Exactly a decade ago, Aamir Khan’s Ghajini released on a brisk Christmas day and changed Bollywood box-office forever. It ushered in the Rs 100 crore era that has since become the benchmark for star power, giving the word ‘success’ an all-new meaning. It reinvented Aamir Khan’s single screen career and made him a multiplex magnet. Remade from a Tamil psychological thriller (itself inspired by Christopher Nolan’s Memento), the A.R. Murugadoss-directed revenge drama was, by all accounts, an atypical Hindi film of its time. But if the movie is remembered today, it is thanks to its reputation as the first Hindi film to rake in Rs 100 crore more than anything else. Certainly, the film is no classic. It’s not even the finest Aamir vehicle. Ghajini’s chief contribution, as you may have already guessed, is making a trade pundit out of the average Indian.
Quest for revenge
If you have seen Christopher Nolan’s unconventional and clever Memento, A.R. Murugadoss’ Ghajini will come across as an unsavvy, beaten-down and massy version designed to send beefcake Aamir Khan to Olympics. The film follows business tycoon Sanjay Singhania (Aamir Khan) whose idea of romance is to assume the mantle of a common man to woo the chatty Kalpana (Asin). This kind of a fast-talking, cute and mischievous character once sat well on someone like Juhi Chawla but Asin is simply annoying. Anyhow, Mr Singhania is insanely wealthy and travels with what resembles a PM-level Z-plus security cover complete with a cavalcade and Man Fridays hovering around to catch every word by their boss. Owner of a large mobile network, he wants to keep this illusion of a common man going in order to be close to Kalpana. But soon his perfect romantic life is torn apart. His love interest is brutally killed in a run-in with the dreaded crime boss Ghajini. Though Sanjay survives, the blows leave him with anterograde amnesia. This is a readymade excuse for Aamir to take his suit off and let the camera make love to his well-sculpted body. Now, it’s all about Sanjay’s quest for vengeance and how he will bulldoze his way to Ghajini, played by Pradeep Rawat of Sarfarosh and Lagaan fame. As a man with short term memory loss, Sanjay tattoos clues on his body, pins notes all over his Powai apartment and carries a Polaroid to help recognise people and navigate life. His love story with Kalpana is depicted through a series of flashbacks followed by visual clues from his diary entries. (Memento, if you recall, flits between colour and B&W as a way to separate the voice of the mind from what’s actually happening).
Ghajini is driven by Aamir’s star power. A scar on his head, Aamir’s Ghajini look was enhanced by his much-talked about physical transformation. Known for his rigorous workouts, Aamir’s six-pack abs became the talk of town. Never an action hero, his performance was applauded in most quarters, but it was his physical fitness and his credible pugnacity in the fight sequences that made Ghajini a departure from the star’s usual filmography. Even Suriya, the original’s star, found reasons to gush about Aamir. “I am an Aamir Khan fan. I have been inspired by his Dil Chahta Hai and Rangeela,” the protagonist of the 2005 Tamil hit told a website. “He did a fantastic job in Ghajini. When he said he never made a remake film in his career and he would do my role in Ghajini, I was humbled.”
It was director A.R. Murugadoss’ first film with Mr Perfectionist — his big Bollywood break, too — and he was understandably fazed. It was a risk to pull off. Among the difficulties was how to showcase Aamir Khan as a rugged guy. The superstar had played a rich, high-flying business mogul in the much-loved Dil Chahta Hai. “So we had no doubts about how he would look in a suit,” Murugadoss had stated, in an interview. Instead, what was worrying them was if the audience would accept him as a bulked-up killing machine. “With Aamir, it was the reverse problem. How will the audience accept him as the rugged guy? So we took a lot of care over that character.” Comparisons between Aamir and Suriya were bound to happen, but the director, reflecting on the film in 2017, admitted, “A lot of people said Aamir wasn’t as effective as Suriya in the love scenes, and Suriya was as rugged in the action scenes.”
Another comparison was if the film departed from Memento (2000), which has acquired a cult following over the years. Explaining Memento’s non-linear, timeline-bursting narrative, filmmaker Christopher Nolan had once said, “We tried to put the audience through the head of the protagonist to experience his uncertainty, confusion and paranoia. He’s an unreliable narrator, so we are seeing the world through the distorted point of view of this one particular person.” Nolan has famously described Memento as “film noir.” On the other hand, Ghajini is a love story gone wrong. It has been whittled down for the Indian taste. Murugadoss spent a lot of time building the romance between Aamir and Asin and the action set pieces instead of focusing on the philosophical and psychological elements that has made Memento a classic of the genre. In other words, Memento (adapted from a short story by Nolan’s brother) was faithful to its concept, Ghajini to Aamir Khan.
Ten years later, Ghajini remains a prime example of the blockbuster star-vehicle that Hindi cinema is so good at mass-producing. It also gave rise to the snazzy South Indian aesthetic in Bollywood — the edgy camera angles, action-filled moments and an overall mass packaging.