Ajooba: not quite as crazy as it's cracked up to be
Quickly, before we get rolling, an overview, because I can't figure out how - or whether - to detail any of the basic story arc later in my post. In the fictional country of Bahrestan, a beloved sultan (Shammi Kapoor) has finally had a son (yes, it's annoying that it's a male child that causes the whole country to break out in song. Moving on), and a magician from the friendly land of Hind (Saeed Jaffrey, whose character is named Amir Khan, hee) comes with congratulations and a gift from his maharaja. Meanwhile an evil vizier (Amrish Puri) and his henchmen (led by Dalip Tahil) are trying to seize the throne. They succeed, driving out the royal family and running the good people of Bahrestan into poverty and misery. The royal baby, his parents gone, is raised by a dolphin and a friendly blacksmith and grows up to be Ali (Amitabh Bachchan), who is secretly the super hero/protector of the people/masked avenger Ajooba (pictured above). As he smites the baddies, he says "No ills can evil-doers perpetrate. All that happens is willed by the Lord," which makes me wonder if he's saying that god wants all the people of Bahrestan to suffer at the hands of a devil-worshiping usurper, because the ills in fact have been perpetrated - it's not a preventative statement. I seriously do not understand his catchphrase. Anyway. Ali has a friend Hassan (Rishi Kapoor), and they also have love interests, the magician's daughter Rukhsana (Dimple Kapadia) and the vizier's daughter Henna (Sonam). They have lots of adventures involving a few other significant side characters as they try to defeat the vizier and tie up all the other loose ends that the first 45 minutes set up.
Here's the thing: Ajooba really isn't as bad as I thought it would be. I thought I was in for three hours of bad effects, stupid monsters, and ridiculous costumes. Yes, yes, it has all those things, in abundance.
Teeny tiny flying carpet!
Rishi's got the jadoo.
Even the horse has to wear this get-up.
However, what no one had told me is that Ajooba is basically a solid masala romp - with requisite lost family members, mistaken identities, romances, friendships, and patriotism (okay, so it's love of a fake country, but still) - dressed up in a legendary and fantastic setting. R(ecommended) M(asala) A(llowance) is met, no doubt about it. Why Shashi wanted to make a 70s-style masala movie in 1990-91 with Soviet partners and fancy it up in historical fantasy garb eludes me, even after looking in The Kapoors: The First Family of Indian Cinema, but apparently he did, and you know what? It's
Putting aside the fantastic elements - monsters, magic, and the ability to decipher extended complex messages from animal noises - it doesn't have any notable flaws that you couldn't also find in many other masala stories. It doesn't make a ton of sense. Its coincidences are über convenient. People are lost and found in eye-roll-inducing ways.
But on the positive side, it has a lot of the good, enjoyable, entertaining, heart-warming features you can find in many other masala movies. At its core, Ajooba solidly covers the standard elements. The transgressors of certain social norms are punished. (It's important to note that in the world of Ajooba, the characters seem to find many very un-normal activities to be perfectly unremarkable, like having jewelry that lets you see what people are doing hundreds of miles away, the very proactive involvement of the animal kingdom in human affairs, discovering and testing out magic potions, shrinking to 6" high, etc. Nobody bats an eye at that stuff. It's the social order and civil norms that Ajooba is worried about protecting, not, you know, science or rational thought or anything.) The bonds between parents and children are strengthened. Sacrifices are made. Romances bloom.
Awww. That's a sure sign of luuurve!
People-wise, its greatest strengths are Amitabh and Rishi - and the Rishitabh, if you will. They're totally entertaining on their own, and they're pretty cute together, too. Amitabh in particular is fun to watch, hamming it up in classic masala style.
Love the curly-toed shoes.
Somehow other characters actually believed Rishi was a woman. Talk about suspending disbelief.
Regular readers know that I am not a consistent follower of the cult of the Big B, but he's the best thing in this movie, no doubt, and I wanted to run out and give him a big hug for agreeing to be in it at all - I know his career wasn't going great guns in 1990, but being in this movie must have been risky, and I can't help but assume he must have really loved his friend Shashi in order to sign on. Dimple is feisty and fun as the script allows. Sonam's role is surprisingly saucy; she's sexually forward (and amazingly isn't punished for it, thanks writers!) and independent at times, though at others she's reduced to the head-tilting wide-eyed blinking of many a heroine.
