Funky Bollywood

Funky Bollywood_Cover art

Funky Bollywood – The wild world of 1970s Indian action cinema (A selective guide)

I was chuffed when Todd Stadtman kindly sent me a review copy of his book. Not just because the book is fabulous (What a relief! I don’t have to be polite – it is really well done!), but also because Todd is the reason I first watched Pistolwali. A debt of gratitude of such magnitude is nigh impossible to repay.

 

Stadtman intends Funky Bollywood to be ‘the “gateway drug” into the world of Indian action cinema’, which is one of my favourite worlds. If you don’t know where to start, Todd’s guide could help you decide how to first dip a toe into the waters. If you’ve been there done that, enjoy the quips and asides as you spend time with some familiar faces.

Saturated with colour and illustrations, dotted with random facts and wry observations, the book has one thing that a masala film can often lack. Logic and structure. Opening chapters give a brief overview of the who’s who of the era, and has an excellent additional feature I would like all DVD manufacturers to adopt post haste; symbols representing recurring themes found in each film.

Funky Bollywood_The Key

Imagine how simple it would make selecting a film if you could pick the one with Helen, a lair and some separated siblings? I know that around 60% of the time you could select ANY 70s Indian action film and get that combination but sometimes I don’t want to take a punt. Amusing and insightful reviews of select film make up the remaining chapters.

Todd’s glee at the best (and not at all the best) films of the era leaps off the page. It’s a little like watching a film with a friend who knows what’s going to happen next and can’t wait to see your reaction. I particularly enjoyed the section on spy films and westerns as they also included a few of my Telugu favourites. There is a persistent spelling error (Telegu for Telugu) that belies the detailed and well researched content, which made me a little sad. But this is clearly a labour of love and a lot of attention has gone into every page.

Funky Bollywood_insightful

Like a really good masala film, Funky Bollywood is wildly entertaining and you might even learn something along the way (probably nothing to do with medicine or science, but other stuff). My cunning plan is to leave it lying around at home and wait for the unwary visitor to pick it up. I’ll have Parvarish in the DVD player before they know what hit them!

If you’d like your own copy, it’s available on Amazon or via the publishers Fab Press. And do pop over to the official Facebook page and say hi to Todd!

99 (2009)

99-Poster I generally enjoy heist or caper type films, and 99 is a fairly good example of the things I like most about the genre. Raj and DK have a keen eye for the little moments of absurdity and joy that pepper our lives, and the characters in 99 have hopes and schemes that are real world sized. Their ambitions fit within their neighbourhood – a really good coffee shop, a fresh start, a comfortable life with no running from the cops. Empathising with their flaws and stupid choices comes a little more easily when the dreams are so relatable. 99-the plan Sachin (Kunal Khemu) and Zaramud (Cyrus Broacha) are small time crims, working a technology angle rather than being standover merchants. They see themselves as perpetrating a victimless crime in a situation where nobody really gets hurt and lots of people benefit. Things go awry, as they often do, and while running from the police they steal and crash a Merc belonging to AGM (Mahesh Manjrekar).

AGM is an old school boss, the kind of bookie that newspapers here would have called a colourful racing identity. Rahul (Boman Irani) is separated from his wife, probably because of his gambling addiction. He keeps bargaining with God to win another hand, win another bet, and thinks he can beat the house. He places a bet on the cricket while having his own away game on conference in Mumbai, and is referred to AGM as his bookie. He goes home to Delhi, skipping out on the debt.

AGM sends Sachin and Zaramud to Delhi to recover the losses from Rahul, part of their agreement to work off their debt. Another character says they looked like Laurel and Hardy, and they do have about the same degree of acuity. Sachin uses AGM’s credit card to put himself up at a fancy hotel and meets duty manager Pooja (Soha Ali Khan). In between waiting around and menacing Rahul, he romances Pooja and generally looks on the bright side.

