Sunday, October 31, 2010

adventures in a subtitleless and otherwise wild and woolly land: Sheshnaag

I am pretty certain I missed at least a third of what was going on in an average scene in Sheshnaag. Based on what I could understand, however, I'm not sure that detracted from my enjoyment of this eyes-a-bulgin' scenery-chompin' tale of two good snake-people, one very, very evil villain, and the people who get mixed up in their conflict. Pesky details like why the people are involved in the good/evil conflict will be glossed over, partly because I do not have any concept of some of them and partly because they probably don't matter much. Here is what I do know.
  • Jeetendra and Madhavi are the two friendly and helpful snakes. At the beginning of the film, they are called into existence (or immediate presence?) by a jolly-looking priest who does some kind of ritual at a snake-themed temple (or his basement?) using a special golden lingam and snake idol during a lunar eclipse.

    The new snake-people show the gathered humans great treasure under the floor, and the humans crate it up and carry it away. Therefore the humans are maybe sorta bad even though the snakes are nice to them? *shrug*
  • Danny Denzongpa hangs out in a creepy lair with devilish idol and lots of skulls., rough-hewn look of this statue reminds me of the shaitan in Ajooba.
    Most of his lines are delivered by shouting and then amplified further with an echo effect. He really, really hates Jeetendra and Madhavi and tries to kill them. I have no idea why.
  • Rishi Kapoor is the village idiot. He plays the flute and can soothe and beckon animals with it.

    Like the root of the good/evil issue, I do not know what Rishi has to do with the snakes/Danny story. Rishi's character seemed to veer towards disposable comic side plot, though with more screen time than someone like Jagdeep probably would have had. I think the only real point of Rishi was to serve as a link to Rekha, who is his sister.

    Rekha is married to abusive and utterly useless Anupam Kher, and in the middle of being assaulted and nearly raped by his cronies in a poker game, Rekha is suddenly possessed by, or inhabited by, or something, the female snake, so we get very little more of Madhavi on screen but lots more of this, which is totally fine by me:

  • Rishi needs a love interest - 'cause who wouldn't swoon over 1990 vintage Rishi playing a simpleton - so enter Mandakini, whose father Raza Murad and fiancé Dan Dhanoa are definitely on the bad side, though not as evil as Danny. Raza wants Mandakini to marry Dan (maybe for money or business interest?), but with the snakes' help Rishi is able to steal her away because they are in true movie pyaaaaar - with bubbles!
  • A bunch of other stuff happens and we see the possibly-bad humans from the beginning again and there's a huge fight that even involves Shiva and then the right people win at the end. Ta-da!
Even though my comprehension of what was going on much of the time in Sheshnaag was impaired, I cannot in good conscience disagree with this user comment from imdb: "If you want to see a film on snake world, this is a very right movie to watch." Let's sample some of the evidence for this argument.
  • For starters, this closeup appears very early on:

    Yes. Danny is so evil that when a snake bites him on his tongue, the snake dies.

    Speaking of Danny's mouth, he either has amazing teeth or the wardrobe department spent half their budget on his veneers. Look how even they are!
  • Such a bad man deserves a suitable hangout, and Danny's lair is appropriately tricked out with flames, a waterfall, and rocky faces with fangs.
  • Danny tries to off Rishi by biting him. Rishi was annoying enough that I felt some empathy for this quest.
  • Jeetendra teaches Rishi some fighting skills. Think about the implications of that sentence for a minute before proceeding to the picture of Rishi training (?) to be tough (?) by breaking pots of color (?) with his head (?) with his hands tied behind his back (?).

    This is a method of instruction from a snake. Snakes being known for having hands and bashing things with their skulls.
  • Jeetendra can fly.
  • Snake-Rekha projects memories on the outside of her head, usually emanating from her bindi.

  • Amrish Puri-style eye-bulging is par for the course.

  • Rekha spits venom at Danny, causing his head to separate from his body.

  • In a movie full of very special special effects, the head-separting was perhaps my favorite, but there are many others to admire.

  • There is a never-ending parade of animal cameos (canimaleos?): in addition to snakes, there are goats, a bear, elephants, big cats, boing-boingy deer, and a bunny.

    Which is more useless: the bunny that appears only in this scene or Mandakini's hair bow?
  • Rishi bashes his head against a lingam until he bleeds. (If only he'd already had his pot-head training! Alas, it came after this scene.) Again, I don't know why - a general act of contrition for being such a fool? - but I can't say that I thought it was a definitively bad idea.
  • Speaking of, Shiva is very helpful throughout.

    The snakes coil around a lingam and inch with it out of the reach of flames hurled by Danny,

    and a much larger one proves a very handy weapon in the supernatural dishoomery at the climax.

    (Side note: during this battle, Danny also jabs Rekha in the throat with his trident and leaves it there, yet she can still talk perfectly fine. It's a miracle!)

