Bollywood Flashback 1# – The cut-price vigilantism of SHAHENSHAH / King of Kings (Dir. Tinnu Anand, 1988, India)

Shahenshah thrives in the darkness, a nocturnal vigilante who stalks the crime infested city streets with a vicious outrage that is manifested through acts of cathartic violence. He is a cultural composite, an uncanny bricolage that absorbs and radiates a surfeit of cultural markers including DC’s The Punisher, Michael Jackson, RoboCop, and of course self reflexively the angry young man patented by AB. Shahenshah is carried by the conceptual symbolism of the vigilante anchored in AB’s outrageously infectious performance. It is a work that also basks in the glory of faux nostalgia that sadly gets undone if you attempt to sit through a viewing with the hope this it might be a forgotten classic from a lost decade. Unfortunately, it’s not. The shoddy production values and greasy aesthetics gives everything a certain sordid ambience that invariably gets under your skin for all the wrong reasons. Nonetheless, conjured from a collective imagination, the subconscious of the oppressed, Shahenshah materialises from a corporeal desire for justice and vengeance but is also part sadist and public executioner who occupies the civic realm on dubious terms.

Returning to the figure of the vigilante may have seemed fairly obvious for AB after three years away from the big screen but was this reactive fantasy wish fulfilment, an admittance of institutional corruption that AB had witnessed during his time as a Congress MP? In some respects, the vigilantism of Shahenshah was an afront to the short-lived nobility of AB’s politicking, a sort of twisted reversal to reassert the illusion of promise that AB had erected through his films in the 1970s. While I’m not even remotely interested in the car crash of a plot line, there is something deliciously wacky about the totalizing iconographic look of AB’s Shahenshah – the salt & pepper wig with the floppy EMO fringe, the iron hand with the lethal adornments across the arm, the hangman’s noose straight out of an Italian Western and the YMCA all leather biker outfit. In truth everything about the film’s latent charm emanates from the outrageously symbolic costume that Shahenshah dons, an iconographic spectacle of super-human strength and maximum chill.

Shahenshah first appears thirty minutes into a lengthy pre-credit sequence, which then segues into the film’s signature song and a montage detailing Shahenshah’s Robin Hood like tendencies. AB’s entry is sensational. After he roughs up the urban dregs, he raises his arm into the air, flexing triumphantly, which is immortalised in a kitschy freeze frame that is a strange but exhilarating edit. One can only imagine how enthusiastically audiences must have reacted to this moment in cinema halls in 1988 given AB’s three-year hiatus from the big screen. The arm flex is a gesture that resonates but uncannily references Michael Jackson’s signature choreography move. It’s as if AB made this work to tell the people that even though he had dabbled in politics he was still one of them; he wanted to re-draw the lines and re-assert his image as one connected to the masses – an opportunity to reaffirm not reinvent. This is best illustrated in the sequence that finds Shahenshah intervening to thwart the demolition of a slum then leading the slumdwellers to the tacky mansion of crime-lord J.K. Verma (Amrish Puri) and inciting them to smash and loot as a form of retribution. Unfortunately, such cut price vigilantism is never truly instrumentalized into a grander, dissenting political discourse but of course all of that is completely forgivable when you have AB swaggering his way through proceedings on a full tilt rapacious drive. After all, he is the king of kings.

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