Rahul wants to win one more big bet to settle all his debts and maybe even get his wife back. The boys won’t wait, and they steal the money he is ‘borrowing’ from a client to settle the outstanding. But in a classic Delhi taxi scam their bags, including The Bag, are stolen. Rahul and Laurel and Hardy team up to win back the cash in another bet on the cricket finals, targeting high-roller JC (Vinod Khanna) as the key to success. The game is afoot! The cricket theme permeates all aspects of the characters’ lives. They’re all stuck on 99, waiting for the opportunity to make their century and claim success. None of them wants world domination or is chasing the money just for the sake of it, except maybe Rahul, they just want to get ahead. The match fixing scandal of 1999-2000 is well known so that adds another dimension as honest crooks rely on a match controlled by bigger crooks.

Kunal Khemu has a boyish charm that works well for Sachin, who isn’t the brightest crayon in the box. He and Cyrus Broacha have an easy chemistry that makes their scenes seem fresh even though the plot direction may be predictable. I could be underestimating Sachin as the subtitle team were a law unto themselves and even I know enough Hindi to know some dialogue was a bit mystifying. The boys make it up as they go and I enjoyed their antics as they tried to stay one step ahead of all their pursuers.

Boman Irani is quite restrained in terms of comedy excesses, but doesn’t shy away from showing Rahul as a jerk who will lie and wheedle his way out of trouble. He’s kind of seedy but respectable at the same time, an average man with a secret addiction. He is plausible and can be charming but there is a glint in his eye whenever he sees a chance. Rahul never learned any lasting lesson, but continued to coast on his luck and maybe God coming through on a bet or two.

Soha Ali Khan is adequate but for a film that works hard to build a little world, Pooja’s character is a bit lacking. I would have liked to see more of Pooja’s own decision making articulated. Initially she only agreed to help because Sachin whined at her, and while she did strike her own deal I didn’t really get why she would even consider getting involved to begin with. Simone Singh plays Jahnavi, Rahul’s wife. Like Pooja, although she is set up as a smart and down to earth woman there is little sense of anything about her other than her tension with Rahul. I didn’t have so many quibbles the first time I watched the film, but on a repeat viewing I felt that they existed to provide a foil for the relevant male character and not much else.

Vinod Khanna is perfectly cast as the smooth, slightly larger than life, JC. He is understated but faintly menacing under all the expensive charm. Amit Mistry and Pitobash round out the supporting cast with an entertaining blend of comedy, histrionics and sharp eyed opportunism. The soundtrack by Ashu is more bland than not, and quite formulaic – the whimsical acoustic song, the bhangra number, the sights of Delhi song, you know the drill. But they are integrated into the drama well and don’t derail the story at all. The song montages were often quite entertaining and let Raj and DK get a lot of slapstick out of their systems without dragging the main narrative down.

I hate to sound all hipster about Raj and DK but I do prefer their earlier stuff (I wasn’t blown away by Go Goa Gone) and 99 is lots of fun. While I am slightly disappointed with the female characters I genuinely like the good natured feel, the slightly dodgy characters, and the great use of locations. Even the opening titles incorporate the cast in the locations and foreshadow the twists and turns with some quirky angles and animation. The jokes take a swipe at everything from intercity rivalries to the film industry, and there are some zingy one liners courtesy of writers Raj and DK with Sita Menon. Of recent films in a similar genre I slightly prefer Ko Antey Koti and Delhi Belly, but I really have no complaints about spending a couple of hours in 1999 with these dudes. See it for a good modern robbers and more robbers caper with an appealing cast and a sense of humour about itself. 3 ½ stars!

Nagadevathe (2000)

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Sai Prakash’s 2000 film Nagadevathe is snakecentric, packed with special effects, and Soundarya and Prema are more than capable of shouldering the lead roles. The film is available on Youtube in Kannada, Tamil and Telugu so you can choose your own adventure without subtitles, and it has also been dubbed into Hindi under the title Naag Shakti.

