and another one bites the dust: Nagin

[Chock full of spoilers! To make things simpler, I'm also going to use the actors' real names instead of their characters' names.]

"I'm writing a book on desirous snakes," says Sunil Dutt in his first scene in Nagin. Baloney. That book is never mentioned again in the 2+ hours of the film. What he's actually doing is providing an excuse to perv at Jeetendra and Reena Roy having a special moment in highly suspect outfits.

Reena and Jeetendra are indeed desirous snakes - and they also have the power to turn into humans. When Sunil and his posse of mostly dimwitted friends (Feroz Khan, Sanjay Khan, Kabir Bedi, Vinod Mehra, and Anil Dhawan)see Jeetendra in snake form heading straight for Reena, Anil fires his ever-present gun at Jeetendra-snake. What's worse, the female desirous snake will take revenge!

The rest of this movie consists of Reena Roy picking off the crew one by one. Like Khoon Bhari Maang, it's kind of unfortunate that planning and executing lethal revenge is how our (anti-)heroine gets to be so awesome, but the wild-eyed crazy and 70s outfits are so fun that I don't mind too much.

What's great about this script is that Reena's nagin uses stock female character types and filmi-typical male-female interactions against all the men. It's delicious - if also totally campy. With the actual shooter (Anil Dhawan), for example, she pretends that her human form was in fact endangered by snake-Jeetendra, a snake-charmer ironically bound by his snakey charms. In gratitude she falls at Anil's feet, calling him her god. Completely full of himself, he clutches her to him, and he leads her straight into his bedroom and closes the door. Within a few minutes of appearing, she's managed to get him to voluntarily lock himself in his room with her and is able to finish him off.

Great, no? She'll show you who needs saving! There's a pleasing consistency to all the different characters in the film, sometimes also mirrored in how they meet their end. Anil is not on screen very long, but in his first scene he hits on a woman and then amuses people at a children's birthday party by shooting balloons with his gun.

It's poetic justice for someone this foolish and show-off-y to get poisoned just as they think they're about to get lucky.

Vinod Mehra is a bit fast - as we've learned from Taal, sharing a Coke bottle with someone is eyebrow-raising -

and meets his end in the arms of the serpent in the guise of his girlfriend (Yogeeta Bali). Score one for the vamp type!

How embarrassing! Not only were you fooled, c*ck-blocked, and killed by an assassin pretending to be the woman you love, you died with your bits and pieces in as full display as 1970s Hindi cinema would allow.

My favorite revenge arc is against Kabir Bedi, the group's token atheist.

I'd say he's also the group's token shirt-unbuttoner, but in fact several of our boys do that.
The first time I saw this film, I hadn't realized that I was watching the much better and original version of Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani and didn't know most of the male stars would die. I knew Kabir would, though. Atheists don't tend to do very well in masala films of this era. Sure enough, his more scientific worldview is shattered by...I don't know exactly what Prem Nath is in this film, but he is the holy man who worships and knows a lot about snakes.

Appropriately chastised and newly protected by one of Prem Nath's invincible om pendants, he goes home and prays with his super-sweet wife (Neelam Mehra).

For the third time in a row, the beginning of the end for the man is accompanied by a splash of sex. Kabir and Neelam are about to relive their wedding night

gratuitous shirtless Kabir Bedi picture #1
when a telegram arrives and sends Neelam scurrying off to attend a sick brother.

gratuitous shirtless Kabir Bedi picture #2 - somehow he managed to get shined up in the two minutes since the last photo
Yeah right. We know that desirous snakes love to send tricky fake telegrams, but poor Kabir has no idea. After taking Neelam to the train station, he is stranded out in the woods in the rain at night by a flat tire (thanks, snakey teeth!) and saves another damsel-in-distress (Prema Narayan), this time from a rapist.

Prema is, of course, the nagin in disguise. When her first attempt to poison Kabir fails

she recruits the help of Ranjeet and manages to convince him that he should beat up Kabir and tear off his om pendant, leaving him vulnerable to her further attack.

As the offenders are bumped off, their plots get more complicated. The next victim is widower Sanjay Khan.

He has a fantastic dream about being attacked by the snake, where we get to see one of many instances of Babubhai Mistry's special effects. It would be against the spirit of the film to put the term "special effects" in sarcastic finger quotes even though they merit it.

I'm kind of surprised Feroz Khan didn't manage to nab this sequence (or Kabir Bedi's fistfight against the rapist) for himself - it's tons of fun. Sanjay's Achilles heel turns out to be his daughter (Master Bittoo), whom the snake holds hostage.

