Watching Feroz Khan and Vinod Khanna in Qurbani, you might conclude that their characters are simply too confident in their rugged masculinity to have any qualms about being overtly demonstrative in their affections for one another. However, if you consider that it’s the knee-weakeningly gorgeous Zeenat Aman, the alleged love interest of both men, who’s being wholly ignored while they engage in all their tender hugging, shoulder rubbing and cheek tugging, you might be lead to another conclusion altogether. Of course, men in Bollywood movies are famously free in their capacity for brotherly PDA. That the tendency seems to stand out in especially stark relief in this case is most likely due to the musky, grease-stained backdrop of balls-out, testosterone-bleeding action mayhem that Qurbani provides for it to play out against. In other words, Qurbani is one of those action movies that just goes that extra distance to confirm what a lot of us already thought these movies were all about in the first place.
The world of Qurbani is one in which mechanic Bob Christo has a free standing brick wall in his auto body shop just so he can demonstrate the power of his fists to any doubter who happens by — and a hay stack sits at the end of a jetty for the sole purpose of having a speeding car suddenly burst out from underneath it. Its hero is a famous motorcycle daredevil who’s coupled with a famous disco diva, setting the film in a sort of idealized 1970s universe reigned over by the perfect union of Evel Knievel and Donna Summer — which is sure to produce as its offspring either Chachi or Leif Garrett. Though the film, in keeping with Bollywood tradition, slows down during its middle third to focus on relationship drama, its bulk is so over-saturated with methed-up male aggression that it can’t go five minutes without busting out into a fist fight, death-defying physical stunt or car chase. What happens in between those is more often than not a thumping, gaudily staged musical number featuring the aforementioned Ms. Aman, which makes Qurbani the one to beat if you’re looking for a standout example of seventies-style Bollywood excess.
Qurbani is one of a handful of films that its star Feroz Khan also directed. An actor whose screen career dates back to the early sixties, Khan was at the time experiencing a career renaissance as a he-man action star, of which Qurbani was probably the pinnacle. That the film was a fairly high profile production is evidenced not only by the number of really nice cars its producers were willing to wreck in the course of its production, but also by its all-star cast. Co-star Vinod Khanna was at the peak of his enormous popularity at the time, and Aman had recently been seen opposite superstar Amitabh Bachchan in two of his most successful vehicles of the seventies, Don and The Great Gambler. Her appearance alone, given her recent reinvention as a Bollywood action film femme fatale, serves to a good extent to establish the film’s pedigree.
In Qurbani, Khan plays Rajesh, a former motorcycle daredevil who has moved on to greater thrills in the world of high stakes thievery. Apprehended in the course of one of his daring burglaries, Rajesh is sent up for a three year stretch, leaving his disco singer girlfriend Sheela (Aman) vulnerable to the attentions of Amar (Khanna), a former driver for the criminal kingpin, Rakka. Sheela stays true to Rajesh, however, and Amar, though clearly smitten, accepts the situation with manly stoicism, though he and Sheela continue to maintain a close friendship. In one of those coincidences that Bollywood movie plots are almost wholly dependent upon, Rajesh, upon his release from prison, happens upon Amar in a sticky situation and save his life. The two, who have not previously met, go on to establish a deep friendship, which deepens even further when Rajesh saves Amar’s life a second time. Meanwhile, a creepy/crazy brother and sister duo seek to entice Rajesh to steal back a fortune in jewels that Rakka has stolen from them. When Rajesh double crosses the pair, it leads to a situation that puts both Rajesh and Aman in mortal danger, as well as the sacrifice (“qurbani”) that gives the film its title.
Qurbani, for all its strengths, suffers from a bit of sloppy plotting. A couple of plot points dangle unresolved, such as connections that Rajesh and Aman each have with Rakka that are established early on without ever proving to have much purpose. In addition, the love triangle between Rajesh, Aman and Sheela, though somewhat laboriously established, never gets to bear much dramatic fruit, since the film ultimately ends up being more about the love between Rajesh and Aman. As such, the romantic obstacles that would typically be thrown between male and female leads are here thrown between our two men of action, and the dramatic tension of the last act hinges largely on whether the two will mend their friendship and fall back into each others’ arms before the film’s pyrotechnic finale. Because of this, Zeenat Aman’s character is reduced to being both window dressing (few opportunities are missed to have her get soaked with water) and a serially-imperiled pawn in the power plays between the heavies and heroes. In other words, anyone hoping to see her take part in any of the kung fu bad-assery she did in Don will be somewhat disappointed — until she’s shown getting soaked with water, that is, at which point all previous expectations will be quickly and permanently forgotten.
