I've been stuck on pause this week, watching Rakesh Roshan's 1997 film Koyla repeatedly. This film is an intense love story set in the socio-economic backdrop of coal fields. "Koyla" translates to "coal" and/or "ember" and offers the following story:
Elderly Raja Saab (Amrish Puri) wants to marry young, beautiful, but poor Gauri (Madhuri Dixit) to satisfy his lust. Gauri, who has never seen Raja Saab, refuses to marry unless she actually sees a photo. Raja Saab sends a picture of his faithful but mute servant, Shankar (Shah Rukh Khan). Gauri agrees to the marriage but discover the fraud too late and is devastated that she must spend the rest of her life with Raja Saab. Shankar discovers the treachery and Raja Saab's sins of the past begin to catch up to him as Shankar and Gauri escape Raja's cage.
Admittedly, the special effects in the film aren't great, the continuity is sometimes off, the hairstyles are a featured topic of discussion on internet forums, and sometimes the overacting is painful - but the story is rich and well worth watching. And if you get a true widescreen version of the film, you will find the cinematography breathtaking.
The film grows on me with multiple views and because there are plenty of reasons to enjoy it. The story seems to have come straight out of (family-friendly) romance novel. There is enough action in the film to keep the attention of those new to Bollywood. The acting and dancing by Madhuri Dixit and Shah Rukh Khan is entertaining and the soundtrack by Rajesh Roshan is often times inspiring.
But, I think it's Shankar's transformation is what enthralls.
Just as coal goes through different stages of development, so does Koyla. And while there are four stages to coal formation, Koyla formation requires five stages.
1. Shankar as Slave
Coal stage: Peat - a highly organic material found in marshy or damp regions, composed of partially decayed vegetable matter: it is cut and dried for use as fuel.
"Your highness, who is this man?" - "He is the most loyal pet of mine."
When we meet Shankar, he is part of Raja Saab's household. Yet he is also a wild man who is a part of the landscape - another servant of many who stands out because of his skills, but is just as easily beaten for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is recognized as a powerful force of nature, yet he has a gentle soul that is loyal to Raja Saab.
2. Shankar as Solace
Coal stage: Lignite - lowest rank of coal with a high content of volatile matter; susceptible to spontaneous combustion.
As he witnesses the maltreatment of Gauri, Shankar finds himself becoming more and more agitated. He has several explosive encounters with Brijwa, Raja's brother, which contribute to the pressure to respond to the injustices he is seeing. Unlike his masters, he recognizes the difference between good and evil. But his continued loyalty to Raja Saab keeps him in check and instead, he reaches out to comfort Gauri.
3. Shankar as Savior
Coal stage: Bituminous - a soft coal formed as the result of high pressure being exerted on lignite; extraction demands highest safety procedures as it can be explosive.
"Shankar ... I give you the responsibility for my sister."
With the attack on Gauri's brother, Shankar reaches his breaking point. In an explosive move, he steals Gauri away from Raja and escapes with her into the wilderness. He protects her while unleashing a storm of violence against those who follow, seeking to destroy them.
4. Shankar as the Shadow of Death
Coal stage: Anthracite - transformed through metamorphosis into the hardest coal with the fewest impurities.
"You couldn't destroy my body even when you tried, so how can you destroy my shadow?"
Friedrich Nietzsche said, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." In this case, it transforms Shankar into Koyla - "the one who burns and destroys" - with his body, his memory, and his voice intact. He announces his presence and purpose - the impending deaths of the evildoers. As the battle takes him into a coal mine, Shankar's transformation into Koyla is visually complete when he is covered in coal dust.
5. Shankar as Superhero
Koyla stage - Passion and power on fire.
"How can I let them live, who had killed my own?
They have ruined my childhood!
They have oppressed by beloved!"
Unchained, Shankar seeks to rid the world of those who repeatedly hurt the innocent. As Shankar finally confronts Raja Saab, he has become a man ignited by passion and purpose. It is hard not to see Shankar as someone imbued with superhuman power as he pursues and confronts the evil that has ruined many lives.
The climactic scene became a real-life climax as Shah Rukh tried to do a stunt with himself on fire and burned himself and nearly asphyxiated, Roshan says.
A diffident Shah Rukh told Cine Blitz the whole story: "The shot has never been done in India before, I hear. I was set on fire from head to toe. Normally, people do these kinds of stunts with a face mask on.
"I did it without one. The shot was that Amrishji sets me on fire and flees from the scene of the crime, thinking I am dead. He gets into the train and then sees this ball of fire hurtling towards him.
"Even though you are wearing fire-proof clothes, when you are set on fire, there's is a good chance the fire could burn through them. I had the water gel but that keeps you safe for about 15 seconds.
"I nearly died of asphyxiation the last time I did the shot. When they set me on fire, it just engulfed me. The flames just shot up beyond control. I threw myself on the floor and all these people crowded around me, trying to put the fire off. They threw on wet blankets but that didn't help either. The flames just came back stronger every time they did that.
"Meanwhile, this young kid who was helping the others to douse the fire panicked badly because he thought my face had also caught fire. He started spraying carbon dioxide on my face. I just stopped breathing and couldn't inhale at all.
"It was quite frightening. I had a close shave with death that day."
He also suffered a fracture to his knee cap during the filming. Despite the injury, he continued to shoot as the film's set was put up in Arunachal Pradesh and halting the shoot would have led to severe losses. "There is a scene in the film where SRK is running with a duppatta tied around his left knee. While anyone would think it was for the film, he had actually tied Madhuri's dupatta to ease the pain," said Dr Irani, who was constantly giving him physiotherapy sessions those says. SRK flew to Austria for surgery after wrapping up the shoot.