Soviet actress Ariadna Shengalaya plays the sultana with enough emotion that we know she's a filmi maa, but I don't think she ever gets in a proper "Nahiiin!" or knuckle bite, which is fine by me.
Laxmikant-Pyarelal's songs and their picturizaitons are a toe-tappin' good time. My favorite was "Are Tujub Hai," in which Rishi teases Amitabh about something or other (my DVD had no subtitles on songs) and they frolic around the city streets, joyfully buddy-buddy. There is some absolutely gorgeous music and dancing in a scene of Dimple's little village in Hind (looking a lot like Rajasthan, it seems to me).
I also really liked most of the sets, particularly the locations and other outdoor scenes. If anyone knows where in India this was filmed, I'd love to hear (I've read parts of it were shot in Kyrgyzstan as well).
The bad neighborhoods in Bahrestan are a little bit creepy, no?
This is a small point, but I have to make it: there is a really creative fight scene towards the end of the film in which masked hero Ajooba busts heads by swinging from temple bells. It's really quite cool.
As an even further aside, I was confused by the fight coordinator's decision to have Ajooba jump from chain to chain by lunging with both hands at once, rather than holding on to the current chain with one hand and reaching for the next chain with the other, the way everybody else in movies does that vine-like maneuver. Seems pretty risky to just jump with nothing to fall back on if you miss. Plus you'd fall smack on your butt - not very heroic-looking.
(That might be the perfect analogy for the whole movie, now that I think about it. I think a lot of people would say this movie fell smack on its butt - and even I would agree that most of it is not very heroic or iconic.)
In his one project behind the camera, Shashi tried to give us a different spin on a classic formula, and in theory that's a really nice, generous idea. I do honestly believe that he tried really hard - there is a lot going on in story and visuals.* But please note that I am not saying that it has all the strengths of a really well done masala film - I can't imagine I'll watch this anywhere near as often as Parvarish or Kaala Patthar, for example - and I'd argue that Ajooba does not measure and bake its RMA ingredients properly or to maximum effect, and it yields inconsistent results. And here's where the surface coating of Bahrestanian wackadoodle is most problematic. Since the basic movie wasn't thoroughly great to begin with, the added geegaws of magicians and satanic viziers and flying carpets put extra pressure on the flaws.
Here are what I think are the basic problems with Ajooba. Some of the acting is really, really bad, mostly in the first hour or so, making the movie challenge to get into. Shammi overplays his royal paternal/defender doofus role. He's just too much. Maybe this is why you shouldn't mix business and family? How do you tell your older brother he needs to crank the dial down from 11 to about 4? Fortunately he's not in the movie much after he tries to fight off Amrish Puri and Dalip Tahil in mid-air in an extremely funny-looking flying carpet/flaming boat/stormy seas battle.
His costumes do him no favors; I think someone must have wanted to make him look like a Mughal beach ball. Saeed Jaffrey was probably slumming it here, but he's too much as well.
Amrish does his standard eye-bugging, but I thought it got old faster than usual, perhaps because his mega-bad baddie has little setup and mostly stomps around being conspicuously bad (but of course even though at least two people catch on that he's up to no good, no one does anything about it on time).
Actually, most of the characters aren't developed. Bahrestan needs a hero? Presto! Fully grown hero arrives on the scene with no back story.
It breaks my heart to say this, but Ajooba seems to indicate that Shashi inherited a touch of his eldest brother's dirty-old-man director tendencies. This is Dimple's first appearance:
At best, that move belongs in a shampoo commercial. He spends more time than strictly necessary on belly dancers writhing like snakes.
Oh look, she's writhing with a snake. Classic.
Rishi and Sonam smooch, Rishi drums along to the song on her butt, and when Rishi is shrunk (don't ask), Sonam hides him in the front her blouse, thereby creating a reason to gawk.