The story as I believe it to be goes something like this. Gauri is regarded as a bad luck omen in her village, possibly just because she is barren. She and her husband offer hospitality to Shiva and Parvati who are pretending to be travellers. The gods tell Gauri why she is infertile – she accidentally killed a clutch of snake eggs and has been cursed. But they tell her how to stop them from continuing to punish her. Soon after, Gauri discovers she is pregnant. A difficult labour nearly ends badly but a glowing mystical snake appears and turns into Nagamma (Soundarya), who ensures a safe birth. There is a backstory involving a man who foolishly kills a snake and is cursed, his household goods transforming to snake mounds. He and his family do penance and after giving the deceased snake a proper funeral, his home is restored. Nagamma moves in to the termite hill to keep an eye on them or something. A shrine is built around the main snake mound and over time, more and more people come to pay their respects to the snake goddess. Nagalakshmi is born to be a devotee of Nagamma, and they have quite a warm and personal bond right from Nagalakshmi’s birth. Grown up Nagalakshmi (Prema) meets Shivaji (Sai Kumar) and love blossoms. There is some kind of conflict between their families and I couldn’t work out if it was an old feud, the rich boy poor girl thing, or just garden variety mother (deliberately turning her son into an evil possessed snake) issues. Nagamma tries to protect her favourite humans, and they could all benefit from some better decision making. Things get worse before they can get better, and the effects team are kept busy with magical healings, snake assists, helpful talking parrots, attack vultures, heaven, hell and the kitchen sink.

I enjoy the snake film genre for a few reasons. Often the female characters are more prominent and powerful or more nuanced, or both, and that makes me happy. There is usually a pervading sense of right in the film’s world as the snakes are able to enact justice that is missing for the masses. Snakes may act out of common sense or compassion, unlike many non-magical humans. Snakes are alert to every opportunity to get their groove on, with varying degrees of success along the scale from Jeetendra to Sri Devi. And the outfits are frequently a bit special. On many levels, from the very shallow to only slightly less shallow, Nagadevathe delivers.

I think Soundarya is lovely and in this film she maintains an air of benevolent authority in even the most trying times. Given that she often only has her face to act with (the rest of her having been replaced by a giant CGI snake), she does very well.

In one scene reminiscent of Ammoru, Nagalakshmi has summoned guests to eat at a special pooja. They are turned back by the Evil In-Laws but Nagamma calls on her sister deities to come along. She gets the undivided attention of the effects and saree teams as she personifies water, wind, earth, fire and more.

I admit to some disappointment that despite a most excellent spangly body suit, the obligatory “nagin assailed by been-wielding baddies” scene resulted in a disappointing dance. More like she was rolling around on the floor looking for a lost (blue) contact lense at times.

I liked Prema a lot in Devi, and her performance is solid. She has a flirty but down to earth tone with Sai Kumar, and a nice rapport with Soundarya. Prema is tall and elegant looking but has an energy that lends equally well to comedy and romantic shenanigans. Nagalakshmi has the strength and faith to stay on task and Prema really showed the power and intensity of her determination as well as her softer side. I could see why the snakes would want to chip in at her wedding. She was a good friend and fundamentally nice without being a pushover. Nagalakshmi knows what’s what and once she finds out the truth of her situation she takes steps to protect her loved ones and engage some divine assistance to sort out the problem. I recalled musing on the toxicity of Chiru’s bodly fluids in Punnami Nagu, and Shivaji also appears to have a lethal, um, bite. I have never been so glad to see so many silly interruptions of a wedding night.

Sai Kumar is Shivaji. He seems so nice and yet… When his snake nature dominates he is predatory and poisonous. Now I was confused as to how a snake goddess could be unaware her favourite disciple was marrying a serial killer faux snake, but maybe there are cosmic rules about that kind of snake-by-venomous-inoculation. Shivaji was unaware of his snakey activities and oblivious to the black magic worshipping going on around him. Nagalakshmi was often in peril and I was quite worn out from yelling at the screen for her husband to either wake up to himself or to get away from her. I’m more used to seeing Sai Kumar as a villain or an elder statesman so seeing him as a romantic lead was novel. Even if the effects team did seem to take too much pleasure in distorting his face into a snakelike mask.

