If you don't know the story, you've been living under a rock: the remake of a knock-off (Tamil cinema's 2005 superhit of the same name; owing a liberal debt to the American Memento), Ghajini is Sanjay Singhania's quest for vengeance: Singhania (Aamir Khan) suffers from short-term memory loss, which in his case means that he forgets just about everything every fifteen minutes -- including the identity of the man who killed his fiancee Kalpana (Asin). If this perpetual "rebooting" sounds a tad mechanistic, that's only fitting -- for Singhania's vendetta has transformed his own body into mere instrument, both to help him remember (Sanjay uses his body to scrawl notes and instructions to himself; every incident of memory loss is thus always followed by the shock of learning anew), and to help him unleash carnage on his enemies (Sanjay's muscular body, first revealed to us before his bathroom mirror in a disturbing representation of tortured mind and contorted body, is nothing so much as a weapon). That is to say, in the absence of love, Sanjay is no better than machine -- one oriented toward tracking down Ghajini Dharmatma (Pradeep Rawat), who murdered Kalpana before Sanjay's own eyes, and killing him. Add in nosy medical student Sunita (Jiah Khan) who wants to get to the bottom of things, and you have a recipe for one savory khichdi.
I needn't have fretted about the Hindi version's makers trying to remake the Tamil masala film into something far more palatable to contemporary multiplex audiences. To a far greater extent than I had expected, the down-home ethos and vibe of the original has been retained (if you want to know what I mean, think back to the childhood flashback sequence in Tashan), a vibe more '90s B'wood than the industry that gives us Life in a Metro or Taare Zameen Par (it must be said that the Hindi version features more slick action than its Tamil counterpart did). Indeed one cannot shake the feeling that the most important thing Aamir Khan has forgotten with respect to Ghajini is not the identity of his lover's killer, but the fact that the paradigm this film represents has been killed. Or rather, more likely, the opposite: the very fact that this film is an unabashed throwback suggests that the filmmakers haven't forgotten at all.
"Throwback" might conjure up memories of mindless beat 'em ups and revenge sagas, and no-one can deny that there was much about the old Bollywood that deserved to be laid to rest. But "throwback" can also refer to Hindi cinema's traditional ability to harness the epic in the service of the everyday; to tell a story with an emotional core, one that could be re-visited, not simply consumed; where the characters were more than mere toned and tanned mannequins, on the one hand, or Hollywood-style "naturalistic" characters, on the other. And it is in this sense that Ghajini is a throwback: in a word, what distinguishes this film from its purportedly more sophisticated, more modern peers, is the conviction that the trauma at the core of the film matters. And matters enough to make psychotic rage seem like a plausible response to irremediable loss.
Ghajini would at first blush appear to be an odd choice to keep the banner of old-school masala flying: its publicity campaign peddled Aamir's multi-pack makeover, and the actor's shaven-haired look served as Exhibit A to Bollywood's newfound professionalism, not averse to getting in the skin of a character. And certainly Ghajini features enough waxed chest to put Hrithik Roshan to shame, enough of a wannabe vibe -- courtesy the video of the Behka song -- to make one cringe. But what lingers is the emotional heft of the Sanjay-Kalpana love story; and "lingers" is the word, given that director Murugadoss takes a great deal of time to show the two talking, spending time together, simply enjoying each other's company. In an era addicted to fast forward, these two take their time getting to the point -- with the result that one begins to care for the pair, even in the absence of any great, passionate moment. The length of time the audience spends "with" the lead pair is crucial (it is surely not coincidental that the demise of an older cinematic paradigm has been accompanied by a noticeable shortening of the films, to the point where the vast majority are closer to two than three hours): absent such an investment, it is unlikely Sanjay's loss could resonate to the extent that it does. Equally important is Murugadoss' strategy of splicing the flashback into three segments, and deferring the actual representation of the trauma to the maximum extent feasible. Ghajini, in short, doesn't just present us with a man whose fiancee has been killed; it makes the audience feel that something truly meaningful has been destroyed. For all the old-school clunkiness of Ghajini's technique, that privileging of "showing" over "telling" announces the film as more cinematic than many of its superficially hipper peers.
Aamir Khan is the single biggest reason why Ghajini succeeds in this "showing", in implicating its audience in Sanjay's trauma. For just about every other aspect has been imported wholesale from the Tamil version (although the climax is different, and, mercifully, better in the Hindi version) -- and yet the latter is somehow un-compelling, despite the presence of a gifted star-actor at its core. The difference where the Hindi version is concerned is Khan, who turns in not only an authoritative performance -- one has come to expect these -- but (and this is unusual for Khan) an uninhibited one, especially as the psychotic post-trauma Sanjay. He rages, bellows, grunts, more feral than human -- and makes it all seem plausible. His excess here is not an excess of effort, but an excess of grief, of rage, of madness. Despite the fact that I've seen the Tamil version more than once, despite the fact that the Hindi version otherwise shares the Tamil version's failings (not least of these is a script that where events don't really move forward so much as just happen), from the moment Aamir Khan makes his entry in a blaze of flying fists and broken furniture, and even more so from the next scene, when Sanjay wakes up, and the reality of his amnesia is revealed not by shots of his apartment's walls covered by reminders, but by the fact that the camera stays on his wide-open eyes, at once bewildered and vulnerable, yet shaded with anger, I was completely spellbound by Aamir's performance. Not since Mangal Pandey glowered outside his former friend Gordon's house has Khan been so transporting. Certainly Pandey is the better-written character, and hence the more complex role, but the Aamir of three years later lets Sanjay go in a way he never did with Mangal, even at his most furious. As in the under-appreciated Mangal Pandey, however, Aamir Khan holds the film together; but the achievement is all the greater in Ghajini, as, unlike in Mangal Pandey, there wouldn't be much to salvage in the film absent Khan's performance.
