Zinda Laash (1967)

 

You’re at Friday night work drinks, listening to someone passionately advocating the merits of Jeetendra (but we all know he has none), and a colleague casually says they thought this Pakistani Vampire film was so awesome they named their band after it. What would you do? Luckily the film is on YouTube in a terrible print, but with subtitles. And as a tribute to the subtitle team on the copy I watched, I will also use a capital V whereVer that letter appears.

Khwaja Sarfraz’s film is also known as Dracula in Pakistan but rather than a supernatural road moVie, it is a fairly faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Just set in Pakistan. With lots of Very familiar music in the soundtrack. And some excellent and quite dramatic 60s eye liner. It’s not a film for nuanced acting, so I’ll stick to the plot points and things I found interesting.

Professor Tabani (Rehan) was a scientist trying to find the elixir of immortality. He tested the brew on himself and there is a cautionary tale in there about proper test protocols.  The next day his assistant spotted his “dead” body. He had thoughtfully written some notes before drinking his elixir of life. She popped him in the coffin in the basement as instructed (how handy!), and seemed to think no more of it. She awakes to see him in her room, seemingly hypnotised as he moVes in with fangs at the ready. Then the titles launch oVer a montage of women screaming so I guess he was well on the way to being able to feed himself. Eternal life of one sort.

A car driVes down a long country road to the tune of La Cucaracha. A man enters the old mansion and starts exploring, unnerVed by the spooky art, gloomy lighting, and general air of unease. A man in a cape appears – yes, Professor Tabani. They greet each other cordially enough although seem to be strangers, and Aqil Harker (Asad Bukhari) is shown to a guest room to stay. Tabani spouts some classic Dracula lines as he listens to the children of the night, then tells his guest to make himself at home. Aqil is there on a mission, as he keeps writing notes about his host in a diary. Later he relaxes by the fireplace, but hears tinkly laughter in the distance. When he looks for the source of the laugh he finds a “seductiVe” woman (Nasreen) ready to launch into a low cardio dance of loVe to Peace Pipe by The Shadows.

To be fair, I’d struggle to rise elegantly from reclining on that coffee table too. She is thwarted by Tabani who has arriVed home in time for dinner. He throws what looks like the body of a small child at his lady friend, and she runs away. Tabani is tempted by the unconscious man but dawn sends him running for safety too. Aqil wakes up and decides to try and kill the eVil Vampire before fleeing. He finds their coffins in a spooky cellar and stabs the lady Vampire repeatedly. But Tabani gets the better of him.

Another jump, now to a club number about youth and liVing life and not feeling obliged to dress up eVen if you are the designated item girl (Cham Cham). A man (Habibur Rehman) arriVes at the inn, asking for his brother, the missing Dr Aqil. The manager tells him about the scary house. He also sets out for the mansion, this time to a jaunty piano based arrangement of The Wooden Soldier and the China Doll. He finds Aqil’s belongings, including his diary. He also finds the lady Vampire and sadly, Aqil. Not so jaunty now.

Then another abrupt cut to a young lady, Shabnam (Deeba Begum), at her family home. Aqil’s brother, who doesn’t seem to haVe a name, is Visiting but says they shouldn’t tell her of Aqil’s death as it would be too upsetting for a delicate young woman to cope with. Her brother and sister in law refuse to belieVe what happened to Aqil. So he proposes to take them there to proVe his story is true. But when they arriVe, all the coffins are empty. Now I think a basement full of coffins is weird enough, whether they are full or empty, but Mr ParVez (Ala Ud Din) insists this proVes it’s all just a fantastical story.