The support cast includes stalwarts Babu Mohan, Tanikella Bharani, and other familiar faces doing familiar shtick. I couldn’t put names to all the faces but I was largely able to place which characters were Good and which were Not Good.

I did get a little confused at times since without the benefit of subtitles, I rely on the visual cues. Thankfully the signs are generally clear and umabiguous. Nagamma’s arch enemy is an evil mystic who favours an eagle motif and prances about in a shiny red outfit with a fluttering black cape. I liked that his cape was attached to the sleeves of his onesie as that helped ensure some vigorous and character appropriate flapping. The effects team worked themselves into a lather of laser eyes, snake shaped shadows, nasty afflictions, sparkly things, space monsters and of course giant multi-headed cosmic snakes.

Some key scenes are very similar to ones from Devi (1999) or even Ammoru (1995). Although this time around Prema was not the cosmic snake, and Soundarya was the powerful goddess. The story is laden with a bit of everything and the commitment to the theme is unquestionable. I can’t say the commitment to logic is equal.

See this if you like to see competent actresses take centre stage and if you enjoy a bit of a spectacle en route to a good comeuppance. 3 ½ stars!

47 Rojulu

47 Rojulu poster

K Balachander’s 1981 film 47 Rojulu is a study of domestic abuse, and I found it uncomfortable to watch. It’s melodramatic yet has a ring of realism, largely due to Jayaprada’s characterisation of Vaishali, and the often quite graphic violence. Chiranjeevi stars opposite in a negative role, and he doesn’t hold anything back.

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The story is told in flashback, through the device of a visiting actress (Saritha) who comes to talk to Vaishali as preparation for a film. I have only seen this in an unsubtitled print, and it is a dialogue heavy film, so at first I was a little confused by the flashback structure. However, the emotional tone and pitch of the drama comes through loud and clear and I had no trouble in following the main story.

Vaishali (Jayaprada) and her brother are coming home from seeing Shankarabharanam (I think) at the cinema when she sees a wedding taking place. Kumar (Chiranjeevi) is discussing marriage with his parents and next thing you know, he is getting married to Vaishali. All looks fine until after the ceremony when he gets the wedding photographer to give him the film, and exposes all the rolls. Why wouldn’t he want pictures of his wedding day? He seems quite keen on the wedding night and wasn’t forced into the marriage (apart from some gentle parental coercion). Also a little odd, he tests to see if she can speak English. Soon after the wedding they move to France.

At first things seem fine. Kumar shows off the house in the countryside outside Paris, and introduces his naïve bride to heating, sliding doors, supermarkets and televised sports. They live in a cosy modern flat on the ground floor, and a woman called Lucy lives upstairs.

Then one day Kumar is chatting to someone in French and introduces Vaishali as his sister. Hmmmm. Of course she has no idea as she speaks only Telugu. It is clearly a lie when he says Lucy (Anne Patricia) is just a friend. There is an awkward dinner, with Lucy completely unaware Vaishali is married to Kumar and with Vaishali confused by who this woman is and why she acts so familiar with her husband. Lucy seems happily oblivious although she does realise Vaishali isn’t comfortable around her. And then one day Vaishali, overwhelmed by her unease and distrust, searches Lucy’s apartment and finds a wedding photo – of Kumar and Lucy.

If Vaishali asks any questions about their domestic situation, Kumar puts her down so she will feel ignorant and shut up. He cuts her off from any other Indian people in the area, and he is her only source of information. She loses her confidence, she feels stupid and disgraced, and she has no one other than Kumar. When she does a runner to Paris by herself, Kumar drags her home and burns her hand on a hotplate as punishment. It’s quite sad that Lucy tries to comfort her ill ‘sister-in-law’ when she is unwittingly part of the problem. Jayaprada does a great job of showing the changing emotions and moods of the abused wife. She really likes Kumar and her marriage when he is in a good mood, and Vaishali seems to excuse his early outbursts by blaming herself or thinks it is just because he is tired or stressed. Her growing realisation that she is in trouble and that her marriage is a sham is sad to watch.

