In the real world, I am against vigilante justice and conceptually literal revenge. So why is watching Rekha (Aarti) get her Kali on against a duplicitous, shallow, murdering Kabir Bedi (Sanjay) and greedy, foolish Kader Khan (Hiralal) so satisfying? Why does Khoon Bhari Maang make me abandon my own moral code?
1. He took everything she had - her life and her faith, she says - and thought he got away with it, and his hubris over this individual whose only weakness was sadness, rather than any harmful flaw like stupidity or selfishness, merited smackdown. Simply put, it should not be allowable to treat people like that.
2. Given that no universal force seemed to give a rat's ass about Aarti when she was mistreated, it was only right and fair that she had the satisfaction of exacting his punishment herself. When the old man who rescued her from death in the lake says "Surely god will punish Sanjay for this," she rejects the idea immediately. "No, Baba. I will give them the fruits of his sins. I will take revenge with my own hands." Maybe if this film had been made earlier in the decade, or in the 70s, it would have included a conveniently-placed Durga temple. As it is, there is only Aarti, with help from her alter ego Jyoti, to take revenge and right his wrongs and re-establish order.
3. Aarti's hand-to-hand against Sanjay perfectly inverts her "friend" Nandini's (Sonu Walia) earlier advice that she could only be happy if she starts living for other people. This is not revenge only for the sake of her children, her father, her friends (the horse and the servant), her home, or her money. This is on a more individual level. Aarti is an advocate for and protector of all of those wronged by Sanjay (and Hiralal), but her revenge is at least as much for herself, for the things Sanjay did to her using those other people, as it is for them.
4. I loved seeing a female character look within herself to find what she needed to restore justice. Her male pals don't decide the final outcome, either physical or ethical: groom Baliya (Satyajit Puri, who makes this mute character very expressive) is knocked out early on and J. D. (Shatrughan Sinha) throws some useful punches, but it is Aarti who decides whether (and how) Sanjay lives or dies. More significantly, the planning and information-gathering needed to go after Sanjay are accomplished entirely by Aarti alone.
And she's so decisive. Right away, she chooses eye-for-an-eye revenge - she got fed to the crocodiles, so he will too.
5. Add up reasons 2, 3, and 4, and we have a female lead who is a true individual. She's not defined solely as a mother, a daughter, a love interest, a devotee, a job, or a fortune. Like many women, she is a combination of these things - and more. If Aarti were a real person, I would condemn her choices, but since she's in a film from the 1980s, I loved how modern, self-sufficient, and self-determined she is. It probably says a lot about Bollywood that off-the-grid revenge - very violent revenge, at that - is both the channel through which Aarti discovers and expresses her capabilities and the very reason for that discovery and all the action she takes. My real-life self hates this; my film-world-absorbed self throws up her hands and says "This might be the best we've got."
All of that would make this movie awesome to me. But it's not why I watched it. You know why I watched it.
The spider motif runs across many of Jyoti's outfits. I didn't catch any dialgogue about a black widow, but it didn't need to be in words.
When she throws a literal golden web over Sanjay's neck, you know he's done for. Can you think of a look that is more directly opposite to Aarti's former self?
I love this picture! She looks so free!
When we first meet Aarti, her hair is always back and simple and she wears muted colors, no makeup, and very little jewelry. As Jyoti, she is elaborate and complicated from head to toe. Jyoti does not frolic on a hillside.
The modeling sequences are shorter than I was hoping, but they pack a wallop of WTFery. They made me yearn for all the years of Dynasty that my parents never let me watch. More importantly, they balanced the heaviness and violence of the main revenge story. Were it not for this heavy dose of glamor, this would be far too close to Bandit Queen for (my) comfort. Writers Mohan Kaul and Ravi Kapoor knew exactly what they were doing and even doubled our fun with a walk-off. Dance-off. Sing-off. Whatever you want to call it, it made up for all the other forgettable songs (when they weren't piquing my interest by being copies of Chariots of Fire used in a most unlikely setting). It even starts out brilliantly with Nandini having the nerve to suggest they compete directly. Rekha's face for at least 50% of the song says either "bring it" or "as if," and the lyrics are so juicy and pointed, giving Jyoti a chance to gloat and display her upper hand without Nandini having any idea that Jyoti knows exactly what she's done.
The backup dancers got screwed here, didn't they? There's nothing fun for them at all (or in the first song either, for that matter).
Even with an ethically-challenged but totally impressive heroine, wacktacular outfits, and a jolly Shatrugan delighting in rolling his Rs, much of Khoon Bhari Maang veers towards the boring. The setup and execution of Sanjay's treachery feels so mechanical. There's no oomph in the beginning at all. Maybe that's appropriate to Aarti's staid lifestyle and personality, but it doens't make for very interesting viewing. I think my favorite part of the film before the crocodile attack is the credits. They roll over an unblinking stylized image of Rekha as she appears in the final scenes of the film, neither plain-Jane Aarti or glamor-puss Jyoti but with her hair wild and eyes intense in confrontation. I love how the red coats the screen in a wave of blood, just as Aarti transforms after an initial bloodbath, and all you see is Aarti staring at you.
