2 Stars (out of 4)
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There’s a lot to like in Khiladi 786. The well-organized plot allows for plenty of humorous turns, and Akshay Kumar gives a charming performance. Yet needless racism keeps me from recommending Khiladi 786.
During a throwaway number about forty minutes into the film, Kumar’s character dances, surrounded by a troupe of male Indian dancers wearing blackface makeup and Afro wigs, while female Anglo dancers writhe around wearing bikinis.
Kumar apparently doesn’t find blackface offensive, since he donned it himself in Kambakkht Ishq. If he did, he surely could’ve had the number changed since his wife, Twinkle Khanna, is one of the film’s producers. Since Kumar and Khanna already consider blackface acceptable, arguing with them over the obvious sexual objectification of Anglo women seems pointless.
The offensive dance number negatively affected my perception of an otherwise enjoyable movie. Kumar plays Bahattar Singh, a crook with superhuman speed and strength. Bahattar, his father, and his uncle work with the local police to stop smugglers on Punjabi highways. The work is dangerous and illegal, and the family splits the proceeds from their warrantless searches with the police.
Because seemingly everyone in the state of Punjab knows that Bahattar is thief, he can’t find a single local woman willing to marry him. This follows the family tradition of marrying foreigners. Bahattar’s mother is Canadian, his grandmother is African, and his aunt is Chinese.
(I also had a problem with the musical cues that accompany the introduction of each of the foreign women. The Chinese aunt appears to an East-Asian string-instrument theme, the African grandmother gets drums and chanting, and the white Canadian mother gets jazz saxophone. We get it. They aren’t ethnic Indians. That’s obvious from looking at them, though I’m not quite sure how jazz represents Canada. I would’ve gone with prog rock.)
Bahattar’s nuptial troubles present the perfect opportunity for marriage arranger Mansukh (Himesh Reshammiya), who’s recently been fired from the family wedding firm. He tries to fix up Bahattar with Indu (Asin Thottumkal), the reckless younger sister of a famous Mumbai don, TT (Mithun Chakraborty).
Indu knows that a woman from a family of criminals will only be accepted as a bride by another criminal, like her boyfriend, Azad (Rahul Singh). TT insists on marrying his sister into a good family, and the Singhs want the same for Bahattar, so Mansukh convinces the men of both families to masquerade as police officers.
Despite the fact that Khiladi 786 is an Akshay Kumar vehicle, the most important character is Mansukh. He’s desperate for Bahattar and Indu to get married in order to prove to his own father that he’s not a screw-up. To make that happen, he has to juggle the lies he’s told and encouraged others to tell. Mansukh’s uncle, Jeevan (Sanjai Mishra), hinders the process as much as he helps and provides comic relief.
Reshammiya plays Mansukh as animated, but not over the top. He needs to be the regular guy among a crowd of nutty criminals. Also, Reshammiya knows who the real star of the movie is.
Kumar plays much the same character as he always does: a sweet guy who’s tough when he needs to be. Bahattar notes: “Punjabis don’t come or go quietly,” which gives Kumar the freedom to act with extra exuberance. Bahattar’s superhuman speed is played to good comic effect, as he flattens bad guys in the blink of an eye.
The rest of the supporting cast is generally fine. Asin doesn’t have much to do, but Mithun Chakraborty gets to bash some heads in the final fight scene. There are a couple of side plots that come to nothing, involving characters like TT’s maid and an inspector played by Johnny Lever.
Of all the supporting characters, Azad is the funniest. Even though his name means “freedom,” he spends most of the film on the brink of being released from jail, only to screw it up and get himself thrown back into the pokey.
If it weren’t for one dumb dance number, Khiladi 786 would be a fun, harmless movie. There are just certain offenses that can’t be overlooked.