Kumar does spend quite a lot of time with Vaishali (he doesn’t have a job as such) and seems affectionate and caring. They do the tourist thing around Paris, enjoying the sights and making fun of some fashionable locals. How he thinks he can keep hiding the truth is beyond me.  Kumar justifies and rationalises – he sees no reason why he can’t have it all, and no compunction about hurting either of the women.  He has an impulsive warmth which can be appealing, but that can swiftly turn to rage and brutality. His behaviour escalates from verbal nagging and bullying to physically attacking Vaishali.

In one sickening scene of what is essentially marital rape, he withholds her letter from home to coerce her into having sex. And when Vaishali falls pregnant he starts to really lose the plot as he sees his perfect life crumble. He seems to insist on a termination and certainly there is no baby later in the film, although how and if it was her choice isn’t revealed as far as I can tell. Chiranjeevi gives a strong and complex characterisation of a loathsome man. I certainly didn’t find the Chiru Mega appeal made the situation any more palatable, but his layered performance allowed me to empathise more with Vaishali’s disillusionment as she came to terms with the deception.

Some isolated and precarious locations seem intended to convey fear or dread, and I was certainly yelling at Vaishali to be careful, especially in one rooftop scene. Kumar abandons her in a forest at one stage, and tears the mangalsutra from her neck before leaving her in a park on another occasion. He uses her isolation and the unfamiliar surroundings to reinforce her caged existence. He also takes her to see a show of an ‘adult’ nature (to the Pink Panther theme music – how saucy) to prove his point that love and sex were different in France, but she is utterly repulsed by the spectacle. The cosy apartment that she loved on first sight becomes a prison.

The drama is almost claustrophobic as it all takes place in Vaishali and Kumar’s tiny world, so the support cast is small. Sarath Babu arrives late in the piece as Telugu speaking Dr Shankar, who becomes aware of Vaishali’s predicament. Ramaprabha is a petty thief who is hated by the wardrobe department and who gets Shankar involved in the situation. The plot manipulations required to get them into position don’t really stack up, but I was relieved to see Sarath Babu regardless. There is something very salt of the earth and reliable about him in these secondary good dude roles. And I was happy  that once Ramaprabha’s character understood Vaishali’s situation, she reached out to help. Anne Patricia is not the best actress ever, but I felt sympathy for Lucy and was glad to see how her storyline played out.

Some things didn’t quite fit with the realism of the initial set up. Who travels with an electric hotplate or element just on the chance they will want to burn their spare wife? The songs added nothing to the narrative development so I would have left them out, or kept them as background. And the final chase was dramatic but didn’t make much sense, logistically speaking.

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Lest this all sound too grim, back in the present day Saritha asks about the doctor, sparking an outburst from Vaishali. It seems she feels marriage is not essential for a good life.  Hear, hear!

This is a difficult film for me to watch as I find the subject repugnant and to be honest, I prefer a Chiru I can cheer for. I do appreciate the nuanced and sympathetic but not sentimental portrayal of women and relationships. 4 stars!

Shatranj (1969)

Shatranj 1969

Shatranj is proud as punch to be another in a long line of ‘so crazy it almost makes sense’ Indian spy thrillers. S.S. Vasan appears to have a healthy aversion to restraint, and with a top notch cast and Shankar-Jaikishan providing the music, there is no reason to be reticent.

Jai (Rajendra Kumar), also known as The Indian is an international man of mystery. He seems to have full time employment searching the globe for Indians being held captive by foreign governments who shall not be named. He is asked to find Meena (Waheeda Rehman) and her mum (Achala Sachdev) who have decamped to Another Country That May Not Be Named and show no signs of coming home. Amir (Mehmood) and Salma (Helen) are on the side of Good, Susie (Shashikala) is a stylish Bad girl and stunts and schemes abound. Jai travels to Hong Kong and thence by boat to The Mysterious Land With No Name. I do wonder where it could be.