J. D. is an interesting little character. On one hand, he's key to Jyoti's success and thus her access to Sanjay, but, on the other, he's a voice of reason (without realizing that he's talking to someone bent on the destruction of another person).
J. D. is the only person to see post-croc Aarti in traditional clothing - these outfits are still more colorful and dramatic than what she wore in her previous life, but this version of her is sort of a souped-up Aarti rather than full-on Jyoti. This is what I imagine Aarti will look like after the end of the film, the Aarti she really is now.
He tells her how nice she looks in Indian clothes, and that statement jarred me into thinking about what the clothes in this film actually mean instead of just goggling at their craziness. Pre-croc Aarti wears only traditional Indian clothes but Jyoti, whether at work as a model or on her mission against Sanjay, wears western or heavily western-influenced things (that is, all the clothes I could see clearly were not traditional Indian clothes). And final killer Aarti wears black leather head to toe, complete with gloves and heeled boots - an outfit that, in fillums, I associate with baddies or renegade cops. Maybe the clothes do make the woman?
A few other things of note.... Scary and over-the-top as it is, the crocodile scene is very satisfying. "Oh look! I'm going to take pictures as this dangerous animal swims close to our boat! Yay!" And so simpleton Aarti meets her end.
Nandini didn't really do much in this film, but I thought Sonu Walia's horrified screaming and clutching on the boat were really good. Her last scene is pretty awesome too.
Ani-pals! Apart from Aarti, the smartest characters in this film are the non-primate mammals, Aarti's devoted and loving horse and dog.
Even the leathal crocodile is not the real baddie.
The humans, including our heroine, are much more cold-blooded than the crocodile, and when Aarti chooses eye-for-an-eye revenge on Sanjay we know exactly who the reptile is.
Gross - and therefore fun - scars and medical procedures. I love this image of Aarti discovering her scars. She sees herself in water, the upside-down reflection emphasizing for us to the un-reality she must be reeling in.
I'll spare you the footage of the helpful doctor (Tom Alter!) scraping skin off her leg with a vegetable peeler to use as a patch.
SCIENCE! Undulating synthesizer music accompanies the camera pan across these negatives, and the effect is really eerie. It's only a second or two, but it really added to the sense that Aarti wanted to create something unnatural in her new self.
Skip any scene you see with Kader Khan in it except the first and last.
Hope you never see this face.
All you need to know is that he's in cahoots with Kabir Bedi and is the gateway to the silly comic relief side plot, about which the only noteworthy thing I could find is it is the first time I've seen a vet or vet clinic in a Hindi movie. Very suitable for our noble furry friends in this film!
Aarti's flashbacks to happier times with her now-deceased husband (Rakesh Roshan) made me giggle.
I've got nothing against his work as a director, but his work in front of the camera never impresses me. And he kinda looks like a weasel.
(This has nothing to do with anything, but look how similar one of Jyoti's jackets is to Rakesh's above!
Tan flappy collars FTW!)
Jyoti isn't the only one with fun fashions. I was greatly amused to see Shatrughan Sinha tossing scarves casually over his shoulder.
No doubt Kabir Bedi is...what's the phrase? "An impressive specimen of masculinity"? But sometime I wish he had more trousers.
This one is actually a matching shirt and shorts set, but it looks for all the world like a way-too-short robe.
As much as recent offender Anjaana Anjaani, parts of this movie felt like a sungalsses commercial. Characters were forever looking over the top of their sunglasses or sliding them off in a moment of recognition or contemplation.
Even Dr. Tom gets to do it!
And to end, a villain so bad he inverts the Soup Nazi!
Soup for you! Or else!
I planned this post for Rekha's birthday because in my naive head I thought this was probably the most insane and over-the-top film she ever did. Silly me - just yesterday, for example, I found out about Madam X* from Bollystalgia and Die Danger Die Die Kill. For Rekha's actual talents, Khoon Bhari Maang is no Kalyug, and I personally prefer her in feisty, rather than avenging, mode as in Khoon Pasina. But this film surprised me with focus and portrayal I wasn't expecting. I wish more - well, any - time had been given to Aarti's psychological transformation post-croc, which was far more amazing than lipgloss and lamé. The next time there's a shameful classics week, I'd add this one simply because it so thoroughly evicted my usual moral compass and replaced it with giddy adherence to a fantastic and idealized story of the kind of precise revenge we never get in real life.
* If you know of a source for a DVD of Madam X, even unsubtitled, Todd and I would be eternally grateful.