Back at home, Shabnam goes on a picnic with her friends and they frolic in the sunshine. The melody here is El Rancho Grande which is Very not what I expected. [Sidenote: One of my friends and I consistently sing this with the wrong lyrics. Our Version goes “Oh it’s the song about cattle…something something something CAAAAAAATtle” and that is what I was singing as Shabnam was doing her thing]. Shabnam disappears mid-chasey. She is found unconscious, with no memory of what happened to make her faint. Her family are sensible enough to call a doctor but he has no explanation for her symptoms. Her niece senses a change in Shabnam and is a little afraid of her. Shabnam is in thrall to Tabani, waiting impatiently like a loVer and an addict for his return nocturnal Visit. She dies and nobody wants to belieVe she might be a Vampire. But when a child is found dead, drained of blood, and Shabnam’s graVe is open and empty, Mr ParVez agrees to go look for himself with the doctor. EVentually Shabnam turns up, intent on taking her niece. Her brother is stunned, and is nearly a snack himself. But Aqil’s brother stabs Shabnam in the heart, and releases her soul.

The men decide they haVe to saVe their respectiVe families by killing the king Vampire Tabani. They start by going back to the Golden Crown and haVing a further conVersation with the inn keeper, this time as a number called Shish-Kebab is playing in the club. He tells all and just in time as Tabani has now targeted ParVez’s wife Shirin (Yasmeen Shaukat). Will they saVe Shirin? Will there be any more strangely upbeat songs?

Zinda Laash is not bad as a straight up remake, with a strong Gothic flaVour in the lighting and composition of scenes. The acting is Variable, with the word wooden appearing quite a lot in my notes. Also the note “great eyeliner”. But the oVerall combination of serious psychological horror, Vampire mythology, and cheesy soundtrack is somehow much more than the sum of its parts without really being Very good at all. Mystifying. But Very entertaining. 3 stars!

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SPYder

SPYder wants to be a clever cyber spy thriller but is more a vigilante story with some bells and whistles. Mahesh is a compelling presence, and Rakul Preet Singh is a good match for him. But AR Murugadoss seems to have lost his own plot in the second half

Warning: Some mild-ish spoilers follow.

Shiva (Mahesh) is wildly overqualified to be an intelligence officer, tapping phones illegally albeit with a government mandate to break that law in order to proactively stop people who may break other laws. Hmmm. He is also a genius software developer. One of his inventions analyses calls for signs of fear and pleas for help. When Shiva gets the bat signal he may go rescue people himself, or call on supporters who know of his sideline. On one call he “meets” Charlie (Rakul Preet Singh), a medical student interested in finding a friend with benefits. Through another call he unwittingly sends a friend to her death. Sickened by the consequences of his outsourcing, he finds proof the murderer is a serial killer. Shiva sets out to find him and obtain closure for himself and for all the victims. What starts out driven by data and psychological profiling soon turns into a series of tactical encounters.

Shiva is judge, jury, and executioner as he knew once people went into the legal system it was pointless. Mahesh plays Shiva as focussed, and kind of grim. And Shiva does so much talking – dialogues, voiceover, exposition… Despite the high stakes cat and mouse game, there are times a lighter touch would have been welcome. The scene where he chased Charlie’s auto, jumped in and asked her two questions, then jumped out and ran away had a nice flavour of deadpan absurdity. But when he ran towards the evil Bairavudu, the fierce emotion and torment he was feeling was palpable. Mahesh is a seriously good actor and I was a little disappointed the material let him down.

For those tracking Mahesh’s reluctant acquiescence to the shameless skinshow, he did wear tshirts, and flashed a glimpse of ankle in some manpris. I feel that the costume designer has been watching a bit of Kpop lately, with asymmetrical tailoring supersized to fit Mahesh’s lanky frame. I am grateful he went the mesh shirt (over a tee) and let the dancers don the mesh pants. He hasn’t varied his dance style from rhythmic hopping and emphatic pointing.

Mahesh, maaaate, it’s not the 90s anymore. The songs make a visual statement but musically they do little to lift the movie. And the English lyrics in Achcham Telugandham are woeful…hopefully deliberately!

A scrap of cloth at the scene of the double murder had traces of blood from 8 more people. And then a character said “and three of them were men”. Yeah it’s not like 7 women had also been killed. Someone think of the men! Also the stalking trope is given a twist but it is still stalking. Charlie confronts Shiva early on but as his mate Varun (under-utilised but highly likeable Priyadarshi) says, she noticed what he was wearing so of course she must have fallen for him. The “but she secretly wants it” explanation left a bad taste as did her cheerful acceptance that it wasn’t a big deal if it was Shiva tapping her phone.