  • Snake-Rekha lives in a house tastefully appointed with not inconspicuous clues to her true identity.

    But there aren't mere knickknacks. Oh no. They can turn into the real thing when needed!
  • Snakey outfits!

    Best. Headpiece. Ever.
  • Snakey dancing!

    I don't know what had happened to Jeetendra by the time this film was being shot, but he simply cannot keep up with the women. They are sinuous and fluid and serpentine; he is jostling, lurching angles (click here for an example) - "bhangra uncle," as Temple said. Rekha more than makes up for it with the fantastic "O Saphere Dushman Mere." There is all kinds of crazy happening in this song, and Rekha owns it like nobody's business.

    Laxmikant-Pyarelal's riffs with the pungi are great too. This song is a fabulous example of all the elements working together to make an effective, evocative, memorable piece that fits seamlessly into the story. Costumes, choreography, music, light crew, stars, backup dancers, and situation all get a hearty vah vah! from me and the song is going into my personal record book of best Rekha numbers ever.
See? Very right. And a great note on which to end Rekha Month. She is totally into the spirit of this film and gives an energetic, dramatic performance - and tones it down appropriately when she is playing her regular human character (Rishi's sister before and after being possessed by the nagin) - while leaving the most egregious scenery-chomping to Danny. If he weren't in it, she might look ridiculous, but as it is they are beautifully matched foes. Even if none of the rest of this appeals to you, watch the song embedded above. It's a respite of masala perfection in a film full of slithering silliness.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Chehre Pe Chehra

Helen bless youtube spelunking. While looking for Rekha cabaret songs, I happened across a number from Chehre Pe Chehra. Upon closer inspection, the film turned up billed as "based on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"...and sold! Perfect for Halloween! I haven't read the original but the whole concept seems like it could make a delightful Bolly-style project - you are your own evil masala villain or long-lost badly-behaved brother!

Indie Quill graciously watched this with me and filled me in on what was going on since my version was unsubtitled. That plus not having read the original means I probably missed some things, but I still enjoyed Sanjeev Kumar's ACT!ING! (term courtesy of Indie Quill) and makeup in his Mr. Hyde freakouts. In reading up on the original source material, I realized that the story is so ingrained in mainstream western culture that we have forgotten that some of the glee of the original story is that it is a mystery - no one knows who this horrible Mr. Hyde is. For us, the appeal is more in watching the dual natures of this person duke it out for control.

In the Hindi version, Sanjeev is of course both the good and evil, Dr. Wilson and Mr. Blackstone respectively. Dr. Wilson is a surgeon who also experiments in his lab to make a formoola to isolate the evil aspects of a human

and then tests it out on himself with the expected fantastic results.

Always drink from the smoking beaker
Mr. Blackstone - whom IQ and I both thought was called "Black Stew" at first, such is Sanjeev's enthusiastic but weird pronunciation - initially appears just to be a slightly uglier, wilder version of Wilson, including green fingernails, a pompadour, and a curious fashion sense.

I read that in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a cane is an important clue to Hyde's identity, so I'm going to credit this accessory as being a clever nod.

Who is this Dr. Wilson who is able to inhabit so thoroughly such a disgusting facet of himself? Interestingly, he's not exactly an upstanding guy. He works hard as a surgeon and probably means well towards humankind overall, but he's not at all perfect: he alludes to having no parents and he is - shock! - an atheist! This sets up some juicy sniping between Wilson and his friend David (Vinod Mehra in a boring role and performance) about the hubris of Wilson's theory and project that science can reshape and control humans' complicated natures. For some reason I didn't catch, his fiancee Diana (Sulakshana Pandit)'s father (Iftekhar) dislikes him,

"Why are you wearing a cape, Diana?" "Sigh. Everything else was at the drycleaner."
perhaps because he knows that Wilson isn't a good catch for his daughter. One night Wilson runs into dancer (and prostitute?) Daisy (Rekha), who convinces him to come back to her house to treat a bruise she has received at the hands of someone who doesn't approve of her line of work. He follows her to her bedroom, where she neatly de-robes from her dancing outfit and slips under the covers...and they smooch!

I couldn't believe it! He proceeds to give David some line about how he shouldn't refuse if his patients feel better in his presence, to which David replies "Come on, shut up, yaar."

David isn't having it.
At the end of the film, it seems that the whole town is sad about what Wilson has done to himself, but I have no idea why. He doesn't seem exceptionally likable to me - and more importantly, it doesn't seem like his bad sides were ever all that deeply buried or under control. Wilson is a lot more id than your average film hero.

The rest of the story unfolds as we know it will. Wilson tries to balance his time as Blackstone but the evil gains more and more power. The makeup and wardrobe crew deserve lots of points for how well they physically depict Blackstone's increasing badness - he gets uglier and wilder by the day.