Which isn't to say that the performance is perfect: Aamir is far less impressive as the younger Sanjay, partly because he seems just too old for the role at points (the only way to pull the Behka video off would have been as spoof; sadly, Aamir and Murugadoss are deadly serious), and partly because he doesn't appear to be doing much for long stretches of the flashback except demonstrate to the audience that he has the gesturality of this mode of popular cinema down pat (this is made explicit in a clever bit of humor, when Sanjay instructs an actor Kalpana wants to pose as Sanjay, on the importance of not overdoing things. The fact that the actor in question has a theater background might be a dig at Shah Rukh Khan, although the fact that he looks a lot more like Aamir than Shah Rukh, combined with the evocation of Aamir's own (in)famous inability to relax throughout the 1990s, makes a self-deprecating reading the more plausible one). This isn't a fatal problem -- more isn't required of Aamir -- but it is a letdown after the intensity of the other Sanjay that the film began with. However, the role of the younger Sanjay comes into its own as we move closer to the tragedy, culminating in Kalpana's murder before the weeping, helpless Sanjay -- one of the film's more memorable sequences. [Another, more charming one is Sanjay taking Kalpana's "new" Ambassador car for a spin, with Ramiaiya Vasta Vaiya playing in the background.]
Aamir Khan's is the dominant performance, but no discussion of Ghajini could be complete without mention of Asin. As Kalpana, her task is to get the audience to fall in love with her, while simultaneously serving as a paragon of virtue, of the sort quite common in Tamil cinema but almost extinct in Bollywood outside the world of Barjatya. That she does so without boring the life out of moviegoers is no mean feat -- and goes a long way toward this viewer forgiving her some enthusiastic hamming (by way of an unmistakeable Sridevi-imitation). Kalpana is the film's "ground": she keeps high-flying CEO Sanjay Singhania tethered (equally, her death means there is nothing to keep Sanjay in check), but more evocatively she keeps the film tethered to the lives of real people. It isn't every day that major Hindi films today feature characters with money worries, or who are forced to confront some of contemporary India's uglier realities (such as a kidney-smuggling racket preying on village girls). CEO Singhania is himself the kind of easily wealthy character common in contemporary Hindi cinema, and his "education" in the ways of the ordinary Indian by way of Kalpana is also, perhaps, the re-orientation of a Hindi film audience that has come to associate cinematic heroism with outsized wealth.
The title role is as disappointing here as it was in the Tamil version: in both films the culprit was Pradeep Rawat, in what must surely rank as the most underwhelming outsized villain ever. Rawat isn't bad in either version, but mere competence is not enough to bear the weight of the significance the film invests Ghajini with: he is the source of the "founding" trauma of this film's universe, the demonic deity who must be slain if life is to continue. Such a schema required the services of an Amrish Puri; in these times of diminished cinematic villainy, sadly, it appears Rawat will have to do. [The mystery deepens when one reflects upon him being the choice for the Tamil version as well; the film would surely have been elevated had the likes of Pasupathy or Bhartiraja, or even the (admittedly overused) Prakashraj, been given an opportunity to strut their stuff.]
It is clear Murugadoss had greater ambitions than the depiction of just another baddie -- Ghajini's last name is, tellingly, "Dharmatma" -- and indeed the film's schema (indebted, of course, to Memento) turns Freud's world on its head. Whereas in psychoanalysis it is the repression of trauma that makes memory possible, the forgetting that must occur if one is to live; here the trauma is precisely that which cannot be repressed -- and being irrepressible, makes memory impossible. The subject who cannot repress the trauma is a subject condemned to forget everything but the trauma. One might even read this as a complement to Freudian psycho-analysis: a depiction of the perils of not forgetting the primal father's appropriation of the woman one loves, re-cast as popular mythology. Sanjay gets his chance for redemption by film's end, when he is able to rescue Sunita from a fate identical to Kalpana's. But like the best masala films of yore, Ghajini knows that what is done is irreparable: no ghosts materialize to heal wounds here; rather, the film's final shot is of Sanjay contemplating Kalpana's last memento, even as she appears to sit beside Sanjay, gazing wistfully at him. The Dharmatma has been slain -- but all can never be right with the world he has sundered.