Despite all the macho BS, the ladies fare quite well. Charlie wants sex without silly romantic shenanigans and decides Shiva is just right. She says to his mum “I’m 21. My parents have been married 20 years. I take after my mother!” and wins maternal endorsement to try her luck. Rakul Preet Singh has pep without being a manic pixie. Charlie was assertive and still a bit girly, and it was a pity after the boulder incident when it seems everyone forgot she was in the movie and ran off to the next scene without her. Charlie just gets to stand around in the background a lot despite all the likely issues with professional ethics, police procedure, and common sense. It was a waste of a competent actress.

In one of the best sequences of the film, a bunch of neighbourhood mums and aunties are persuaded to help Shiva in a dangerous rescue. He is in a van driving through traffic as he gives each of them a task, and they get shit done in magnificent style and to great music. The aunties not only saved the day but probably booked in coffee catch-ups and shopping trips as they climbed up poles and leapt across balconies. The audience, including me, cheered.

There’s some glossing over and leaps of faith required to buy in. Technology that can record, analyse, prioritise calls in real time from all across Hyderabad whether on analogue or digital networks and presumably in any language sounds great. But I can’t even get a Google doc to load on my work laptop! Shiva just happened to have a green screen handy when he needed to interrupt an evening soap. And he always knew exactly which of all the variables to choose, just on his gut instinct.

Bhairavudu (SJ Surya) is a nihilist and a sadist. He has no objective other than killing for the sake of it, and feel entitles to inflict pain. He is a creature of death and hatred, born in a graveyard. Surya is effectively menacing when he is passing through crowds or observing his intended victims, a cold hunger emanating from him. But when he starts with the capering and shrieking, it’s just acting crazy and it doesn’t ring true. What was with the hessian gimp mask? He could have done with more restraint, and Mahesh could have boiled over a little more and I think the second half would have been more compelling.

Jayaprakash is Shiva’s sensible dad and I think Dheepa Ramanujam plays Shiva’s sensible mum. RJ Balaji and Priyadarshi Pulikonda play Shiva’s down to earth work mates, both low key with the occasional laugh arising from their reactions to their heroic friend. I think the villains were instructed to overact because Bharath tries to get his teethmarks into the scenery.

You’d expect anything Santosh Sivan does to look amazing, and SPYder is very stylish. There are some good, and some dodgy, CGI effects, and the action sequences are full throttle. AR Murugadoss had a good idea but didn’t work through the detail to ensure the finale was as satisfying as the start of this larger than life conflict. Nevertheless there is plenty to enjoy, especially for the Mahesh fans.

Magalir Mattum (2017)

Bramma’s female centric film has a lot going for it, from the fantastic cast to the gentle mood of nostalgia and friendships that transcend time. But if you’re expecting a robust feminist statement, look elsewhere.

Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD!

Prabhavati (Jyothika) arrives on the scene like a hero. She rides a motorbike, wears jeans and t-shirts, calls all the shots with her film crew, abbreviates her elders’ names and speaks casually to all. This is how we know she is a modern, empowered woman. She has a close relationship with her soon to be mother-in-law Gomatha a.k.a Goms (Urvashi). Prabha comes to know that Goms had a couple of very close friends at school but when one of the girls was expelled, the trio went their separate ways and haven’t seen each other in close to 40 years. She decides to use Facebook to track down the ladies, and get the gang back together. Rani (Bhanupriya) is married to a chauvinistic politician (Nasser) and describes herself as a glorified servant, looking after the family in return for food, lodging, and a little bit of affection. Subbu (Saranya Ponavannan) is married to a drunk (Livingston) and stuck at home with his ailing mother, cleaning bedpans and listening to endless complaints. Prabha coerces them all into taking a road trip for just 3 days, time to be themselves.