Many hijinks ensue as Jai plays merry havoc with his adversaries General Ko Lum, Zing (or Singh, depending on the subtitle team’s mood and level of nationalist fervour), Chang, Lee Jung, the constantly knitting Madame Chun Qing Lee, et al. If only there were clues as to which country this could be set in. Maddening.

I am lacking the Rajendar Kumar Appreciation Gene but he does OK as Jai, generally playing for laughs rather than milking the drama. Jai has a well provisioned den and a comedy sidekick, proof that he is no novice in the international spy game. There is an over reliance on blue contact lenses in lieu of a proper disguise, but the wig department got to de-mothball a few favourites. Rajendra Kumar cannot, nay should not, dance but he is upbeat and energetic which is something I suppose. He has no chemistry whatever with Waheeda Rehman and she knocks herself out trying to emote enough for both of them in the romantic scenes.

Meena is a good girl and both Jai and her mum think that means she is too sweet and dumb to ever tell her the truth. Apart from the picturesque moping, Waheeda gets some excellent dance numbers and that gives her a chance to show Meena as cheeky and energetic rather than the limp tearstained captive. Waheeda has just the right expression of patient misery for Meena.

And her ‘I’m a hot peacock in sparkly pants with an eye for the ladies’ expression is also memorable.

Among the things I love most about vintage spy thrillers are the lengths to which they go to explain things, and the excellent interior design and fashion. There was either a commitment to ensuring mutual understanding  or total lack of imagination going on when they handed out the codenames. Jai was The Indian, the guy in dark glasses is Mr Dark Glasses and Shashikala in her wig is Miss Golden Hair. The plots and doublecrosses are explained loud and clear, often with a side of comedy mime from Mehmood. There are truly excellent telecommunications devices and an amazing screen of secrecy.  Things light up, go whoop-whoop and beep-beep, and stick on moustaches and rubber masks are a dime a dozen. Is it a truly secret lair if people see you ducking in and out via the revolving secret door? Really?

Helen and Mehmood look like they enjoy working together. Maybe they’re just amazing actors.  Mehmood gets to confuse the spies watching Jai, so the real Jai can sneak over to rescue the ladies. I do like that Mehmood always answers the phone and top secret radios with Alooooooo rather than the traditional Hellohellohello. Amir is both a bumbling fool and a competent gentleman’s gentleman (or beloved lackey). I like Mehmood best when there isn’t too much of him and because there is so much everything else, he is neatly contained.

Helen is Salma, a very charming and fun sidekick burdened with the sad fate of loving Amir (Mehmood). On board a ship between Hong Kong and The Unidentifiable Country, Helen flamencos like a mad thing which is an excellent cover as no one seems inclined to enquire too closely as to her career plans or immediate spy type objectives. Jai tells her to go undercover at his hotel, as (what else) a cabaret dancer. When he arranged to be introduced to her as Shin Raz, a businessman, Salma simply purred “A businessman? How boring!” and sauntered away with a cheeky smile. It’s a great fit for Helen, and she doesn’t have to die to be redeemed as she is already on the side of the angels.

The songs are a sheer delight. Whether used in snippets to set a mood or full on production numbers, the music is a highlight. Even Mehmood gets a share of the musical goodness in one of my favourite dances with Helen, plus a strange mournful dirge about charity that suddenly grows a poppy guitar melody.

And how about that? Yes I know that song is a direct copy of South Pacific but Rogers and Hammerstein missed an opportunity to have the devil bunnies and snake ladies in their musical. Although I’m very OK with missing out on the high pitched screechy ethnic stereotypes. And it even works as part of the narrative, as Meena bemoans her fate as a lonely stranger in a strange land (the one that cannot be identified).

If you only watched the songs you might think this was a film about a man with dozens of children, multiple wives who were all cabaret dancers, and a drunken stalker addicted to bad disguises. So you really need to see the whole thing and appreciate the verve and dedication to the craft of the spy film. Shatranj never fails to put a smile on my face. 4 stars!