As in Qurbani, the heroic single dad dies within a supporting pyramid of his child and friend (Sunil), as well as his sister and her husband, this time with the added visual drama of billowing curtains. My dil was not squished by Nagin, but this was one of its more emotional scenes since Sanjay's character is the most connected to other people.

I should pause here to say clearly one of the most important things about Nagin: holy crap, everyone and their dog is in this movie! It's an excellent test of anyone's knowledge of 70s actors, and you could probably entertain yourself on long car rides by listing the ways in which these actors and their offspring are interrelated. (E.g. one of Sanjay "my brother Feroz seems to have been a lot better at this movie business than I was" Khan's daughters is married to DJ Aqeel! - and another, of course, to Hrithk Roshan.) How it managed to have at least 25 named, recognizable characters but not a single Kapoor, I do not know. In addition to Reena, Jeetendra, Prem Nath, and the 6 principal groupings of Sunil's gang, we have: occasional comic pieces by Jagdeep, Maruti Rao, and Tun Tun; Sulochana Latkar as Vinod's maa; Heena Kausar and Roopesh Kumar as Sanjay's sister and her husband; and Aruna Irani as the underused but very welcome un-dramatic pause in the climax of Vinod's impending doom

to introduce the only song I actually liked, "Tera Mera."

Who is Aruna's dance partner in the white suit and purple neckerchief? He's so enthusiastic!

Okay, back to the plot. The eagle-eyed among you will have realized that the only two men left are Sunil Dutt, who has been set up as our lead character, and Feroz Khan.

This is the picture that should appear next to his name in any encyclopedia of film.

Feroz's house has both gorgeous folk art and a masala-worthy purple upholstered bar. Best of both worlds!
It's my understanding (and my viewing experience) that Feroz Khan does not die at the end of movies. I know he didn't direct this one, but I was still surprised to see snake-as-Mumtaz finish him off. Granted, it takes awhile for this to happen; we get some cute scenes of Feroz and Mumtaz building a relationship (their families have arranged their marriage), including him being suspicious that she is in fact the nagin. I don't blame him for bieng suspicious since four of his five friends have been offed by women either appearing out of nowhere unexpectedly or acting as though they are in relationships with the men, both of which Mumtaz does.

There's satisfying irony that Feroz is eventually done in by the snake pretending to be Mumtaz. He was cautious when he should have been open, and by the time he should have had his guard up he was too smitten to think clearly.

This version of the nagin also might or might not be the writers' way of implying that love makes men stupid, that women only sleep with you before marriage if they are actually poisonous snakes, that women are dangerous, lethal to either you or your bros. For Feroz's scene, they moved away from the vamp, girlfriend, and "other" (unknown rural maidens) to flipping the idea of a perfect someone arriving out of the blue to complete your life. The gold-standard love interest can be a threat too. Mumtaz seems too good to be true at first, but it's only after love has bloomed and is recognized (they have a song with shawls and hillside-romping!) that her presence becomes perilous. I assume she's the film's biggest female star, and she gets a little extra emotion at the end of her role, cradling her dead love in her arms, just the way a real heroine should. More on the film's treatment of women in a minute.

That leaves Sunil...and Rekha! She's hardly in the film until the end, appearing just a few quick times throughout as Sunil's girlfriend. Let me tell you, it is absolutely worth the wait to see Rekha as a murderous snake. It is also absolutely worth the wait to see Rekha as her principal character battle Reena, who claims to love Sunil too, wrecking an aquarium and threatening each other with a fork.

"Look at you," she says. "It seems as if the mud of the gutter has taken the form of a woman!" Reena replies "I like your bad words also. Why don't we make a deal? Let's cut him in half."

Nagin eventually gets her way and impersonates Sunita.

The red light should be a tip-off, no?
I guess because he's been working on that amorous snake book, Sunil is able to best snake-Rekha (Snake-a?) at her own game,

spitting out the drink she poisons. That'd be way too tidy of a climax, though, so instead we endure an overly-long chase with Sunil and Master Bittoo hanging from a rope hung between two apartment towers, presaging Don by a few years.

Rekha's character is probably the most wifely even though she and Sunil are not yet married: she supports him as he patches up his friendship with Feroz, asserts her willingness to marry him even though his life is endangered by the snake (and thus risking her own imminent widowhood), and also stands in as a mother for the orphaned Master Bittoo.

