In a crucial scene in Vikram Bhatt’s Ghulam quite a few characters participate in a local meeting to discuss the violence in the neighbourhood. There is Fatima (Mita Vashisht), the Muslim lawyer who plays an important role in the protagonist Sidhu’s (Aamir Khan) life. Then we have a Tamilian vegetable seller, and a crippled Muslim man from Uttar Pradesh. And of course Sidhu himself is presented at the meeting as a Maharashtrian identified by his last name Marathe. Taking the context of Bombay’s linguistic and cultural hybridity amidst a compressed landscape of architectural chaos, Ghulam presents the urban crowd not as an abstract force but as a multicultural presence. The presence of the crowd and urban chaos are relationally structured around the Marxist idea of ‘empty space’. By contrasting ‘real’ space (the space of the crowd, the street, and the home) with fetishized ‘empty space’, Ghulam creates a conflictual movement between the ‘everyday’ present and the ‘traumatized’ past. This is most vividly imagined in the scenes on the river-bank (‘ghaat’).
Sidhu and his brother Jai (Rajit Kapoor) meet twice for conversation at the ‘ghaat’ which is difficult to establish in terms of locale. The space of the ‘ghaat’ is invested with deep emotions. The enclosed walls are bathed in a light-and-shadow pattern reflecting the water at the base of the ‘ghaat’, The use of the ‘ghaat’ as the meeting point for the two brothers is deployed to trigger a series of association linked to the contours of the cinematic city of Bombay.
It will be useful here to refer to the well-known taxicab sequence in On The Waterfront as the obvious pretext for the ‘ghat’ sequence in Ghulam. The said sequence, now legendary for its emotional texture and quality of performance, presented by two brothers, Terry Malloy (played by Marlon Brando) and Charlie (played by Rod Steiger), inside the space of a cab in conversation about their deep-rooted conflicts. Malloy’s childhood memories are woven into his resentful attitude towards his older brother. In the film, however, a similar conversation is located in a stylized space, where the spatial dimension becomes equally important for the sequence to make connections with Yash Chopra’s Deewar. While the empty space of the ‘ghat’ draws attention to the memorable debate between Vijay and Ravi under the bridge in Deewar, Ghulam redeploys the Deewar debate for a different set of ethical dilemmas. The difference is that the conflict between the state and the outlaw central to the narrative of Deewar is replaced in Ghulam by an ethical conflict between the two brothers. What is particularly striking here is the inversion of the Deewar’s ‘brothers angle’- in Ghulam it is the uneducated, rough, street-hood who questions the educated, urbane brother.
Henry Lefebvre has suggested that to understand the importance of lived space, it is important to make connections between “elaborate representations of space of space on one hand and representational spaces (along with their underpinnings) on the other”. This can then explain a subject ‘in whom lived, perceived and conceived (known) come together within a spatial practice’. This philosophical underpinning that guides Lefebvre’s understanding of spatial subjectivity provides us with a remarkable entry into the spatial metaphors and symbolic politics deployed by the ‘ghat’ sequence in Ghulam. It is from the realm of ‘empty space’ that Ghulam moves into the intertextual space of the ‘angry young man’ of Deewar. Having erased the present and the immediate from this space, the two brothers acquire the status of mythical Masala heroes through their confrontation. As familial bonds are put to test, this empty space allows for a complex exploration of morality and justice, a space where memory is evoked and issues of normative action, in the face of evil, are settled. Jai wants Sidhu to withdraw as a witness against Ronnie. Sidhu not only refuses, but asks his brother why he did not stop him from entering the world of crime. This reversal of Deewar’s narrative through an intertextual allusion makes the ‘empty space’ of Ghulam significant, allowing the ‘tapori’ (street urchin) the possibility of using his street language as the medium for an empowered critique of the system. In Ghulam, time folds back on itself to invest the present with the images of the cinematic past. This intertextual current of the persistent with the new produces a typical spatial experience of the city, ‘a particularly acute experience of disconnection and abstraction’.