What benefits Qurbani is a couple instances of very clever misdirectional casting. The film features two actors who were the top heavies in Bollywood cinema at the time, yet neither are ultimately revealed to be the central villain of the piece. Rakka, for instance, is played by The Brow himself, Amrish Puri, who would go on to reach his villainous apex with his portrayal of Mogambo in 1987′s Mr. India. Puri is given his typical glowering introduction right at the top of the film (rocking a Mike Brady perm and Travolta disco suit, no less), menacing Aruna Irani in the role of Jwala. However, Rakka soon thereafter disappears from the picture, and proves to be only an incidental character, while it is Jwala and her brother who ultimately emerge as the real threats to the principals.
The other bad guy on hand is Amjad Khan, the actor who portrayed probably the most iconic villain in the history of Bollywood, Sholay‘s Gabbar Singh — and who would, as a result, play almost identical villains in a string of subsequent Amitabh Bachchan action vehicles — including Nastik, Mr. Narwali and Be-sharam — throughout the seventies and eighties. Here he portrays the dogged police inspector (who, in a nice whimsical touch, is also named Amjad Khan) who first puts Rajesh away and then, upon his release, tracks his every move, waiting for his first misstep. Khan’s mere presence gives the character a menacing edge, but we eventually see that the inspector, while having little faith in Rajesh’s ability to reform, is more interested in justice than he is in harassment for its own sake. It’s a performance that Khan clearly has fun with, playing off his own imposing demeanor with welcome injections of humor, and it’s fun for us to watch as well, especially when we’re treated to the actor sharing a goofy musical number with Aman (a rare spectacle, given the closest you’d typically come to seeing Khan taking part in a musical number would be him swigging whiskey from a flask while leering evilly from the sidelines).
Another of Qurbani‘s greatest strengths, as anyone who’s seen it will tell you, is its music. Scored by the team of Kalyanji-Anandji, the film boasts a hard hitting Hindi-funk soundtrack that almost makes all of those wide collars and questionably-patterned, tight-fitting flares look good. The film’s songs, furthermore, are quite catchy, especially Zeenat Aman’s disco numbers, which are further enhanced by their garish picturization. Aman’s Sheela seems to have a new back-up band for every performance, the best of which is an all female ensemble of dancers whose incompetent miming on their instruments prefigures Robert Palmer’s videos by a good few years.
Once you’ve watched enough older Bollywood movies, it becomes apparent that their typical narrative structure and pacing don’t lend themselves to the kind of wall-to-wall thrills you might expect from contemporaneous films made in, say, Hong Kong or Japan. There are definitely thrills to be had, of course, but they are often too few and far between to satisfy those viewers too impatient to wait for them. Qurbani, however, sets itself apart in that its high points are always well worth the wait, and stick with you enough to make the wait one marked more by anticipation than restlessness. Complementing this is the fact that, in the best Bollywood tradition, there is almost always an outlandish seventies outfit, garish bit of production design, over the top performance or skewed musical number on screen to keep you occupied when nothing’s exploding. True, the film does suffer from a bit of the typical middle stretch doldrums, but it handily makes up for that with an out-of-control, action-packed finale, complete with a wild car chase in which Khan and Khanna yuck it up while sending countless innocent motorists to their flaming doom.
I’m taking pains to point this out because I know all too well that many of you more adventurous viewers out there have already suffered disappointment at the hands of Bollywood. You’ve perhaps picked up a dvd because its cover bore a picture of, say, Amitabh Bachchan in shades and a bowtie carrying a scope rifle with something blowing up in the background, only to find that the movie contained therein had a couple of underwhelming action set pieces, but was mostly three hours of some guy crying about his mom. Rest assured, however, that Qurbani is not that film. Delivering on the promise of it’s pulsating theme and “Hulk smash” opening titles, the film goes on to entertain the hell out of you — all the while teaching you that it’s okay for two extremely manly men to tenderly cup one another’s faces in their hands while looking at each other like they’re maybe going to kiss.