Khoon Pasina (1977)

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Sometimes when the world has gone mad, you just need the reassuring presence of The Big B dishing out dishoom and justice.

Shiva and Aslam grow up besties in one of those happily diverse communities. Their dads are also friends, teasing each other about being rubbish at being a Muslim or a Hindu because they can’t even remember their own religious celebrations. Both dads make a powerful enemy when they stop a flamboyantly bewigged and fringed Kader Khan killing a bloke. He decides to foment communal strife in order to kill them without the police suspecting him, and somehow this is linked via a montage to Partition. The family is torn apart by a house fire that kills Ram and Rahim, leaves Aslam lost, and places young Shiva with Aslam’s ma (Nirupa Roy) as his only family.

The kids are indifferent actors, probably chosen for their evolutionary potential to end up looking like neighbourhood thug Shiva, aka Tiger (Amitabh Bachchan), and principled dacoit Shera (Vinod Khanna). Tiger hasn’t forgotten his past despite being raised by Nirupa Roy while Shera is trying to find death, but even death is worried by his body count.

Amitabh gets the best and worst of the film. Shiva/Tiger is an impulsive thug who is motivated by the right reasons but doesn’t stop to think about collateral damage or even just stop to think, a dictator in his own manner. He also gets stuck with a wardrobe that I wish I could say was part of the comedy track. It annoys me so much that he is called Tiger yet wears leopard print. Really! But Amitabh has such charm that the glib one-liners work a treat and he can switch effortlessly to show Shiva’s darker side. And some of the comedy track is funny despite itself. I particularly enjoyed the wedding party being entertained and fed by the crooks who had come to steal the bride. I suppose in a different film, Tiger could always have picked up work as an event planner.

Tiger sees the curvaceous and feisty Chanda (Rekha) at the market and is smitten. She challenges him to back up his bragging by wrestling a tiger for her. So he does. But Chanda has been engaged to gangster Raghu (Ranjeet) since childhood, and he is not inclined to give up his claim. Raghu tries to get Shera to kill Tiger but Shera says it would be better if Raghu died. Raghu has other ideas and starts messing with Zaleem Singh who is still alive and scheming.

Shera still mourns his lost family, and believes himself alone in the world. Like Shiva, he has a strong commitment to justice as he sees it, and like Shiva he doesn’t pay attention to the law. Vinod Khanna was saddled with some dodgy hair and a lot of pleather, but Shera is certainly the cooler of the grown up boys. Probably because he doesn’t have his mummy choosing his outfits. But he is also afflicted with the faux leopard trim. Vinod delivers his cheesy lines with a detached and weary cynicism threaded with sentimentality about families and honour. It’s the kind of role that I usually expect to see Danny Denzongpa in and I think he might have added a little more spark to the pathos. The long lost friends spend almost all the film apart and their few scenes together are good. I wish they had interacted a bit more to ramp up the tension a bit.

Chanda faces Raghu down with the full support of her father who says she cannot be married off against her will. Hurrah for that dad! Naturally Raghu decides to eliminate Tiger, but being a weasel he takes many indirect routes rather than simple confrontation. Rekha’s body language is quite masculine and often aggressive in Chanda’s pre-marriage scenes. She owns her space and doesn’t let unwanted contact go past without payback. She falls for Tiger but then he plays hard to get. They have a push and pull in their dynamic that is amusing but not emotionally healthy. And when it comes to Tiger choosing between his wife or his ma, you’d better believe he is a mummy’s boy who will slap his wife into the middle of next week if she disagrees with Ma. Rekha and Amitabh have that chemistry of course, but I enjoyed Chanda’s scenes where she was going about her daily routine alone and her interactions with other people in the village. Rekha can be funny as well as dramatic, and despite a few airhead moments Chanda is quick-witted and interesting.

Shanno or Shantidevi (Aruna Irani) is another defiant woman. She loves her husband Mohan (a very restrained Asrani) who is a gentle, law abiding man and they talk about their conflicting beliefs and all seems really respectful and solid. Except when Mohan is threatening Shanno to prevent her from telling her brothers or when Shanno is telling Mohan to pop on some bangles and let her be the man of the family. Shanno also happens to be Zaleem Singh’s daughter and bears her Monobrow of Fury with elan. Her immediate reaction to any insult is to grab a gun and try and kill the offender, saying her brothers will clean up the legal issues. When Raghu burns down their farm and pretends he is Tiger, it sets up yet another conflict. After a tense family visit, and a huge random edit, Mohan decides to go kill Tiger so Shanti also runs off after him with a gun.

