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Racing climax that won laurels


I WISH Mansoor Khan didn't make films so sparsely. He gets one movie out every five years or so. (I've heard this is because he's a perfectionist - he'll obsess over details). That's too long a wait - specially when you're impatient to see his next new film. Well, the next best thing to actually seeing the next Mansoor Khan film is re-seeing something old by him. Like "Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander." After "QSQT", what? Mansoor Khan's answer was the underrated, unsung "JJWS", a near-flawless commercial gem that featured the most wonderfully low-key and yet thrilling climax that I know of in an Indian movie: a cycle race.

The centrepiece of the film is, of course, that suspenseful, exciting bicycle race. Each time I saw "Jo Jeeta ... " in the theatre, I noticed the audience were literally on the edge of their seats, either biting their nails or cheering. And when the race was over, they broke into applause spontaneously. It generated that much excitement - and still does (though I know the outcome) every time I see it again on video. And I can't help wondering if the inspiration to have "Lagaan" end in a cricket match did not come from here, care of Aamir Khan. Why didn't anybody think of this before - ending a blockbuster Indian movie in cycle race or a cricket match and skipping the shoot-outs, fisticuffs, lover's reunions and family feuds? It took Mansoor Khan to have the guts, the sensitivity and imagination to not abandon the formula but re-invent it.

"Jo Jeeta ... " stays within the formula but works interesting, inventive variations around it. It doesn't make big departures, just small ones - the beauty of this film lies in how neatly (I'm tempted to add perfectly) it realises what it sets out to do.

"JJWS" keeps all the ingredients of the formula - hero, heroine, six songs, rivalry, melodrama, family and villains - but treats them realistically and with restraint, and the result is just as believable, entertaining and enchanting. Mansoor Khan transposes the Archie comic ethos to Indian soil, sensibly and inventively Indianising it. (The film is also a neat re-working of "Breaking Away" and "American Flyers".)

While watching it we are not entirely aware of the movie's origins but we sense its familiarity and it gives us a pleasurable buzz. And once we figure out who the Indian Archie, Veronica, Betty et al are, it's even more fun because we feel we know these people, we know how they are going to act before they do. They feel like characters from a comic or a book that we've known for a long time and who've now suddenly come to life.

To this Archie formula Khan added one more neat, brilliant touch: he made the setting those exclusive, exotic, secluded residential hill schools. Now, this is not exactly India - this is an esoteric, private world. It has its own rules, its own character. And that is the third thing Khan gets perfectly - boarding school life.

He doesn't violate this world with too much standard Hindi movie fantasy but stays faithful to it, evoking it entertainingly and accurately.

The drama isn't low-key, just scaled down to size - life-size - and both the song sequences and the comic situations are not tagged on but grow out of plot and character. In particular, the tune, choreography and song picturisation of "Pehla Nasha" is a delight - the song begins, as you must remember, in a classroom. As Aamir breaks into song, the class continues, unmindful. You know it's happening in his head. And this is where all songs really happen. Why don't we have more songs that really resemble something from a musical where people sing from a real context?

But "JJWS" has left its mark: you can't help but see how many Hindi movies seem to be influenced by it - in fact it revived the feel-good movie trend. Above all, the triumph of "JJWS" lies in its characterisation. The Mamik character (Aamir's brother) is reliable, loyal, hardworking and cute but - this is the thing - he is not the hero of the movie. Aamir Khan's dodgy character is: here's a hero who is cute but not goody-goody: he'll swipe exam question papers, puncture tyres, ditch his friends when he has to (driving away in that jeep with Pooja Bedi with those two sidekicks gaping) say a few lies if he has to, play pranks etc.

In other words, a regular guy. A character from life; not a movie hero. It was in "JJWS" that we saw Aamir's Tom Hanks - like acting range. Ayesha Jhulka was perfect for the part, looking like a Sharmila Tagore of our times. Mamik in particular was very good.

The secret of "JJWS' was that every actor and actress kept in character but for that to happen you need real characters, not types, and that's what the movie has.

In the end, its not just style and treatment alone that make a difference to a formulaic script but details, and Mansoor Khan comes up with small, recognisable, wonderful details that stay with you long after the movie is over.

PRADEEP SEBASTIAN

(pradeepsebastian @hotmail.com)
visuals by Netra Shyam

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