Khaali Peeli review: This Ishaan Khatter-Ananya Panday film backs into disaster
Director Maqbool Khan’s ode to commercial masala movies is distracted and empty
Perhaps no other film in recent memory has flaunted its big-screen credentials like Khaali Peeli. The whistles and hoots that director Maqbool Khan was going for have been largely subdued by the pandemic. There is, however, one respite: the film has released on the pay-per-view service Zee Plex, a first for a major studio film with stars. The idea of ‘digital tickets’ in India might take some getting used to, though I doubt Khaali Peeli is the smashing jump-start the programmers were hoping for.
Director: Maqbool Khan
Cast: Ishaan Khatter, Ananya Panday, Jaideep Ahlawat
Streaming on: Zee Plex
A streetsmart cabbie rescues a distressed damsel from the seedy by-lanes of Mumbai. He could be the munificent ‘hero’ played by Dev Anand in Taxi Driver (1954), except we are in present times, and our options are limited to Ishaan Khatter wheeling a Premier Padmini through the night. The ‘heroine’ in his backseat, Pooja (Ananya Panday), has a bag full of stolen cash and jewelry. They must escape the city by sun-up or land in jail.
Much of the first-half follows ‘Blackie’ (Ishaan, so named for scaling movie tickets as a child) and Pooja chalking out a plan. He has committed a ‘half-murder’ in a heated scuffle and pranced. She has run off on her wedding to a lecherous older man. Together, they must outstrip cops and gangsters alike, all while sorting out mutual suspicions that give way to love.
As the chase unfurls, a series of flashbacks flesh out the converging backstories. Turns out, Pooja and Blackie were childhood sweethearts, pulled apart when a pimp, Yusuf (Jaideep Ahlawat), got wind of their affection and intervened. Now, Yusuf is after Pooja, and will stop at nothing to return her to her intended destination.
The flashy, crisscrossing editing does little to make us join in on the ride. It’s a bit of a stretch that all these characters would be thus reunited, but even ignoring that, there’s hardly any propulsion or chemistry in the story to keep you hooked. One suspects the makers ran out of creative ways to drag out a one-night chase over an almost two-hour film, and thus settled for easy flashbacks (in contrast, Michael Mann’s Collateral, arguably the greatest film in the genre, proceeds without one).
Indeed, Khaali Peeli is least inclined to become an engaging action-thriller. Almost the entire film is fashioned as a tribute to the splashy masala movies of old. This is done proudly but vacuously: an Agneepath reference here, a Sholay hat-tip there. Movies, or the love of them, do not alter or influence the characters’ journeys in a substantial way, like they did in Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota. Blackie hangs a picture of young Salman Khan in his cab, but his fighting style is all over the place: from the slo-mo swerves of Tiger Shroff to the forced intensity of Shah Rukh Khan.
Jaideep Ahlawat looks like he’s nursing a headache and bidding his time. Yusuf is a flatly unremarkable villain, though he does turn scary for one scene, creeping up on young kids watching a film. Ishaan, who played a desperate street kid in Beyond The Clouds (2017), suffers under the broad tapori lingo and mannerisms. He is still a sight better than Ananya, whose limits as a performer are getting plainer by the day.
Khaali Peeli backs into disaster. We’re all better off on foot.