Once upon a time, it was 1991. The USSR had finally fallen apart, India was undergoing economic liberalisation, and George Bush declared a very American victory over Iraq in the first Gulf War. What better stage for the birth (and quick death) of the ultimate Indo-Soviet superhero? What better hero than Amitabh Bachchan, fresh off his Agneepath fury and glory (also a ‘box office flop’ technically), blessed with a literal spark of divine intervention at birth, donning a Zorro-like garb as his alter ego, serving justice through just fists, whips, and swords? Like all good superheroes, Ali/Ajooba is defined more than anything by his golden heart – his sense of duty – which then intersects with a greater destiny.
The film also came about a decade after the most successful Indo-Soviet co-production, another Arabic folklore inspired fantasy (Alibaba Aur 40 Chor). With Rishi Kapoor, Amrish Puri, and Dimple Kapadia filling up all the traditional, meaty supporting roles, you’d think this would be a recipe for success. I mean, it even concludes with an all-out, all-guns-blazing, battle sequence featuring demons and donkeys and revelations about our hero’s true identity- what more could it have done?! This is pretty much Superhero 101 on steroids.
Of course, one response would be to say that the film is ridiculous. But I think we’ve all witnessed a fair share of ‘ridiculous’ films becoming box office mammoths, or very close to our hearts or both. Often, the ridiculousness of a film is explained away under the catch-all ‘suspension of disbelief’. Others will point to the need for consistency in the internal logic of the world presented to us, and nothing more. A few will hopefully not care too much about ‘plot-holes’. Whilst that’s certainly a double-edged sword, the issues that the best films find too trivial to address are often just that: too trivial, too bloodless, and too boring.
The overuse of tropes, or rather, the uncreative and uncritical use of tropes, is certainly an issue here, most apparent in Amrish Puri’s evil Vizier. But let’s be real. This is a full-on superhero film, more ‘inspired by’ than ‘based on’ One Thousand And One Nights. All films are remixes, and as far as the masala metaphor for Bollywood goes, this is one good mix. In such Bollywood-ization, we often find rare gems of a bastard joy, one that produces images so striking to anyone embedded in their cultural context. Is the black-masked, dolphin-son, vigilante Amitabh Bachchan, running around colourful forts, any less of a striking image than the revenge-soaked Vijay? Or maybe a better comparison would be to the (here comes the word again) ridiculous caped crusaders of the 21st century?
In fact, Batman Forever, camp as camp gets – infamous Bat-nipples andall – released just 4 years after this and made good bank. One might imagine that seeing our own Clark Kent/Superman dichotomy embodied in one of the hottest stars of the time would be enough for just that.
Ajooba can try to blame its technical flaws – most obviously the lip sync issues – for some loss of interest but that certainly doesn’t account for the amount it lost at the box office (over 4 crore at the time, or more closer to 33.8 crores in today’s terms). The visual effects are also quite dated, yes, and were probably odd even then. If there was ever a film to outlive its box-office lifespan, it would be this one. With the resurgence, or rather, internet-age rediscoveries of cringe and cult cinema, bolstered by mainstream interest (they did an Oscar-bait film about The Room for fuck’s sake), it seems that this would make for a charming, slice-of-time-NOT-life, cult favourite.
Unfortunately, it falls just short of being stylistically distinct enough, or transgressive enough, or textually peculiar enough, to live on as a cult film. Yes, there are chase sequences in a fantasy kingdom but these are shot as lazy, sped-up slapstick. Yes, there is a crab monster that crawls out of the sea to unchain our hero and friends at a moment of peril but a lot of the film is also generic, uncomfortable dances and unimpressive dialogue, grasping for something more, for the kind of weight that the dialogue of Deewar had but falling (here’s the word, again) ridiculously short. In fact, this entire previous discussion on why the film was such a huge box office flop serves to remind us of the fact that this very well could have been a box office hit. Funnily enough, it was just too stylistically distinct and textually peculiar. It’s odd to think that the existence of cringe and cult cinema, which has traditionally been seen as a gray space between the simple, bottom-line classification of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, generates its own gray space. After 30 years, maybe that’s the best place for this film to be.