It's worth noting that the device of the female serpent extracting revenge from each of the men - even though only one of them fired the gun - provides opportunities for several of the female leads to play two different roles, both their principal character and that same character as being impersonated by the nagin. For example, Rekha switches from sweet, supportive, and very spouse-like to a vamp so evil she dances on (what she thinks is) Sunil's corpse. Yogeeta too gets to be a nice girlfriend but also a deadly seductress. And in her case, the nagin gets to do a groovy dance number as a normal human; contrast that to Mumtaz, who in her quick role gets a normal love song and a brief dance in which she, as a regular person, dances like a snake. I'm not sure I'd call it a feminist story, but amazingly the woman who commits multiple murders is not demonized, probably helped by three of her victims being far from ideal characters, and is even given a chance to explain and express herself as the hero stands victorious over her as she dies. She's even reunited with her love in the sky!

Additionally, it is the men who want to have sex without being married who are punished with death (and very immediately, too), not the women! I'm not sure I've ever seen that before. Nagin may be a silly film, but it does some interesting things.

I enjoyed Nagin start to finish. It's good fun and moves along really well. Given its topic - snakes who turn into people and can take revenge in a killing spree - there is very little ridiculous in it, and I loved watching all these different people either vamp it up or perform dramatic, tortured deaths. Or just watch it for the effects, like when Jeetendra is attacked by stuffed vultures. These pictures don't do the scene justice, but believe me, it is glorious.

To close, let us bask in the stylin' vintage of the mid-70s outfits. While everyone in the film has some great clothes,

Please note Feroz's shirt printed with prowling panthers. Rawr!
Reena has by far the lion's serpent's share. Each time she turns up on a new avenging mission, she gets another glamorous, sometimes skanky outfit and fabulous new hairdo. And that's only fair: despite the macho crew, she is no doubt the real lead role, with lots of good lines and a range of emotions and reactions.

Oh! One more thing: call me a woman made of gutter mud, but this sequence cracked me up.

How you doin'?

If things go according to plan, by the end of Rekha Month I'll have Sheshnaag to pair with this. Two Rekha Snake-a movies? Wow! We are truly blesssssssssed.


Unknown said…
Hi, Great review, as usual :)

But just have to correct one thing, I think you got yourself some wrong subtitles.

Sunil Dutt was researching 'Icchadhari Saanp'. 'Icchadhari' does not mean 'desirous', rather it means 'Capable of granting wishes'.

Keep writing!
Bolly Blogger said…
Hilarious! I missed this one but did watch the Sridevi-Rishi Kapoor 'Nagina'. That one has some reincarnation thrown in but no pretense at trying to justify the plot by pseudo book-writing attempts.

Oh, and since someone opened that can of worms (no slithery pun intended), 'ichchhadhari saanp' actually means one who can become a snake at will.
I'm a big fan of Jaani Dushman, but somehow have never gotten around to watching this. I love your review, and am amazed to see how similar both scripts are. I wish Shatru was in this film too- he's necessary for all Rina Roy movies I think :)
Vah! vah! Very interesting Review Beth, i love this film to bits too, this movie was the stuff of legends back when i was growing up in Nigeria, i think this movie out rivals Sholay in terms of its popularity in some African countries. Waiting to see your thoughts on Sheshnaag
Temple said…
I loved this film. The vultures made me weep with joy :) And if you think the snake attack effects were amazing in this...well, just wait til you see Sheshnaag! I do agree that the female roles were interesting - almost as though each of the ladies played their own bizarro twin. My personal highlight is Rekha stomping on SD's "corpse".
Banno said…
'Nagin' is a gem. 'Nagina' was very, very boring by contrast. Too serious. The man in the purple kerchief is a Mithun wannabe. :)
Unknown said…
I saw this when it first came out when I was a really little kid. Yes, in retrospect I cannot believe my parents let me watch...but we lived in small-town U.P., so small that we only have two theaters in town. Whatever!

I remember having nightmares about snakes for weeks...and sadly begging my parents to buy me Reena Roy's fabulous snake outfit. How dichotomous of me?

When I think of this movie (and I do...yes I do so many thanks for the review beth) it always strikes me that it is similar to the sexy vampire myths...except with the Count (or Edward) being a woman. There's something sexually mesmerizing about being seduced by someone or something dangerous even if you are not in the know.

This truly was one of my faves. She's strong, she's even overtly and proudly sexual and yet not the usual fallen woman....and so deliciously campy. What's not to love?
Shellie said…
I have not seen a single snake transformation movie. Me thinks I am missing out. Badly.
Sharmi Adhikary said…
ha ha so many big names in one big weird film!!
delhidreams said…
u do know u r hilarious. right? :D
delhidreams said…
and to correct Nair, icchadhari means somebody who can take any form s/he desires!
Hemant Singh said…
Wat lovely songs were there in this movie... same in Jaani Dhusman...

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