Naagin, Jalpari, Bhediya: The Shapeshifters of Bollywood

Ahead of the Varun Dhawan-starrer Bhediya, we look back at the times Hindi films explored human-to-animal transformations
Naagin, Jalpari, Bhediya: The Shapeshifters of Bollywood

Bollywood loves its animals. Apart from the plethora of dogs we’ve seen on-screen – from Tuffy in Hum Aapke Hain Koun to Bhidu in Chillar Party – pigeons, snakes, elephants and tigers have all had their day in the sun. Despite this, we’re yet to see Hindi films truly dig their heels into the human-to-animal universe, except for a smattering of examples over the decades. Unlike American movies that have used the trope in every possible genre, Hindi films still rely on shapeshifting to introduce villainy or an exotic (usually female) seductress. Amar Kaushik’s upcoming Bhediya seems to hint at an anti-hero despite his bloodthirsty tendencies and one can hope that it will lead to a more courageous step into the shapeshifting universe – one that can tap into, say, the nuances of self-righteousness (The Emperor’s New Groove), the divisive power of intolerance (the X-Men series) or perhaps act as a grim warning for the future (Dibakar Banerjee’s segment in Ghost Stories). Until then, we take a look at the times Bollywood turned its characters into fantastical beings. 

Snakes: Nagina (1986) 

The concept of an “icchadhaari naagin” was nothing short of a cultural phenomenon in Bollywood. Its pioneer, second perhaps to only Reena Roy’s Naagin (1976), was Sridevi in Nagina. While the actress isn't shown to actually transform into a snake in the film – her change is marked only by a pair of shockingly-blue contact lenses – real snakes do make a lot of appearances in the film. As her loyal minions, they chase down cars and bite everyone from scheming villains to random men leering at our heroine. The film went on to become the biggest hit of the year, with director Harmesh Malhotra immediately announcing a sequel. Nagina cemented the icchadhaari naagin as a protagonist, with a flurry of films following the same formula released over the next couple of years – Nigahen (1989), the sequel to Nagina; Naag Nagin (1989), Sheshnaag (1990), Naache Nagin Gali Gali (1990), Tum Mere Ho (1990) and Vishkanya (1991). Special shout to Jaani Dushman (2002), which featured Armaan Kohli as a naagraaj – the less-popular, male counterpart to a naagin. 

Mermaids: Laal Paree (1991)

A remake of the Tom Hanks-starrer Splash (1984), Laal Paree is among the handful Hindi films that feature a mermaid. Much of Laal Paree unfolds as the ultimate male fantasy: Shankar (Aditya Pancholi) is busy fistfighting a goon when he’s thrown into the ocean. A mermaid with red hair – because Ariel? No, because ‘Laal’ Paree – saves him and reappears behind some rocks to creepily watch him. Shankar wakes up to the realisation that not only has been saved but that there is a naked woman on the beach who cannot speak and randomly seems very into him. He, obviously, finds none of this fishy and the two spend much time romancing each other (the mermaid might not know any Hindi, but she sure packs some dance moves). There’s also Gulshan Grover playing Dr. Jacob, who knows that the mermaid returns to her original form when splashed with some water. This leads to many regrettable scenes of Dr. Jacob attacking random red-haired women in the city with whatever he can find – buckets, water bags, and hoses. 

Tigers: Junoon (1992)

Mahesh Bhatt’s Junoon has much going on for itself. There is Rahul Roy, dreamboat of the hit Aashiqui (1990) released just two years before he was re-fashioned into a monster for this film. He plays the testosterone-fuelled Vicky, who loves hunting specifically during a full moon, bursts into Ravan-esque laughter and confidently rubbishes the villager’s warnings about a sher ka bhoot (a tiger’s ghost). He’s basically the dude you don’t want to be in a horror film. Vicky and his “darpoke” (read sensible) friend conveniently find a Sanskrit story engraved on a wall – of a raja who separated a pair of tigers engaged in “prem peeda (the pain of love)” – make of that what you will – and killed the male, because as per tantric instructions, that would finally give him an heir. The tigress, understandably, curses the king who then becomes a tiger and then becomes a ghost (don’t ask). Whoever attempts to kill the ghost turns into a tiger the next full moon. Guess what Hunter Vicky does the moment he sees a tiger? You know how this ends. Inspired by An American Werewolf in London (1981), the special effects for Roy’s transformation into a man-eating tiger apparently cost Rs 60 lakhs at the time. If nothing, the film is a major milestone in the horror-meets-special-effects journey. 

Chameleons: Krrrish 3 (2013)

If you’ve watched Krrrish 3, there is a very good chance you remember its toli (gang) of villains well. There is the gentleman with the long, disturbingly elastic tongue (think Toad from X-Men), another who can use telekinesis and sits in a wheelchair (think Charles St. Xavier from X-Men) and of course, the latex-wrapped Kaya (Kangana Ranaut) who has the abilities of a chameleon, allowing her to transform into anyone or anything she likes (zero points for guessing). Kaya’s transformations into other people are perhaps some of the smoothest we have seen in Bollywood, especially since the film was released in 2013. A large part of the narrative depends on Kaya pretending to be Krrish’s wife Priya, played by Priyanka Chopra. Visually this means that the woman we see standing before Krrish alternates between Kaya and Priya. One of the few joys of the film is watching Priyanka Chopra pretending to be Kangana Ranaut pretending to be Priyanka Chopra.  

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