“Kajol is the killer,” went the grandest spoiler that annoyed the hell out of every Bollywood aficionado in the ‘90s. Still, it never prevented the paying public – thirsty for clean, commercial entertainment – to throng the cinema halls to relish the magic Rajiv Rai spun in his 1997 action caper Gupt. Starring Bobby Deol, who was fresh off the success of Barsaat, along with the reigning siren Manisha Koirala and the darling of the box office, Kajol, the film had massive buzz surrounding it right from the day it was announced.
As the film turns 25 today, not only does it remain ‘the’ greatest suspense thriller ever in a commercial Hindi film space but has also wonderfully stood the test of time in ways more than one.
1. When Bobby Deol redefined Bollywood’s hero prototype
In the ‘90s, men in Bollywood were yet to discover their fashionable, metrosexual selves. They were often gawky, rugged, or adorable next-door Romeos. Not having watched Barsaat, I still remember the sway the dashing Deol had on me. The promo of ‘Duniya Haseeno Ka Mela’ where he waltzed into a club wearing a crisp black and white ensemble, yellow shades, cigarette, and bouncy curls almost revolutionized the way a leading man in Bollywood ought to look.
Deol’s brooding yet vulnerable persona as Sahil Sinha added gravitas to his smoldering chemistry with Koirala and the tender bond with Kajol. If the fight scenes seemed a cakewalk to him, the dances left many young hearts throbbing – something I never thought a lad from the Deol family would ace.
2. The greatest Hindi soundtrack of the ‘90s. Period
Bollywood in the ‘90s has delivered hit soundtracks galore. Yet the euphoria surrounding Viju Shah and Anand Bakshi’s soundtrack for Gupt stands unmatched to date. In the Indian state of Kerala where I grew up, the audio cassettes of the film sold like hot cakes. Every music store blared out its immaculately programmed songs which not only tested the standards of their sound systems but also magnified the quality of Shah’s melody and Bakshi saab’s words.
While it’s not an easy task to pick, I’d go for the quirkily penned ‘Mushkil Bada Yeh Pyaar Hai’ as the song of the album. Sung by Udit Narayan and Alka Yagnik, it is bold, sexy, and has been filmed with exquisite beauty. Gupt’s OST might not have swept the music awards in 1997 but its sizzle remains intact.
3. The sensuous, mysterious Manisha Koirala
By 1997, Manisha Koirala had already proved her mettle as an excellent dramatic actress. Although another landmark performance in Dil Se was forthcoming, Gupt appeared to be the diva’s effort to let her hair down a little by resorting to doing the classic Bollywood heroine act.
To the writers’ credit, Sheetal Chaudhary was no wallflower. Lensed beautifully by Ashok Mehta, Koirala’s character was packaged as the prime suspect to an unassuming viewer. In key sequences – be it after the governor’s murder or the one with Sahil outside the court, the character’s suspicious glares made us point fingers at her loyalty towards her love interest. Dressed up in the most ravishing outfits and flawless makeup, Koirala is a vision to behold – even as she shows up in college without a book or a bag or in the prison wearing a sexy deep-neck blouse.
4. The suspense that stood the test of time
In 1997, a regular Bollywood fan wasn’t trained enough to suspect a coy and otherwise harmless girl next door to be capable of committing a crime – let alone a series of those. Kajol’s Isha is madly in love with Sahil. So much so that, as a child, she once eliminated a dog that had hurt him. Rajiv Rai efficiently employs this obsession of the young woman to package a knockout twist in the finale which hit us like a truck – which is also literal in the case of Sahil, if you remember the action-packed climactic sequence of Gupt.
The biggest win for the screenplay was the use of the locket that Sahil finds soon after his father was murdered. When the mystery seemed fairly untangled, Sahil’s little brother Harsh (Harsh Lunia) employs his curiosity to turn it around further. Rajiv Rai stages the scene – and the subsequent events with a haunting atmosphere, complete with thunder, wind, and drizzle. The climactic revelation, even after a decade-and-half, contains the ability to give us chills. It is heartbreaking to observe Isha’s unconditional love for Sahil turn into a maniacal obsession to eliminate every obstacle in their road to marriage – the last straw being Sheetal.
5. Everyone loves a no-nonsense cop
“Samaaj se gandagi saaf karne ka keeda hai mere andar,” (I want to eradicate corruption from this country) claims Inspector Udham Singh (Om Puri) who, according to his subordinates, spends more time being suspended than on duty. It’s a delight to watch the veteran actor solve the case in his brutal, uncompromising style. Even when the story diverts its attention to the central romance or the political nexus around, our interest in the honest, no-nonsense cop refuses to wane. Puri’s smashing entry in the finale just to fire a gunshot is heroic, to say the least.
