Back at the beginning of my Bollywood obsession, Temple lent me a double DVD of V. Shantaram films. The first was the classic Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje which is still one of my favourite dance-based films and definitely well worth watching. However the second film on the DVD was even more special – Jal Bin Machhli, Nritya Bin Bijli – a mix of interpretative dance, groovy sixties fabrics and more melodrama than I ever thought possible, even in Bollywood! It’s one to watch for the dancing, décor and drama, rather than dwell too much on the rather ridiculous plot which allows almost everyone to declare their willingness to sacrifice themselves for love, or for dance, or for the love of dance. In fact it’s amazing we get to the end without losing anyone, given how prone everyone is to explanatory declarations of their imminent demise. But eventually, after dealing with treachery, betrayal, sacrifice and Hammond organ music, there is indeed a happy ending – or (and probably a better idea) just watch it for the songs!
The film opens with Alaknanda (Sandhya) attempting to follow in her dead mother’s footsteps and learn how to dance. However her autocratic father Dr Verma (Iftekhar) has no time for such frivolous nonsense and bans her from dancing until she marries, presumably because it then will be her husband who has to listen to the incessant jangling of bells rather than him.
Unfortunately for her father, the family lives right next door to a huge mansion where Prince Kailash (Abhijeet) spends his days playing his Hammond organ and composing music for his resident dance troupe. Despite an initial chilly reception, Alaknanda gets Kailash on her side by impersonating a dying fish she has rather callously flipped out of the water. This song is an absolute must-watch as the spectacle of Alaknanda impersonating the fish out of water from the title really does have to be seen to be believed. I could have done without all the shots of a fish in distress (or more likely a number of fish, as it’s rather a long song), so avoid if you prefer to see fish in their natural habitat.
After such a performance, the prince is completely won over and his sceptical dancers welcome Alaknanda with open arms. I suspect because she seems just as crazy as Kailash and lets them all off the hook by possibly understanding what he is trying to convey in his choreography sessions. At least she has no compunction in throwing her arms and lashing her hair around to a number of his compositions, immediately endearing her to the prince who realises that he has just found his latest muse. Lord help us all!
There are added complications when Dr Verma tries to arrange Alaknanda’s marriage, and Kailash’s mother Rajmata (Dina Pathak) attempts to match make between her son and Princess Roopmati (Minal). The latter is a bigger problem since Roopmati and her uncle Chaman Rai (Raja Paranjpe) are staying in the palace, giving Rajmata plenty of opportunity to throw the two together. I really liked Minal as the scheming ‘other woman’ and I wonder why she doesn’t seem to have made any other films. She’s truculent, bratty and petulant – all some of my favourite qualities in Hindi villainess and not at all reluctant to mow down everyone else in her path.
As Roopmati, Minal gets to wear some very groovy saris while pandering to Rajmata’s traditional ideas by wearing transparent robes over her trendy Parisian outfits. She also has a tendency to break out into petulant dance moves when crossed, although her rocking out to records is definitely not the type of dance the prince admires. Naturally she doesn’t understand Kailash’s obsession with his music and is even less enamoured of his obsession with his Alaknanda. Her initial attempts to separate the two however backfire when she proposes a trip tiger hunting. I can think of no rational explanation for this in a movie all about dance but then again there is no explanation, rational or otherwise for the rest of the story either! The point of the trip is for Alaknanda to save Kailash from a tiger, upstaging Roopmati in the process and therefore setting the stage for Roopmati’s revenge.
After such excitement, naturally Alaknanda turns to dance and performs a wonderful snake vs. peacock number in a glitzy snake costume with authentic snake coloured hair.
The drama gets more intense as Roopmati and Chaman Rai sabotage Alaknanda’s performance leaving her crippled and unable to dance. There are more complications as Kailash proposes, Alaknanda refuses him and our heroine escapes to live in a bandit camp and ponder her future. Indeed, Alaknanda has to face more challenges than usual for a filmi heroine and she meets them all with a distinct lack of composure and plenty of head tossing and brow beating. Sandhya’s histrionics make it difficult to feel any sympathy at all for Alaknanda’s ever worsening plight and her petulant cries of preferring to die rather than live without dance are wearying. Luckily there are plenty more songs thrown in to provide relief from the exaggerated and theatrical affliction, and the various misfortunes are all brightened up by some inspired costuming.
While Sandhya’s Alaknanda is irritatingly anguished, Abhijeet is fairly wimpy as Kailash and seems to deserve everything he gets with Alaknanda, although he does partially redeem himself with his bedside proposal of marriage. His response to rejection is to shoot the heads off statues in his rehearsal room and then sob at the feet of a picture of his mother which seems to sum him up pretty well. At least Dina Pathak and Iftekhar provide some much-needed class into the proceedings, but even they have a tendency to indulge in scenery chewing as the drama unfolds.
V Shantaram seems to want to explore the passion of dance, but in Jal Bin Machhli he never gets beyond overblown and theatrical drama. Alaknanda’s obsession for her mother’s dancing bells doesn’t translate into a believable hunger for the art itself, and seems to be derived more from an urge to flout her father. Without that fervour, the focus is on the melodrama and while that is entertaining it’s not quite the film I wanted. However there is still plenty to enjoy in the outlandish choreography by Praveen Kumar, including such delights as Sandhya dancing frenetically on a plate while balancing her way up a steep incline and demonstrating just how to dance while on crutches. Just as good are the songs by Laxmikant Pyarelal who manage to incorporate the theme music from the Good the Bad and the Ugly into the stunning Taron Mein Sajkeh Apneh. Despite all the drama and the totally bizarre plot, I still love this film for all the posturing and sheer silliness of the two lead characters and the sometimes bewildered support cast. Worth a watch for the amazing songs and to really appreciate the Bollywood definition of melodrama, even if nothing else! 3 ½ stars.