Pukar (1983)

Directed by
a pretty watchable 160 minutes
Reviewed by Simon on 2003-05-24

It's generally held that we learn something every day, and my piece of education for today consisted of the fact that the Portugese occupied Goa from the 16th century to 1961, when it was reclaimed by the people of Goa with assistance from the Indian Navy. I learnt this largely from the film PUKAR (1983).

Ramdas is a young boy whose father is a member of the Goa liberation party (terrorists or freedom fighters, depending on your perspective), and whose name means something like "Patriotism". One night he witnesses his father being shot by another member of the revolutionary party... but he doesn't realise that it was at his father's request, since he was wounded running from the police and preferred to die than be captured and tortured. Blaming them for his father's death, Ramdas grows up hating all people that call themselves "Patriots"... he changes his name to "Ronnie" to avoid association with them. As he gets older he goes into the smuggling business, and his lust for wealth and power drive him up the ladders until he is a very powerful crime boss. He is a benign enough crime boss, and puts some of his profits from smuggling back into the community... however, he still has a burning anger towards the Goan patriots, and uses all his power and influence to have them killed and captured when he can.

The little boy who witnesses his father's death, grows up to be a bigshot gangster and hides a deep anger towards his father's killers is pretty much the archetypal Amitabh Bachchan character, and one he'd played many times previously to PUKAR. What makes PUKAR unusual is that the killers are not totally immoral crooks for once - they're considered by most of the population of Goa to be heroes. Ronnie is still an angry young (ish) man, but his anger is not necessarily well directed. Although he's still the main character, we're not meant to agree with Amitabh's beliefs or actions... in fact, in many ways he is the villain and we're supposed to actively dislike him. Given that Amitabh is one of my personal heroes, this made me feel rather uncomfortable

One thing that many a Hindi movie teaches, however, is that a man can never escape the destiny given to him by his name. Even though Ramdas refuses to acknowledge his name, the viewer feels fairly certain it will catch up with him... or will it?

Films about revolutions and revolutionaries are pretty rare for Hollywood (does THE MATRIX count?), and as far as I know for most of the world's cinema. It's only really through Indian cinema that I've had any real exposure to them except perhaps as villainous terrorists. Patriotism is a word even more venerated in India than it is in America, and people fighting and dying to liberate their country from foreign occupation are generally well considered... after all, it's not that long since India gained independence from long British occupation. Hearing India's popular entertainment king Amitabh denounce patriotism and collaborate with the Portugese occupiers/oppressors is particularly strange!

Although PUKAR was a big hit and has a very high score at IMDB, I don't consider it to be one of Amitabh's better films. Even though he's always played the "Dark Hero", his role in Pukar isn't one that fits him too well, though he still gives a good performance. Perhaps if it was the first Amitabh film I'd seen I'd have appreciated it more, but I think the problems are more than just discomfort in seeing Amitabh in an unfamiliar role. The story telling is not handled as well as in his better films such as Sholay or Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, with several jumps and holes that left me a little confused as to exactly what was going on. The film didn't bring out the wide range of emotions in me that I'd hoped, either - perhaps because of the slightly clumsy story telling, or because the quality of acting on display wasn't all that high (notably, Zeenat Aman is thoroughly beautiful but not a good actress). Perhaps if I'd been more familiar with Goa's history I'd have appreciated/understood more.

The film is still quite enjoyable, with a pretty good balance of drama and action. Although it doesn't rank amongst Amitabh's great films, it must be noted that those films are so great that not being one of them is hardly a major failing. Taken as a part of Amitabh's career it's clearly placed on the downswing, but taken as a film in it's own right it's a pretty watchable 160 minutes.