One of the drawbacks of watching early Shah Rukh Khan films is that so many of his role are negative. His romantic heroes are often flawed in some way (and redeemed or improved by love), and many of his negative roles, inversely, have some tiny sliver of good in them. In Darr and Baazigar, those small hopeful flashes appear throughout the movie, making an otherwise detestable character somewhat sympathetic. Then there are films like Ram Jaane, in which SRK plays a villain so black-hearted that even his legendary charm cannot make him attractive. (Though, I discussed below, he retains his humanity and it far from being a cardboard villain.) After watching Ram Jaane, I had to re-watch Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi to recover.
Ram Jaane is a reworking of the 1938 Hollywood classic, Angels with Dirty Faces, with Shah Rukh Khan in the James Cagney role of the slum kid who grows up to be a ruthless criminal. The Hindi version turned the virtuous boyhood friend into a social worker instead of a priest (can't work in a love triangle with a priest...), but otherwise the plot is very similar, and the ending is the same. The Cagney/SRK character is caught and convicted, and goes to his death promising bravado and defiance. At the last minute, in full view of witnesses, the condemned man cries and pleads for mercy. It is understood that this was his one unselfish act, an attempt to reduce himself in the eyes of his adoring young gang of wannabe gangsters.
Synopsis: A baby boy is abandoned and grows up neglected and abused. He doesn't even have a name; the film title is the response he is given when he asks what his name is, and gets the reply "ram jaane" (God knows). He was two childhood friends, a good-hearted boy (Murli) and a girl (Bela) that they both adore. Ram Jaane becomes a gangster; Murli and Bela devote their lives to helping orphaned children. Ram Jaane tries to help them, but only knows violence and corruption. Even his "good deeds" are criminal. The Murli convinces Bela to try to reform Ram Jaane, but his uncouth and violent behavior drives her away. Eventually, Ram Jaane is arrested, convicted of murder, and executed. After his death, Murli and Bela read a letter from Ram Jaane revealing that he knew that Bela loved Murli, which why he drove her away. So there is that one tiny sliver of goodness, at the very end. I don't usually cry at movies, but if this ending doesn't make you tear up, you are made of stone. This was the third of Shah Rukh Khan's hit films from 1995 (after Karan Arjun and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge).
Worth watching for: The performances and the music. Juhi Chawla and Vivek Mushran are superb as Bela and Murli, and there is a marvelous array of villains, including Tinnu Anand, one of my favorite baddies. The music by Anu Malik (who has scored over 350 films in his career) helps set the mood and convey the characters' emotions beautifully.
Update: Marilyn, a sister SRKian from Ohio, posted this on Twitter: "Ram Janne makes me grieve for the child who craved love and grows into the man who was denied love, turning bad because of it." Beautifully said. The performances make it possible to be appalled by Ram Jaane's behavior without reducing his humanity. Ram Janne is the most fully developed of SRK's early negative characters; if there is a Don 3, i would love to see the same level of complexity, which the first two films in the franchise don't quite achieve.
Yes, Shah Rukh Khan's performance is energetic and over the top, but so was Cagney, in Angels with Dirty Faces. In Cagney's death row scene, his face isn't shown as his cowers and begs for his life. Shah Rukh, never afraid to look ugly, blubbers as he collapses in front of his horrified gang. I could not find a video of that scene, but here is a live performance of the courtroom scene where Ram Jaane indicts the corrupt and heartless system that punishes poor children for being born. It is a reminder that he was trained in theater, and knows how to deliver lines to a real audience.
Want to watch? It's $1.99 on Youtube. I got my copy through Interlibrary Loan.