Bramma uses flashbacks to the friends’ college days and the three young actresses who play Rani, Goma and Subbu are delightful. The dynamic between the women hasn’t really changed, even though their circumstances and lives have forced them into different shapes. They quickly fall back into Rani being the firecracker, Subbu being daring, and Gomathi being timid but refusing to be left out. The links between timelines serve to remind the ladies who they used to be as well as showing the audience.

Prabhavaty eggs them on, wanting these women to live for themselves and stop holding back, to have the freedom she has. She is effusively informal, persuasive, and persistent. I had a bit of a chuckle at her being “like a hero” as, like many male stars, she is only about 10 years younger than her screen mother. I like Jyothika and she looks great and delivers a well-modulated performance as part of the ensemble.

Prabha says “men aren’t the problem, the system is the problem” which neatly overlooks that “the system” is largely constructed and maintained by men for their own benefit. But baby steps. Mainstream Tamil films tend to congregate at the rapey and misogynistic end of the spectrum so this is quite a departure and I’m grateful to the heavy duty star cast for getting this off the ground. Maybe that is the real feminist statement – Jyothika’s continuing film career that doesn’t require her to play Suriya’s mother!

Rani (Bhanupriya) is living a life of determined fortitude. Through the flashbacks we see Rani was the leader, always getting in trouble and loving it. Her husband (Nasser) and son Karthik (Pavel Naganeethan) see her as a fixture, nothing you need to consult or consider. When their ward is designated a ladies ward, Karthik’s political ambition is thwarted and his dad cautions him against letting his wife step out of the house to run for office. They put Rani up as their candidate as they are so confident she will never have an opinion of her own. It’s such a sad waste of Rani’s sharp mind and good heart. She blossoms on the trip away, but is resigned to going back to the status quo. But does she? There are signs that at least her kids learn to see Rani as a human being, and she does take the wheel again. Bhanupriya is elegant but also mischievous and I really wanted to see more of Rani’s story.

Subbu (Saranya) projects a polished and controlled exterior. Her life behind the veneer of her beauty channel set is far less appealing. Her husband drinks constantly, and sprawls around the house singing old love songs until he bursts into pathetic tears in a never ending cycle. While Subbu is immaculate, the house is verging on squalid and there is no sign of pride in her surroundings. Subbu eventually reveals the reason for her disillusionment and anger, and there is nothing that can really fix that. It’s just heartbreak after heartbreak as the women reveal the decisions made for them and how they live with the aftermath. One of the highlights is a sequence where all the ladies tell their story of first love, with the results ranging from tragic to wryly amusing. Saranya plays Subbu as outspoken but with an increasingly warm twinkle in her eye as she casts off the grinding routine. She and Bhanupriya dance and joke around, fire up at each other and then gang up on Urvashi.

Gomatha’s life is not explored as thoroughly as the others, and Urvashi doesn’t have the same complexity of material to work with. Goma was less well off than her friends and struggled to keep up appearances at college. She was more conservative but would follow Rani and Subbu into the fire. She loves her son who works overseas, and worries about her life after the wedding when Prabha will go to live with him. The rapport between Prabha and Goms seems a little forced initially as Urvashi overreacts constantly, but she eases off once the ensemble is in place.

The supporting cast is excellent but the roles are sketches with minimal detail or depth. The men are either jerks or SNAGs, nothing much in between. I was delighted to see Maddy as Suri, Prabha’s fiancé. I quite like slightly unkempt and stubbly Maddy and liked that Suri wasn’t a manscaped picture of perfection. He’s a nice bloke who appreciates Prabhavati, and that is perfect. Nasser, (who Goms describes as looking like an eagle with diarrhoea), and Pavel Naganeethan are very effective at being horrid, and Livingston as Subbu’s husband Mangalamurthy is the kind of man who is nice but such a deadweight that he has the same effect as a total bastard.

Bramma gets a bit bogged down in a sub plot, and doesn’t really carry all the good ideas through into action. But the film looks great, the acting is generally top notch, and it’s a rarity to see female friendships celebrated on screen.

See this to enjoy the presence and fine acting of some wonderful female actors, and for the emotional resonance of their friendship and shared memories.