Shiva relocates to the jungle and ends up working on a plantation owned by Zaleem Singh. He gets a nice Kalyanji-Anandji number that looks like a rehearsal for Mr Natwarlal, and Helen makes an appearance to dance for the landlords. He builds new relationships and becomes the voice of workers’ rights and social justice. There’s even an “I’m Spartacus” scene. Chanda is gradually sidelined but she remains a strong force in the film and in Shiva’s life. Nirupa continues to give him pointless and conflicting instructions. The lack of emotional blackmail opportunities drives her to almost commit a crime so she can stop herself and “Nahiiiiin!” about it.

There are so many bad guys! Ranjeet gets his shirt off for no reason, Kader Khan is slimy and arrogant as Zaleem Singh, Mac Mohan is natty in pleather as Singh’s flunkey, Vinod Khanna is a cut above this material, and there are so many beefy shirtless dudes running around beating people up that I suspect that was the main industry for the village. There are also abundant good guys, many of whom speak with sense, logic, and empathy. It’s quite pleasing to have some good life advice doled out to the hero.

And all the while Shera is on Tiger’s trail, paid to hand Tiger over to Zaleem Singh but not really believing that he is a miscreant.

What happens next? Please, you already know. And yet there is always that bit extra that makes you go “Huh?” The action scenes are woeful as I don’t think Rakesh Kumar had the faintest idea of how to shoot or stage a fight so there is minimal choreography of the stunts and lots of bizarre angles and edits to skip over the lack of detail. There is a very long and quite unnecessary horse chase, although it did prove Moti knew what was what. It’s the kind of film where wallowing in quicksand is not enough, you have to simultaneously wrestle a snake. It’s the kind of film where if you want to kill someone you have to first build an enormous wooden edifice and tie them to a stake at the top. It’s the kind of film where Moti the horse should have been making key decisions.

Despite being quite slapdash, the story contains some interesting little bits and pieces. See it for Amitabh and Vinod emoting fiercely with Rekha and Aruna Irani being fierce. 3 ½ stars!

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Operation Jackpot Nalli C.I.D. 999

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Since I started with the last film in Dorairaj and Bhagawan’s series of James Bond inspired films, it seems fitting that the next I review should be the third in the series – Operation Jackpot Nalli CID 999. Like Operation Diamond Racket, the film stars Dr Rajkumar as the suave and sophisticated Secret Agent 999 who is called in to investigate a series of outsider wins at the Bangalore race course. Naturally there is a devious villain with a convoluted plot and in keeping with the theme, the film has many other secret agent staples including handy gadgets, a revamped car and glamorous women out to distract Agent 999 from his task. Sadly, my DVD doesn’t have subtitles which means I can only make a guess at some of the plot intricacies, but at least the main storyline is relatively easy to follow.

The film starts with the kidnap of noted scientist Professor Shekar just when he has perfected a method of vaporising objects with his highly technical plasma beam machine. The criminal gang gain Professor Shekar’s trust by telling him which horses to bet on to win at the races, which works only because gang member Mena is surreptitiously drugging the horses to ensure the winner. The gang take Professor Shekar and hold him in a secret location, but to prevent his disappearance from making headline news, they have a duplicate who can take his place. Presumably the gang want Prof Shekar to use his annihilation machine to rule the world or some such megalomaniacal plan, but before going ahead they continue to drug horses to lure other businessmen into their clutches. Or possibly not, but they don’t get moving on using the plasma beam death ray thingy straight away and Mena keeps shooting darts at horses for a little longer. Intrepid Agent 444 is on the case, but is spotted by Mena who sends henchmen No 4 and No 6 off to get rid of 444. (Bad guys apparently only get 1 number as their name). After losing one secret agent, it means that there is only one possible man who can solve the problem – Agent 999 aka Prakash!