Mini Rishi is at about 11 o'clock here, hiding under the gauzy overlay. He wriggles around. Classy.
There's even a flash of actual naked breast in a crowd scene. To be fair, a few men are objectified too.
Thanks for the naked, shiny, muscley guys, Shashi-ji! Oh wait, I don't actually go for that.
But enough of the base-level problems. I know you're reading this because you want to see why almost everyone seems to think Ajooba is a cracktastic hot mess. Here you go!
The costumes are more silly and gaudy than bad, actually, and I admire the commitment to the sartorial traditions of a historical, fake-pretend Stan.
Papier-maché sea monster!
Does this remind anyone else of Balinese masks? I'd be ten kinds of impressed if the effects designer admitted inspiration from a barong ket.
More flying carpet, because one picture is really not enough. There are three sequences with the carpet, and they're all a good time.
Blood and guts are done to usual standards.
The magic is...um...how to put this...not very magical. Here's a sequence of a magical elephant given to the royal baby, transforming from miniature charm to full-sized (and decorated) creature:
I'm crushing your
Here's another magic sequence. An evil magician is sent by the evil vizier to turn Ajooba into a donkey. Because this guy is one of the movie's components of comic relief, the plan backfires, and he suffers the wrong end of his potion. He goes from man, to man with neon donkey-shaped outline,
to donkey with neon donkey-shaped outline,
to regular donkey, unilluminated. Later on, we get two bestiality jokes out of this. Yes.
Amrish drinks blood.
Dishoomin' you in the face!
When Ajooba shows up in a flying gondola (what, the carpet was in the shop?), the assembled crowd does actually say "Ajooba is here! He is flying a gondola!"
Sorry the picture is so blurry - those things move fast!
This is one of the funniest image/dialogue pairings I have ever seen. Throughout the whole movie, no one has remarked on any of the magic or evil or miracles, but somehow a flying gondola strikes them as noteworthy. Maybe it's the Bahrestanian equivalent of a Lamborghini?
One more of the sea monster? I thought so.
Amitabh fights a guy with a metal claw hand
and later a stuffed tiger - mind it! - interspersed with footage of an actual tiger.
I can't fairly lump this next one under the category of "WTF," but it made me giggle anyway: the first scene of our happy dolphin friend
brought to mind Abhishek's entrance in Dhoom 2.
I can't emphasize enough that you should just watch Ajooba for yourself. I'm ready to accept that most people, especially those not schooled in masala, will have a hard time not dismissing it as crazy. Give it a chance, though; you might be pleasantly surprised. And at the very least, you'll get to see this:
Blog round-up: Ajooba is in the air. Unser Freund The Horror?! just wrote it up, and keep an eye on Doc Bollywood for his take sometime soon. Rumor has it that Teleport City will also be taking a crack at it, nicely contextualized with other Russian fantasty films. ("Other?" I asked, when he told me this. You learn something every day!) Aside: are there any other women writing about this movie? My hopes are pinned on you, Indie Quill!
* When I started writing this post, I wanted to say something about the larger context of Ajooba - other Hindi films released in 1991 - to see how it fit in with what else was going on. But then I realized that out of imdb's list of Hindi films released that year, I had heard of a grand total of five of them (and seen only one, Ek Ghar, a Deepti Naval/Naseeruddin Shah NFDC film). Then I went to Wikipedia to see what the top grossers were; of their top ten, I had heard of two and seen none. (No doubt there are better sources for this type of information - it seems odd that there would be only 130 Hindi films, doesn't it? - but I don't know what they are.) I won't pretend to have encyclopedia knowlege of Hindi cinema or claim that the movies I've seen are a representative sample of all eras, styles, directors, etc. But these numbers suggest some evidence of the impression I've gotten from various writers and fans, that the late 80s and early 90s were a bleak era and were populated mostly by the types of movies I don't tend to seek out and that have not been recommended to me. What I mean to say is, I don't know anything about the movies that came out the same time as Ajooba, either through first-hand experience or research or word of mouth, and I would be grateful to anyone who wanted to weigh in on its contemporary context and whether they think that colors/should color how we think of it today.