"Why isn't this working?" I thought to myself, as I pressed play on Dayavan on attempt #4 to finish it. It wasn't so awful that I gave up entirely, but now that it's over, I'm frustrated that it raised some thought-provoking (if, er, "classic") questions without doing anything very interesting with them. Principally, I think (though am not absolutely certain) the film says that it's perfectly okay to be a lawless vigilante thug if you've been abused by the system. That's not my personal code; worse, it just makes the already bleak world of this film even more distressing and dangerous, and the only person who seems to question the dangerous choices is the person who suffers most.
Shakti Velu/Dayavan (Vinod Khanna) thinks his life was thrown off the standard moral grid when he was still a child, when he is first lied to, then betrayed, then made an orphan by some fantastically awful police officers. All alone in the world, he somehow arrives in Mumbai,* where most figures with any power are just as bad as the cops who killed his father and the pitiable poor are screwed by those with more money who can pay to have the rules bend their way.
You know what, Shakti Velu? Of course you did. I think you are unwilling - maybe even psychologically unable - to take responsibility for being a better adult than the truly evil people who made your childhood truly horrible. Rise above it, man! Shakti Velu isn't heartless, and the film shows him in not only Robin Hood-esque deeds of uplifting his community (providing ambulances specifically for the poor, organizing prayer ceremonies) but also small, private acts of carding and kindness.
But even some of those are far from pure, like acting as an older male authority figure to a boy who is fatherless...because he killed his father. Oof. Though very powerful in word and action, even as the de facto community organizer, advocate, and judge,
In full-on godfather mode, rings and all.
Shakti Velu came off to me as childlike. He is capable of genuine affection but also extreme violence, and he seems unable to change his own worldview even though he suffers great loss because of it.
His lifestyle is full of huge risks, and he suffers from them as often as not - yet he never seems to make the connection between those decisions and the episodes of pain and loneliness they cause. For a visual, this is the expression Vinod Khanna makes most often in this film.
You know what, Dayavan? Your way of living endangers everyone you love. So why don't you stop?
This is the explanation given for major tragedies with no discussion (that I caught, anyway) of the dangerous and illegal lifestyles these people lead. In the scene above, someone has just died in a car accident while they flee the police after arranging a murder; I don't really see how that's God's doing and not a fairly reasonable potential outcome of his decision to murder somebody in broad daylight in a crowded city.
That, I think, is the major downfall of this story. I don't require every film to have a nice shiny moral bow at the end, but I also appreciate writing that lets characters learn, grown, think. Dayavan has very little scope for that, and I am curious if Mani Ratman's Tamil original Nayakan addresses these issues more thoroughly.
I also wonder if Dayavan's relentless adherence to his own ethical code is possible only because of the constant companionship of his adopted brother, Shankar (Feroz Khan).
Shankar is even more uncritical than Shakti; when Shakti's daughter Sarita (Amala) wonders why he has beaten up the local politician's rapist son, he replies "I did as he asked me to. I can't differentiate between the right and the wrong." OMG. That is what responsible people do, Shankar.
So what about the fruits of yours?
This would have been so much more interesting if Shakti had an ethical or intellectual foil. Sarita voices a lot of the criticisms one can make of Shakti's world,
but very little is made of the ideas she raises. Instead, Shakti and Shankar soldier on, destroying whoever opposes them with apparently no thought about what consequences might arise. It is worth noting that Shakti never loses his most core emotional support and connection (his relationship with Shankar) even when their actions have a significant body count for the other people in Shakti's life. It's almost just the two of them against the world. I also think it's interesting that Shakti's wife does not survive the film, as though there is no room at the center of Shakti's emotional core for anyone other than Shankar. Nobody does bromance like the rough-love brodi of Vinod and Feroz.
Yep, that's Feroz and Vinod, splashing around in the ocean and rolling around on the ground during a Holi song. Awww!
A few words of praise for Dayavan. After an extremely harsh beginning, the first few episodes in Shakti's life show a little more inner conflict than later ones. His romance with student/prostitute Neela (a very young-looking and mild-mannered Madhuri Dixit)
is sweet but also puzzling - I'm not sure why exactly he falls for her, and his grim expression through their initial meetings made me wonder if he was remotely happy in her presence, but it gets cuter once they're married. From her end, I get it. She lives in a world in which a man who takes a few seconds to learn something about you as a person and sees you as more than a sexual object is remarkable.
Yech. I don't blame her for latching on.
In the first phases of his adult years, the director (Feroz again) takes good advantage of Vinod's physical presence to establish Shakti as an unquestionable force. In this scene, the evil police (led by Amrish Puri as probably the most despicable villain I have yet seen him play) turn heavy-duty water hoses on some slum-dwellers, and Shakti just refuses to back down.
Hit me with your best shot!
Aruna Irani is great but very underused as Tara, a tough-as-nails widow who stands up to police bullying, helps raise Dayavan's children, and takes great risks to protect him as the police close in on him.
This being a Feroz Khan film, there is plenty of style. Because of the setting, most of it is much less gaudy than we would ordinarily expect, but Feroz-ji and his team still make things look really, really good. There's a lot of variety in texture and color done with materials that, like the characters, are a little rough around the edges.
He may not deserve credit for the look of the film's finest moment, but whoever does should be praised up and down, because this Holi song is wonderful! I mean, how could it not be - it starts out with Feroz playing a drum in a tree!
I love these last two shots particularly. In the first one, I like how the colors have all run together but you still see some distinct patches, and the angles of the dancers' arms add some sharpness too. Plus an actual rainbow! In the second, look how far back that line of dancers extends. And isn't it cool how the ramshackle dinginess of the slums has been combined with the choreographed liveliness and colors of the dance? Love!
Woooop! Woooop! Woooop! Irony alert! Irony alert!
Oh Madhuri. If my husband were a powerful don, I would never, ever say something like that! Have you never seen any films about gangsters? Shhhh, child!
Sigh. I love Vinod + Feroz as much as the next person,
but this just did not work for me. I'll just watch Qurbani again instead.
* I read a great quote somewhere about how people say "Bombay" when they mean the fabulous, now retro world of chiffon saris and baby blue convertibles and "Mumbai" when they mean corruption, danger, and everyone-for-themselves ethics. By that system, Dayavan is set in Mumbai, no doubt about it, no matter what years the story is set in.