought in — he is a convict and critically swinging between life and death. Dr Chaudhary (who incidentally, is pessimistic about Ranjeet’s chances initially) screams that he wants to give up being a doctor.
“Kyun bachana chahte ho usse? Faansi pe chadaane ke liye?!”
It’s the sharpest moment in the film; where duty is juxtaposed with destiny. After pausing for a minute, Dr Chaudhary decides to continue with the operation. It’s his dharma to save a life, just as it is the dharma of the justice system to hang the accused. As I watched this scene, I wished for more scenes from the hospital, to be witness to the struggles between despair, death and duty.
Which brings to me the bits I could happily do without in Achanak.
Why, Oh Why, Weren’t These Sequences Edited?
What’s the need for an extended, unnecessary chase sequence of Vinod Khanna running away from the police? There’s no inherent thrill in the chase (since we know he gets caught) and no addition to the narrative. Similarly, we don’t need an extended scene of Vinod Khanna fighting in a war. While watching, I found myself inevitably fidgeting and Googling to know more about Vinod Khanna’s films.
Interestingly though, I was speaking to my editor who saw (and loved) Achanak at the time it was released and she loved the chase sequences. She thought it was ‘thrilling’, while with my steady diet of thrillers on Netflix, I was confident Achanak would have been a better film without it. Maybe, it’s a generational thing?
Final verdict? I enjoyed Achanak, the interesting way it explored death and duty and of course, for Vinod Khanna. Only if it would leave thrill aside, and just stick to exploring those questions.
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