6. Ashok Mehta’s spectacular frames
Unarguably the great DOP to have ever graced Bollywood, Ashok Mehta’s frames in Gupt deserve an exclusive article. The cinematographer who is famous for his unique employment of shadows repeats the magic in Gupt.
If the women (Manisha Koirala and Kajol) seldom looked as good in any of their other popular films, the tense mood and the dynamic nature of the story-filled subplots stand wonderfully amplified through Mehta’s lenses. The songs are shot masterfully with ample thought given to the characters and their respective situations in the film.
In ‘Mere Khwabon Mein Tu’, we get to see the polar opposite character traits of the women by having Deol romance them in different landscapes (with Manisha Koirala in a desert and Kajol in the mountains). It might as well as be a decision for the sake of aesthetics but it works in the favor of the story nevertheless. In ‘Mushkil Bada Yeh Pyaar Hai’, we see a bunch of angular shots which accentuate the song’s sensual nature. Coupled with Rai’s immaculate editing, the songs ‘Yeh Pyaasi Jawaani’ and ‘Yeh Pyaar Kya Hai’ smoothly up the suspense quotient aside from taking the story forward.
7. The diabolical maze of politics
Apart from the central love triangle that forms the crux of the series of murders that the film investigates, the screenplay (Rajiv Rai, Shabbir Boxwala) is rich with supporting players and their disparate political schemes. As atypical of ‘90s Bollywood, these elements (played by seasoned actors) add a certain wattage that prevents the film from turning into a one-dimensional romantic thriller. There is also a very on-the-face humor track (involving Harish Patel and a league of men in plasters) which I didn’t mind considering the era and the film’s rather broad target audience.
Adding to the film’s appeal as an actioner is the chapter in the jail which is exhilarating in every sense of the word. Right from the evil jailor to the elderly man who (with zero context) vouches for Sahil’s innocence or the grand escape from the dark cell, Gupt makes sure it has its adrenaline levels at a constant high.
8. Star wardrobes to die for
Bobby Deol never looked as dashing as he did in Gupt. The actor rocked retro fashion – be it a black floral overcoat, suits in pop shades, or a dress shirt in pride colors – like no contemporary would have ever managed. The women are contrastingly dressed. If Manisha Koirala’s wardrobe screams every bit of the bombshell Sheetal is, Isha’s mellow yet fitting outfits stay true to her character sketch. The colors, too, are carefully picked with Sheetal getting warmer shades as compared to Isha who is frequently seen in bold or duller tints. It’s also to be noted that the former’s wardrobe does not change even when the man she loves is sent to prison. Isha, on the other hand, is seen in de-glam salwar suits in that brief period.
9. Women in action
One of the prime highlights of Gupt has to be a full-blown action scene featuring its superstar leading ladies – something that was a rarity in Indian films, and it still is. No, this isn’t a sexualized version of two women fighting to offer voyeuristic pleasure to those who enjoy it but the scuffle between Sheetal and Isha was brewing for a long time. When it finally takes place, Rai intersects it with Sahil getting a sense of Isha’s dubious intentions. While the leading ladies enact the intense dramatic encounter and the subsequent action scene with great flourish, the culmination where Sahil chooses to protect Sheetal over Isha lends the scene a significant dramatic edge.
The only thing that I wonder was about the absentee family members and house helps. If you observe the scene where Udham Singh interrogates her, the Chaudhary mansion is shown to be unusually filled with people – both family and staff.
10. The rock-solid emotional core
Gupt, at the core of it, is a love story between Sahil and Isha. They have a range of hindrances that prevent them from uniting – the major one being their class difference. Sahil’s father, who is later projected as a saintly man, was clearly against the alliance. His mother seemed to have no agency in his decision to get Sahil married to Sheetal where every presumes how she is his ‘man pasand’ (favorite). This way, we root for the lovers to pave to formalize their love with their parents’ blessings but destiny (and the screenplay) favored Sheetal’s resolution over Isha’s obsession.
One angle where I wish Rai and Boxwala had spent more time was Sahil’s equation with his mother and step-brother. It forever remains on the fringes with the characters barely communicating with each other aside from mere black-and-white exchanges.
All said and done, there is not a single Bollywood suspense thriller with a legacy greater than Rajiv Rai’s Gupt. Be it the sexy leads, rocking music, or the delicious commercial flavor, the film was a treat to the ‘90s kids as well as the generation that followed.
Gupt is streaming on ZEE5.