Director Maqbool Khan: Masala cinema has its space
Maqbool Khan and Jaideep Ahlawat on bringing back the 80s with Khaali Peeli, streaming on Zee5/Zee Plex
In 2008, Paul Schrader was in Mumbai to research a film. Visiting Dharavi, the writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull was gripped by the visual exuberance of the slums. “He was so fascinated,” shares director Maqbool Khan, who was tasked to show him around. “Mumbai as a city offers a lot of variation to the filmmaker.”
Maqbool’s own taxi film, Khaali Peeli, has released on the pay-per-view service Zee Plex. It’s in a genre you wouldn’t readily associate with Schrader or Scorsese. Indeed, ‘masala entertainers’ are a quintessentially Indian lot, evoking both nostalgia and disdain in modern viewers. In Maqbool’s film, a taxi driver (Ishaan Khatter) rescues a young girl (Ananya Panday) one night. She’s run off with a bag of gold and cash, and is being chased by cops and gangsters alike. The hand-me-down narrative is matched by Maqbool’s filmmaking, which tips its hat to the commercial actioners of the 80s and 90s.
“I’ve grown up watching typical Bollywood masala movies,” Maqbool says. “All Amitabh Bachchan films — Don, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, Hera Pheri. Later, I became a huge fan of Mithun Chakraborty and Govinda. Although times have changed, that kind of larger-than-life cinema has its space.”
Prior to release, Khaali Peeli had courted trouble for the song Beyoncé Sharma Jayegi. Lyricists Kumaar and Raj Shekhar were criticised for comparing the American pop star to a ‘goriya’ (fair-complexioned girl). Though the line was changed, it sparked a widespread discussion on the issue of colourism in Hindi films. Looking back at the controversy, Maqbool says it’s a good thing that audiences today are vocal with their outrage.
“It wasn’t our intention to hurt anybody,” he maintains. “However, a certain number of people gave us their perspective and we duly made corrections. Going forward, I think writers and artistes will be more careful. Somewhere a balance must be struck between creative freedom and sensitivity.”
On the sustainability of pay-per-view services in India, Maqbool terms it a calculated experiment. “When we took the call, we didn’t know when theatres would reopen. The pay-per-view model mimics the multiplex experience. You have to book your ticket and show up for the viewing appointment. That makes it an event. Also, for the price of one ticket, you can watch the film with the entire family.”
In Khaali Peeli, Jaideep Ahlawat plays Yusuf, an enforcer and pimp on the trail of Ishaan and Ananya. This is Jaideep’s second ‘commercial’ appearance this year after Baaghi 3. Separating the two was the critically-acclaimed Amazon series Paatal Lok — a contrast Jaideep promptly admits. “I enjoy all kinds of cinema,” the actor says. “Khaali Peeli was a lot of fun as it helped me try something new. Masala movies have their charm and I got to learn a lot playing the character of Yusuf.”
He looks back reverentially at the tradition of great Hindi film villains. “If you remember the 80s, a lot of those villains were illogical characters. It’s to the credit of great actors like Amrish Puri that they made them believable and scary.”
Jaideep graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India in 2008. He rose to prominence as Shahid Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), followed by notable turns in Vishwaroopam, Commando: One Man Army, Raazi, and Lust Stories. Earlier this year, his performance as Inspector Hathiram Chaudhary in Paatal Lok was widely lauded. The show, Jaideep agrees, has turned his career for the better. “The reaction has been great from the industry and audiences alike. Usually, when something works well, you get offered more of the same. So I’ve been reading a lot of scripts lately. I want to surprise the audience with my next.”