Prakash (Dr Rajkumar) lives in luxury with a bevy of beautiful women in his pad which features a circular bed and automated chairs, tables and a truly awesome telephone answering machine. However all of this is easily left behind when Prakash hears he’s needed to avenge 444’s death and find out exactly what is the Jackpot scheme at Bangalore race course. He takes with him Agent 888, aka Baby (Narasimharaju) who provides most of the comedy in the film. Sadly, without subtitles most of this doesn’t work particularly well and the scenes between Baby and his love interest Bunny are really terrible. However, as a Secret Agent side-kick Agent 888 is fine and Narasimharaju is funniest when he is simply reacting to whichever difficult situation Prakash has left him to deal with next.

Prakash has little trouble identifying Mena and persuading her to spill the beans on her employer. However the Boss knows about Mena’s betrayal and sends his hitmen to the hotel where Prakash and Mena are indulging in a song while frolicking in the pool – as you do. Prakash stops to dispose of one of the henchmen in the middle of the song, picking back up mid-tune without ever missing a beat, but sadly Mena is less successful at dodging the bad guys. This is a perfect scene where Mena’s body is found in her hotel room with ‘Jackpot’ written on the light so that with every swing the word moves back and forth across her body. Chilling, and very effective.

The Boss then switches to Girl No 2 – Mona. Mona is played by a very young Rekha and she makes an excellent ‘Bond’ girl as she attempts to distract Agent 999 from his investigation. Rekha gets to wear some very snazzy outfits, say ‘Yes, Boss’ frequently and even has a chance to torture Agent 999 when he is captured by the bad guys. Of course Prakash manages to escape and takes Mona along with him which prompts her to thank him rather profusely in song. Particularly enjoyable is the way she tells Prakash to proceed while blocking his driving view totally by sitting on the bonnet and dancing!

There are numerous fights, plenty of car chases, frequent audacious escapes and even appropriate use of an ejector seat as Agent 999 discovers what has happened to Professor Shekar and infiltrates the gang’s hidden lair. Adding to the mystery, the Boss is hidden behind a screen or seen from behind in a chair so that his identity is not revealed until the very end. The angled lighting too helps to increase the tension, with clever use of shadows and well thought out decor. It’s all very stylish and noir with added touches such as the ropes tying up Prof Shekar aligning perfectly with the lines painted on the wall and the wonderfully atmospheric arches in the lair.

Rajkumar makes an excellent James Bond, managing to look cool and unaffected by his capture and still charming the ladies even when tied up and threatened. No matter what happens, Agent 999 is in control. I think the character works so well because Rajkumar has plays Prakash with a mix of charm and competent action but also isn’t afraid to dress up and play a part when necessary. His bewigged guitar player disguise is wonderfully OTT and made just that little better by having a giant guitar for his dancing partner to use as a stage.

This is another excellent adventure with plenty of action and great performances from the main leads. B. Dorairaj’s cinematography ensures the film looks stylish and G.K. Venkatesh adds music that suits the mood of the film well. The Dorai – Bhagawan team build suspense and anticipation throughout the movie and although there are still plenty of fight scenes, here they are sharper and less intrusive than in the follow-up Operation Diamond Racket. There is plenty for everyone to enjoy in Operation Jackpot Nalli C.I.D. 999 and while Dr Rajkumar is the absolute star of the show, Rekha also shines and provides a good partner for Agent 999. Definitely one to see if you like James Bond, noir cinema or just a rollicking good story! 4 stars

Mr Natwarlal (1979)

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I love Mr Natwarlal. It has so much masala goodness, it always puts a smile on my face. We are given Amitabh as a hero with some unheroic ideas, Rekha as a gorgeous and quick witted village belle, Amjad Khan as a typical Amjad Khan villain, more familiar faces than you can poke a stick at, a catchy Rajesh Roshan soundtrack and writer/director Rakesh Kumar continues working out his tiger wrestling fetish. The only major negative is that some of the horse stunts have a look of careless finality for the horses that always makes me queasy.

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The film is framed with Amitabh narrating the story of a child that turns out to be himself, telling the story of his past to his own child. I only mention that so I have an excuse to post this picture of an awesome playground complete with lion statue. I suspected immediately that despite the plethora of cute kid actors I was going to love this.

