Ajay Devgn starrer Zakhm’s opening scene begins with a solemn Devgn playing mournful tunes on the piano, therefore setting the tone of the entire film. You expect things to take a disastrous turn, and they do.
The 1998 movie was the last film to be directed by Mahesh Bhatt. It is also one of Bhatt’s finest work. Ajay Devgn, who will be seen in the upcoming crime drama Raid, gave a new direction to his career with Zakhm. Devgn, who had established himself as a bonafide action star by then, broke the mold in a big way with the movie.
The two-decade-old film remains relevant to this day. Be it murder based on the food habits of a community, the numerous alleged cases of ‘Love Jihad’ or the ‘Ghar Wapsi’ campaign of nationalist organisation, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad; these cases represent a India that still has considerable work ahead of itself in terms of real development.
Zakhm becomes almost melodramatic in a few scenes, and the fact that Pooja Bhatt’s character’s religion remains a mystery to almost everyone around her throughout the film is almost ridiculous, but Bhatt’s direction, a tight script, and the performances of the actors make the movie what it is, a classic of Hindi cinema.
What Bhatt does is simple, and it’s something that all directors should ideally do, make the movie about the story and not about the actors. By the time he had been cast for Zakhm, Ajay was already a familiar face of the Hindi film industry. But Bhatt’s film sees not only Devgn, but little Kunal Khemu dominating the screen for almost equal parts. The narrative demanded that the focus be on the child who had seen it all.
Zakhm’s main plotline revolves around musician Ajay (brought to life by Devgn), the son of a Hindu Raman Desai (played by Nagarjuna) and a Muslim mother (an unnamed character portrayed by Pooja Bhatt), and his parent’s struggle to raise him, the child (played by Khemu), born out of wedlock. Raman’s mother, set in her orthodox ways, threatens to take her life if Raman were to ever marry Ajay’s mother. So they live in separate houses. Little Ajay is shunned at school by kids because his parents are not legally married.
The movie follows a non-linear narrative as it moves back and forth to tie the strings of Ajay’s past and present. Zakhm is set during the Mumbai riots, which had followed in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition. Sonali Bendre plays Devgn’s wife Sonia, who wants to leave her husband in Mumbai in order to secure a bright and safe future for her unborn child in England. The initial scenes of the film are based on the argument which takes place between Ajay and Sonia over her decision to leave the country. Devgn does some of his best work in those scenes. He takes charge and is not afraid to completely inhabit his character, who is a man of few words but is not scared to take a stand for what he believes in.
The film does not belong to Devgn, but the actor belongs to it. He makes every moment count, even when he is keeping his silence, which happens more often than not. Take, for instance, the scene when he sees his mother in the hospital for the first time. Devgn stands in silence, as if failing to register the shock of what he’s looking at. And then he is in pain, so much pain that he can barely get words out of his mouth to inform the surgeon that he is the burnt woman’s son.
For those who had seen Devgn in only action roles prior to Zakhm, the experience of watching the actor be so calm and in control all the time on screen must have been something of a surprise. ‘What, no bike riding? No bombing? No beating the living lights out of the bad guys?’ In one scene, Devgn’s character proves himself to be the voice of reason as he stops his brother, Anand, from killing one of the suspects of his mother’s death. Anand (played by Akshay Anand) is furious, indignant even, at his brother. ‘Why must you be such a saint?’ he asks Ajay.
The timeless quality of Zakhm does not exist only because of the story’s primary subject line. It does so because Khemu’s performance as the child who was forced to grow up quickly was believable, it’s also one of the few films out there that boasts of good writing (the script was penned by Mahesh Bhatt and Tanuja Chandra), balanced performances and able direction. A special shout out to music director M. M. Keeravani, lyricist Anand Bakshi and singer Alka Yagnik for giving cinema “Gali Mein Aaj Chand Nikla”, a song that conveys to the audience what it’s like to love a person hopelessly, but not without expectation.