Thirty years of Khoon Bhari Maang: Why we love a camp classic about crocodile justice

Long before Ashutosh Gowariker and Hrithik Roshan jointly mauled the reputation of crocodiles in Mohenjo Daro, the aquatic reptile had quite a following in the Hindi film industry. Especially 30 years ago, when the humble crocodile was cast in a scene-stealing double role in Rakesh Roshan’s Khoon Bhari Maang — where it played both villain and ally.

The kitschy, cosmetic surgery- and croc-friendly film’s most famous scene involved its unsuspecting lead, Aarti (Rekha), being pushed off a boat by her new husband Sanjay (Kabir Bedi), and straight into the jaws of a crocodile (You can look it up on YouTube by searching with the keywords “natural murder”).

Heavily borrowed from the Australian mini-series Return of the Eden, the crocodile scene had generous helpings of gore, aimless flailing, hopeless hamming from everyone except the croc, and pinkish blood. Even its very premise was over the top: A naive Aarti squealing in joy and trying to photograph a crocodile swimming close to their boat. Kabir Bedi locking eyes with the inexplicably animated crocodile and yelling, “Magarmach” before throwing his new wife in the water. And her best friend and co-conspirator Nandini’s (Sonu Walia) endless screaming.

And yet, this scene isn’t even the most OTT part about the film. Khoon Bhari Maang marks the very pinnacle of ’80s Bollywood — a time of big hair and big pearls, padded shoulders on gaudy-gauzy outfits, shiny reds, and avenging female leads. A time when a makeover was equivalent to a cosmetic surgery. A time when justice would be served within a span of three hours and Shatrughan Sinha could play a cameo as a fashion photographer who unironically wears scarves. A time we all love, miss, and remember fondly.

It’s only a film like Khoon Bhari Maang that can turn a complete lack of logic into poignancy.

Khoon Bhari Maang’s big twist hinged on the fact that its killer crocodile was on a mysterious Keto diet and didn’t make a complete meal out of Aarti; leaving her alive but badly disfigured. Out of great conflict comes great creativity aka cosmetic surgery, that allows Aarti to be reborn… with a completely new personality. By the time Aarti (as the avenging Jyoti) is done with him, Sanjay faces the same fate that he tried to inflict on her: He gets attacked and eaten to death by a crocodile, who, by then, is Aarti’s partner-in-crime.

At its heart, Khoon Bhari Maang is like any other indulgent vigilante justice saga. In it, a demure rich widow with two young kids who tragically loses her husband (Rakesh Roshan) and father (Saeed Jaffrey), is wronged by a handsome – and by extension, loathsome – suitor. Instead of waiting for the police to punish her perpetrator, the scorned woman decides to exact revenge herself. Like most revenge dramas, the film displays a complete lack of a moral code or an understanding of how the law works.

And yet, show me a person who dislikes Khoon Bhari Maang and I will show you a humourless toff. Despite its problematic message, it’s impossible to not root for Rekha while she goes about exposing the duplicitous Sanjay, his evil mama, and snatching justice on her own terms. All my morality and hand-wringing over vigilante justice disappears when I watch Khoon Bhari Maang.

It’s because the film succeeds in straddling camp and a satisfying payoff. Take for instance the fact that when Aarti (as Jyoti) becomes the newest modelling sensation, she also replaces a furious Nandini on almost every magazine cover. The latter insists on a challenge to prove that she is more loved. The result is a dance-off even though it has barely any connection to modelling. The duo dress up in garish outfits and move to “Main Haseena Gazab Ki” trying to outdo each other’s hip strength, while simultaneously giving girls in the 80s dress-up goals. The song ends with Aarti lassoing Sanjay with a gold necklace as if he were some kind of object in a hoop game at the local fair.

Or the part where Aarti heads straight to her children’s school after flying back to the country after her makeover: She and her son make eye contact as she spies on him from behind the school’s walls and she promptly wears shades to not be recognised. The kid, on the other hand, assures himself that the woman in front of him can’t be Aarti even though she looks exactly the same. It’s only a film like Khoon Bhari Maang that can turn a complete lack of logic into poignancy. Thirty years later, you’re laughing at it — but not without acknowledging the tug in your heart.

Much of the love that we’ve continued to afford Khoon Bhari Maang, which is replete with glaring loopholes, is because it allows its vengeful female lead the space to become a strong and decisive individual: a direct contrast from how the film’s paints her in the first half.

Before her makeover, Aarti sported a facial birthmark, dark circles, rabbit teeth and let her grief consume her into being an under-confident, introverted woman – basically, bait for a horde of Sanjays. But as Jyoti, she is flirtatious, blunt, and owns her sexuality. Aarti may have been defined by her responsibilities as a mother, benevolent heiress and grieving wife, and daughter – but Jyoti is free from these constraints. Instead, she is her own person, whose ambitions, desires, and revenge were driven by her own motivations.

In doing so, Khoon Bhari Maang ends up disseminating a surprisingly progressive memo in a climax that name-drops Kali, Rani of Jhansi, and Raziya Sultan: It’s foolish to mistake a woman’s vulnerability as a lack of strength. That, and never photograph crocodiles.

This article was originally published on Arré.

Poulomi Das is an author at Arré.