At the age of six, in 1996, I was a lot of things. I was a girl who was invested in the lives of Akshay Kumar and Raveena Tandon. I also loved watching The Undertaker coming back from the dead for the nth time in WWF (yes, that’s what it was called back then) fights.
These unnecessary details about my childhood wouldn’t have made it here had it not been for 25 years of Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi. The film which featured Gulshan Grover saying “Maya, teri toh mai palat dunga kaya” one of the most dramatically and rhythmically sinister dialogues in 90s cinema.
The movie had its show-stealer in Rekha’s Madam Maya. Dressed in statement gowns and glorious wigs, she never needed aggression to assert her power. Instead, she would politely ask a man to walk 20 steps to her and win her over, as long as he can beat her men – each built like a mountain – stationed along the way. She referred to herself in third person and ruled over all she surveyed.
She was royalty while her opponent, King Don, was an always angry and mostly dumb man with no back story. Where she had drama, grandeur and a biting sweetness, he was a stock villain, played as such by Gulshan Grover. And if you have been brought up on Indian cinema in 80s and 90s, you didn’t need a reason to hate characters played by Gulshan. King Don, however, came with a side serving of theatrics and his love-hate relationship with Maya was expressed in badly written poetry. Just what a kitschy celebration of Bollywood nostalgia needed.
And then, there was the Undertaker, talking in unreal but adorable Hindi, fighting as much with his body as with his long, silky hair. We all marvelled at how he would repeatedly use the word “panga” when he fought Akshay Kumar, little knowing that it was not the WWF champ playing the role but a little-known wrestler Brian Lee.
If Bollywood masala is your cuisine of choice, few things can beat the climax of this movie where the bad guy loses to the good hero, moments after the latter has sung a powerful devotional song in a temple. In a preceding scene, Akshay says, “Itne bhaktoen ke beech Maya kuch nahi kar payegi.” It might have taken a new meaning today, but in 1996, it meant Rekha would be left with nothing but a smirk on her face as she is rendered powerless in front of a crowd and has to bear the emotional reunion of two brothers.
It was the ultimate confluence of family drama, power of faith and victory of good over evil. A scene that I can still watch with as much glee, emotions and excitement that I watched 25 years ago. And I am happy to report that a repeat viewing of the movie a few years ago didn’t take away any of the giddiness as Akshay and Raveena romanced or when drug lord Madam Maya lost it all to ‘Mata Rani’.