Natwarlal (Amitabh Bachchan) is a smooth talking fast thinking criminal with Robin Hood tendencies. This dates back to a traumatic childhood incident when he was played by Master Laddu, and his older brother Ghirdharilal (Ajit) was entrapped by Evil Vikram (Amjad Khan). Natwarlal has been raised by his brother and sister-in-law (Indrani Mukherjee), who treats him as a son. Grown up Nattu is tricked by a heavily scarred man into stealing a diamond necklace and smuggling it out of the country. Scarface is actually Micky (Satyendra Kapoor), Vikram’s old (betrayed) business partner who is pretending to be one of Vikram’s Victims. Vikram likes his V symbolism. Poor Ghirdharilal keeps trying to nab his little brother to set him straight but Natwarlal easily produces alibi after alibi. He is determined to become a big enough crook to go after Vikram and set things to rights. Micky wants to use Natwarlal to take Vikram other out so he can take over the secret diamond mines. Revenge is a long and complex game, especially in masala films.

Natwarlal is an audacious crook and easily carries off the heist, even under the watchful eye of his brother. He heads to Chandanpur as instructed, arriving to find the village under a siege of sorts. Vikram is using a tiger (pleasingly, she is credited as Bharati) as a smokescreen for kidnapping villagers in small batches and forcing them to work in the mines. Now. Since the mining operation seems to take place on the river bank just a stroll or a long and desperate horse ride from the village, I would have thought people might notice their “dead” loved ones wandering about. But thanks to the filmi laws of locality blindness it seems not.

Natwarlal arrives suited and booted, toting a gun, unaware that village leader Baba (Kader Khan) has sent for a hunter to come and deal with their tiger issue. He isn’t interested at first in the village problems, being more focussed on the diamonds, but agrees that he is Avtar Singh, the hunter.  Amitabh makes switching from high drama to slapstick comedy look effortless. He is also nattily dressed for the country and Natwarlal must have been very efficient at packing such an extensive wardrobe into one small valise. And I suspect his boots have bullet evading properties.

That tree covered in people always makes me wonder how they got them up there, how long were they up there, and how they got down safely again. Also, given the speed and agility of those ladies the villagers may have been better advised to let them go battle the tiger while the menfolk stayed safely indoors. Sassy Shanno (Rekha) quickly sets her cap at the tall dance-challenged stranger, so Natwarlal gets a little distracted and seems quite happy to wait around.

Zimbo is despatched to check out the impostor as Vikram is quite certain he slapped the real Avtar Singh with a dead pigeon before having him killed. Poor Zimbo wasn’t mourned for long, if at all, when he disappeared under the quicksand. Ah well. No one is irreplaceable. Vikram is a surprisingly rational villain despite being completely nuts, and Amjad Khan seems to be having some fun with the grandiose threats. Vikram tries not to draw police attention, he acts with moderation to achieve a logical goal. But he can’t help branding everyone and everything he owns with a V and can’t just move on quietly or shoot the hero from a safe distance. Nooooo.

Natwarlal realises Vikram is behind everything and goes in search of trouble. Trouble finds him easily enough. Natwarlal rescues Shanno from Vikram’s not very bright goon squad. She is not good at taking orders not to stay out of harm’s way and actually rescues him back on multiple occasions. And they invent a new couples activity – tiger wrestling!

Rekha and The Big B’s on screen chemistry is always wonderful and while Shanno appears to fall for insta-love, Rekha plays her as funny and direct in their many scenes together so the relationship comes to life. Shanno gets her share of the big scenes too, and Rekha gave her fire and resolve. Amitabh also had good rapport with the tiger so I was vaguely hopeful that Bharati was not too traumatised by her many and varied fight scenes.

A lot of the humour comes from how the dialogues are delivered or those small beats in timing. There are some light Sholay references which made me laugh despite the drama brewing, especially Shanno’s Basanti-esque dance while she was being held captive at the diamond mine. I also enjoyed the irascible Natwarlal’s journey to loving something more than himself.

Will they overcome the dastardly Vikram and his all singing all dancing food juggling henchmen? Will Ghirdharilal and Natwarlal make their peace? Will Shanno get her man and her sheep? Will the starving villagers eat the tiger? (Spoiler – no!) Will Natwarlal ever stop blaspheming? Will Vikram get his comeuppance in a satisfyingly poetic manner? So much plot, so little time!

The locations are gorgeous and so is the cast. If you like masala with a modicum of moderation this is a great film.  4 stars! (Deductions for animal welfare concerns and annoying ghostly subtitles.)