Sunehri Nagin is a sword and sorcery fantasy featuring Helen in a lead role, so of course I had to see it. She stars opposite genre film stalwart Mahipal, along with Anwar Hussain as a flamboyant villain. Babubhai Mistry directs in a fairly pedestrian style, but the film has loads of charm. There are lovely songs (in colour), some very good dancers, a snake goddess delivering some divine assistance, ye olde fairytale elements, special effects and some enthusiastic visual design.
The Rajkumari (Helen) is out on a hunting expedition with her handmaidens when her chariot horses are spooked by a nearby panther. Bolting off into the blue, she screams for help. Luckily her pleas are heard by Vijay (Mahipal) who has been languishing in the forest while wearing a splendid fur trimmed suit. Within minutes he has saved Helen and taken her home to meet his blind Ma (Sulochana Latkar) and comedy bro (Kamal Mehra). They are all on their way to a pooja at the snake temple so Princess Helen goes along. The ritual involves placing bowls of milk at the base of a statue and then dancing to invoke the Naag Devi. The owner of the milk the snake drinks will be blessed. That all leads to an excellent dance by Helen and some enthusiastic ‘tribal’ dudes.
Those backward leaning kneeling statues reappear a few times throughout the film so perhaps Mistry was really commited to recycling.
Of course the snake goddess chooses Helen. So does Anwar Hussain who is lurking in the crowd. He is an evil not quite magician who seems intent on taking as much power as he can – and he needs to marry the princess to do that. He is also involved with a sorceress, Sadhna, played by the lovely Preeti Bala. Sadhna supplies Anwar with a magical laddoo that will let him travel at will, and a flying carpet. Sadhna seems to be in love with Vijay but terribly naïve when it comes to believing an earthman in a gladiator outfit. The story then falls into a cycle of Helen and Vijay making eyes, Anwar kidnapping Helen, and Vijay and his comedy sidekick going to rescue her. Add some divine intervention thanks to Sulochana’s prayers and a magic sword. Overcome the King’s (DK Sapru) objections to Helen marrying a commoner. Repeat, rinse, repeat. Until everyone realises Anwar cannot be trusted and then things go a bit pear shaped (for him).
The plot elements are pure fairytale, sometimes even pantomime, inspired. The designs are sometimes lovely and sometimes a bit mystifying. Vijay and his Ma live in this carefully geometrical tumbledown shack. The royal palace interiors are sumptuous. But I don’t know why Helen and Anwar appear to fly over 1960s Marine Drive when he kidnaps her on a flying carpet.
Vijay and sidekick encounter many fabulous perils. I think my favourite would have to be the evil grasping trees on rolling platforms but the cannibal cat man in the secret caves is a close second. Or maybe the jousting. I’m indecisive, but so many fun things happen that maybe they’re all my favourite.
The special effects team kept busy with a number of nifty transitions. Sadhna transforms herself into Helen, and is later miniaturised and captured in a bottle. The ladies change places in an attempt to fit in another song steal a magical sword back from Anwar and there are lots of flying and disappearing effects. And when Anwar says look into his eyes – don’t!
Kalyanji-Anandji are credited with the soundtrack, and Laxmikant Pyarelal appear in the playback/recording credits so the songs have some serious pedigree. The playback singers include Lata and Usha Mangeshkar, Mohd Rafi, Mukesh, and Kamal Barot. I have to admit I did cheer when Helen stole Mahipal’s been in one song as I only have so much love for snake music but overall it is a pleasure to listen to this soundtrack. Babubhai Mistry switches from B&W to colour film for the song sequences and they are so pretty to look at. I had high expectations from Helen, of course. Mahipal doesn’t have such a natural flair for frolicking in meadows as his leading lady does. Apart from the lead actors, there are other entertaining dances including this court piece performed by Bela Bose and Madhumati.
I watched this online and then bought the VCD. I haven’t seen a version with subtitles but most of the story was clear. I had a little moment of wondering who loved who when Sadhna and Anwar were bickering about a marriage but of course she loved the hero, everyone loves a hero, so I was not confused for long. Although I think the wardrobe team showed their love for Anwar Hussain in their own special way.
It’s quite a glamorous looking film. Helen was very pretty and princess like, and Preeti Bala and the featured dancers all looked lovely too.
This is not a film to watch for deep insights into the human condition, but it does have a pleasing internal order of justice and right. People can try and welch on their bets or lie their way out of trouble but they will have to face the consequences at some stage. And it isn’t just the bad guys who learn that. Some people are a bit more resistant to enlightenment than they should be. The final fight sequence takes place at the snake temple, mostly on and around a giant bell. Seeing the not very sprightly figures of Mahipal and Anwar Hussain clambering about added an extra, and maybe unintended, level of tension. But Anwar pushed his luck with the wrong deity. Perhaps the lesson here is don’t bite the hand that can bite you.
South Indian fantasy films from the same time seem more technically accomplished but I am guessing that this was probably not a big budget production so the comparison is probably unfair. It is obvious where some corners were cut in Sunehri Nagin, but it doesn’t really detract from the enjoyment of watching. See this for a good old ripping yarn of love and heroics, a likeable and competent cast (especially Helen) and the array of visual delights on offer. 3 ½ stars!