Deewar itself is shrouded in memories. The past and its shame are important regulators of Vijay’s (Amitabh Bachchan) trajectory in the film.The ‘Mera Baap Chor Hai’ scar/tattoo, literally carved on the body produces a pain which subsequently becomes the alibi for Vijay’s rebellion or revenge, and finally closure and redemption, achieved through death. The scar also occasions reunion, a ‘psychic fusion’ with his mother, who abandons him despite her exessive love. Surrendering in the end to the State, to law, Vijay is well compensated by dying in his mother’s lap, a defeat ‘masking victory’. Here the powerfully enduring trinity of mother, god, and nation is reiterated. The mother, a metaphor for nation and a site of contest, is conferred power and stands for Father’s law. Death redeems Vijay’s past, reuninting him with the mother family and nation. But in Ghulam it’s the father who will become the site for the dilemmas and their resolution…
Earlier in the film Sidhu falls in love with Alisha (Rani Mukherjee), whose brother works as a social worker in the neighbourhood. Sidhu unknowingly allows himself to become part of a conspiracy, planned by Jai and Ronnie, to kill Alisha’s brother. The murder is the turning point in the life and creates a wedge between Sidhu and Jai. Alisha’s brother’s idealism ‘strikes a chord in Sidhu’s memory, bringing the past back into his life’.
In the course of the film, we learn that Sidhu and Jai grew up on their own after witnessing their father’s (Dilip Tahil) suicide, following a confrontation between their father and Shyam Sunder (Ashutosh Rana), their father’s comrade from the freedom struggle, who accused their father of having betrayed five of their comrades. This confrontation is revealed much later in the film in the form of a flashback. It is an incident that is both present and repressed in Sidhu’s memory. The significant appropriation and repression of the past is important for Sidhu’s identity as a ‘tapori’ in the city. The narrative fragments the incident by providing us with expressionistic and impressionistic visuals of the father at home, in happy situations, and in flames, falling off the edge of a terrace. The projection of the father’s suicide as a fragmented part of Sidhu’s memory is highlighted in the way the incident is shot. There is rapid cutting between fire, twisting feet, close-up shots of eyeglass, and sugar falling to the ground. These images are woven together by the sound of a tortured scream. This entire sequence is repeatedly shown as an enigmatic aspect of Sidhu’s memory. The entire confrontation between the father and Shyam Sunder and the ensuing suicide come together at a pivotal moment that will enable Sidhu a second chance to redeem both himself and his father. Ghulam’s narrative seems to suggest that Sidhu’s aimless loitering in the city as a ‘tapori’ takes on a heroic persona, elevating the ‘tapori’ to a new level.
Anjum Rajabali, the writer of the film, consciously chose to evoke in Ghulam a jagged history of the national movement as if reacting to the rising tide of jingoistic patriotism in several Sunny Deol films made in the 90s. The past here is the site of weakness and betrayal. The father is unable to live up to he expectations of the nationalists. In betraying his comrades, he appears cowardly. But he lives with the memories of the past, and his guilt makes him instill a sense of idealism in his children. Rajabali destabilizes the established norms within which nationalist history had been earlier portrayed within popular Hindi cinema. By foregrounding the contradictions and conflicts of the past, history’s relationship to memory and everyday life is established for a new kind of intervention in the present. The use of the historical past as a haunting memory for the protagonist gives Ghulam an unusual texture as the city of contemporary Bombay becomes the stage for working out past conflicts.
While the allusion to Deewar allows Sidhu’s entry into the historic space of conflict, the final fight in the street creates a contemporary, everyday backdrop for Sidhu to specifically address the experience of Bombay. Sidhu’s journey climaxes in a fight sequence with Ronnie (an over-man kind of character played by Sharath Saxena) as the anxious and expectant crowd watches. Before the fight, the entire ‘basti’ looks abandoned; the shutters of shops and apartments windows are down. Sidhu walks through the empty ‘basti’ to his apartment and discovers his belonging on the street. Enraged, he goes to Ronnie’s office and challenges him to a fight. The subsequent fight takes place at the centre of the ‘basti’, with the crowd reappearing as spectators. All the cameo figures are now present in the crowd (Fatima, the lawyer; the Tamilian vegetable vendor; the crippled Muslim figure). After defeating Ronnie in an extended fistfight, Sidhu swaggers to a shop. The ghosts of the past have been put to rest finally. The ‘coda’ has been structured.