Monkeys as midwives. Women dancing in aluminium. The devil-may-care brand of Hindi cinema can’t be missed
The trick to finding great fillums is keeping your ears open to what your friends are talking about — assuming you have the right friends, that is. Pay attention to the people who hold online festivals for snake movies and the oeuvre of Chiranjeevi. Those who refer to Shakti Kapoor as “Lord.” Those who have discovered the essence of ’90s film songs and perform it in the middle of a café in Hauz Khas Village. Those who, upon meeting you in person for the first time after friendly internet exchanges, shout “You! We have to talk about the Ramsay Brothers!” And above all, you simply must hang on the words of the I Love Trashy Hindi Movies group on Facebook. This pulsating hive mind of dedicated followers of the murky corners of masala movies has shined the light on so many treasures that the “watch later” queue on YouTube truly runneth over.
Below is a sampling of the logic-bending, mind-boggling, awe-inspiring films I have stumbled across in the last year, most of them thanks to the connoisseurs named above. Warning for the faint-hearted: the filmography of Mithun Chakraborty looms large.
Jeene Ki Arzoo (Rajasekhar, 1981)
“I wonder if _____ did a snake movie?” is a question that discerning viewers will ask themselves frequently. Putting “Mithun snake movie” into the YouTube search bar led me to this absolute gem for anyone who likes friendly animals in their movies. I used to think the pigeon in Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja, who pecks out number plates was the pinnacle of faunal skills, but this film has an elephant who plays the been to send a snake after an evil character and a monkey who does laundry and assists in childbirth, so the bar has been raised significantly. It also has a spectacular snake dance of amazing contortions in a scaly costume. Oh, and Mithun fights a mongoose. No big deal.
Sahhas (Ravikant Nagaich, 1981)
While it’s not a patch on the director’s Gunmaster films, Sahhas is still pretty fun, although perhaps much more a collection of delightful parts than a meaningful narrative. From the glorious “Disco Badshah” (courtesy of Bappi Lahiri), in which Mithun presides over a light-up floor, glittering pyramids, and a giant slide while wearing a silver suit, to our hero clamping a wrench on a bad guy’s nose during a brawl in a garage, this film is full of the things I love most about devil-may-care Hindi cinema. You may know exactly what is going to happen, but you can rarely predict how.
Catch the song, Disco Badshah here.
Wanted: Dead or Alive (Ambrish Sangal, 1984)
“Of course there’s a Hindi disco cowboy movie,” I thought to myself after I learned of its existence — by reading an academic paper on subcontinental westerns, no less. Shammi Kapoor and Mithun are a solid contrasting pair, and Tina Munim has a great saloon dance number packing pistols to Bappi-da’s music, complete with the iconic lonesome whine. It’s also a film that reminds us that Mithun is a better actor than he gets credit for, now that his Ooty years stand between us and the start of his career: with most of the buffoonery given to Shammi, he’s left to be a sullen, gritty fighter. Wanted: Dead or Alive may not be as forgotten as some of the other titles in this list, but it’s worth revisiting if you haven’t seen it in a few decades. The only disappointment is that Feroz Khan, in all his gunslinging glory, wasn’t at the helm.
Vishkanya (Jag Mundhra, 1991)
Pooja Bedi’s first film is a snake movie, but not in the usual ichchadhari nagin sort of way. Instead, it arms her with a lethal bite after being fed venom by the local tantric (Rajesh Vivek, obviously) and a mission to avenge her murdered parents just as ruthlessly as any angry young son. Appropriate for the nightclub era, she’s deadly while dancing in green sparkles with a snake draped over her shoulders a full decade before Britney Spears did it. I have great respect for scriptwriters like these who can take plot-point chestnuts and turn them into something new, especially when the odious comic relief meets as nasty an end as anyone else.
Lakhi Durga Saraswati (1991)
Aka Bengali all-heroine Amar Akbar Anthony aka the film I didn’t realize I needed so badly. I still haven’t figured out if this is a Bengali dub of the Hindi Sita Salma Suzy or the other way around, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a brilliant remake of a plot we all know, with Archana Puran Singh as Anthony providing just as much attitude as Amitabh did. Moon Moon Sen plays Amar; yes, she’s a cop, and yes, the two brawl in the street. The family was separated when the sisters were little, and if you had a hunch that the matching lockets the girls were given by their parents at Diwali will feature in their eventual reconciliation, you’d be gloriously right. This movie is so fun that it makes me want to adapt all of Manmohan Desai’s hits.
Shera (T. L. V. Prasad, 1999)
Clips of this movie have popped up with names like “WTF MITHUN,” and while that name isn’t misleading, it doesn’t hint at this film’s specific flavor of drug lords, a female cop, and martial arts with cobra noises. Shera has among its baddies both Bob Christo and Gavin Packard (nicknamed “Brown Sugar”), Tom Alter being entirely wrong for this sort of villainy. Mithun has a mighty mullet, bad guys wear animal masks, women dance in front of splotches of coloured aluminium foil, and, in one of far too many Sholay references that exist for reasons I cannot discern, Asrani has a double role riffing on his famous jailor alongside Dharmendra and Amitabh look-sorta-alikes.
The film’s action sequences are worthy of attention too.
Punnami Nagu (A. Kodandarami Reddy, 2009)
In case a snake film with item girl extraordinaire Mumaith Khan as the avenging shape-shifter wasn’t attraction enough, this film has a roadway turn into a towering cobra—and that’s not even in the finale. Our heroine is unapologetically smart, capable, and sexy, and the film never punishes her for it. Seeing an expert let loose in a script that really wants to make use of her talents is exhilarating, even among some seedy subplots that are best left unmentioned. She turns a bit traditional by the end of the film, but not before demonstrating the importance of role-playing in one’s marriage bed. Did I mention she eats one of the villains?
Seen all of these? Load one up on YouTube and look for the little thumbnails of suggested links on the side. That way madness…er, greatness lies.
Beth Watkins blogs at Beth Loves Bollywood.