Contrast this version of Blackstone with the one above with the cane: the hair is bigger, the eyebrows shaggier, the teeth more raggedy and fang-like, the skin greener and more mottled.

Sanjeev ups the deep, raspy voice as his monstrosity increases, and when he isn't ACT!ING!

it's a fairly effective, if silly, performance. I know I'm being a little hard on Sanjeev, but this is not the first time I've seen him chomp on the scenery. Maybe it's a horror movie thing - he's ridiculous in Jaani Dushman and this performance reminded me very much of that one. Of course, it's probably hard to refrain from histrionics when you have to punch strangle yourself in a good-vs-evil, man-vs-self smackdown (starting at about 6:25 here).

Actually, I should be grateful for his hamminess. Chehre Pe Chehra offers several top-notch freakouts just ripe for dramatics, and, along with Rekha's saucy dancing, they're the best part of the film. If Sanjeev and the makeup people hadn't gone overboard, this movie wouldn't be half as good.

If I remember correctly, Blackstone's victims are all either women or people connected to the women in his life, which adds a frowning attitude towards sexuality and props up filmi-typical gender-specific results of certain behaviors. For example, I don't think you'll be at all surprised to learn that the woman who kisses other people's fiancés, lets audience members unzip her dress and wiggles out of it on stage,

and gets raped by a monster doesn't make it out of the film. Blackstone is just as fond of Daisy as Wilson was, and her cabaret is the first place he goes when he transforms.

Daisy, wisely, is horrified and seeks help from her friend Dr. Wilson. Hindi Movie Irony Bell goes CLANG!

Poor Daisy also has romantic intentions towards Dr. Wilson, but unfortunately confiding in him seems to threaten Blackstone enough that he cannot let her live. As for Wilson's socially acceptable romance, Diana doesn't do much other than cry and shriek. He all but abandons her during all his cavorting as Blackstone. After realizing that violence, blood, and lusty situations set off his transformation into Blackstone, he eventually tries to seek a cure in her good and innocent presence. We know how that will go.

The mystery aspect is handled by Wilson's friends David, Dr. Sinha (Shatrughan Sinha), and Cardoz (?) (Amjad Khan), who even bring in the cops to help figure out who killed Daisy and another, far more innocent victim.

Shatrughan is totally wasted - he doesn't get to dishoom or sass or hit on anyone. Amjad is really endearing - I know! - as a cuddly, pitiable blind patient of Wilson's who becomes bonded to Blackstone by a tragic event of the type that makes you scream "That is a stupid-arse idea, Amjad!" at the screen.

I liked Chehre Pe Chehra. Despite all the different people in it, most of its energy is spent on Sanjeev's various performances. This might keep things from getting too crazy but it also made it less relatable than it could have been - providing Wilson with a family context would have given him an emotional depth that the lone scientist lacked and warmed up his descent and eventual loss. As is, the ending felt chilly, a church full of people trying to get me to mourn the demise of someone who long ago proved himself a less than ideal individual and community member. Curiously, the conventions and constrictions of Victorian England in the original are not conspicuously drawn on or played off of in this transplant, and I'm kind of surprised there wasn't an overbearing mother who tried to mold Jekyll into a marriage he didn't want or a wife who nagged him about duties to home and hearth, just to give his Hyde qualities something to rejoice in abandoning. Those omissions probably saved the film from going overboard, and, except for the solitude of Wilson, the resulting project is generally satisfying in how it meets most of the marks you'd expect of a masala take on the idea of "the villain within."

The screen captures I've included so far do not give you any idea of what's worth looking at in this film other than the monster makeup, so here are a few to round out the sample. Rekha shows a lot of skin in this film, and she does a great job making Daisy into a carefree woman who has no idea what fate awaits her.

Smoking, flirting, showing skin = dead.
Both of her songs were fun and Helen-y; the music by N. Dutta was fine, but I like his work in Holiday in Bombay much better. In this particular phase of monster development, Sanjeev reminded me so much of Dilip Kumar. Don't ask me to explain, but IQ saw it too. Here he clutches his helpfully labeled potion kit.

Amol Palekar appears as Peter, Wilson's servant.

He, like whoever picked out Blackstone's first outfit, thinks we are in the late 1800s. I love this picture of Vinod Mehra because he looks so bored, perfectly mirroring how I felt whenever I saw him. Plus he has a Mona Lisa in his house!

We get a logical conclusion of trying to catch a fugitive with guns in a chemistry lab.

Note the hanging iron cauldron!
Before their wedding, Diana and Wilson go to a ballet about a wolf boy...that she narrates (see part of it at the start of this clip).

I get the metaphor, but I do not understand why you'd plan your wedding for the same night you have to work at the ballet. And to end, here is the filmmaker's message for us all:

...and world peace!