Haatim Tai, which begins with giant glittery letters forming the production house emblem, whooshing stormy winds, and a booming voiceover, hints at certain pleasures from the onset: flying giants,
underwater pastel palaces,
fire-breathing mouth-shaped lair portals, that kind of thing.
With the caveat in place that Temple and I watched this without subtitles, I think it's as likely as not that the plot was selected and developed just to support director Babubhai Mistry's taste for the fantastic and very special special effects as the other way around.
The basic structure of the story is the attempt by the titular hero (Jeetendra) and his bumbling buddy (Satish Shah) to lift a curse by undertaking a series of seven quests. As far as Temple and I can tell, the curse is the result of an angel/fairy (Sangeeta Bijlani, I think; here she is floating to the right of the chandelier)
punishing a king (?) (Raza Murad) who tried to rape her (?). Curiously, the angel also seems to have turned herself in in stone/cement/papier maché, and with each successful quest a little bit more of her is restored to normal angelicity [note from Editor Self: that's not a word]. A bit of research indicates this plot is based on a Persian story, which you can read here.
Perhaps because this is a Babubhai Mistry film, the basic nature of the quests and the details of their description are faaaar more engaging than how they are met. For example, one of them includes a bunch of corpses busting out of their tombs in a cemetery.
"FINALLY!", you may be thinking, as I was, "A BOLLYWOOD ZOMBIE!" Sadly, it is only in the most technical—and least fun—way. After the dead rise, they gather calmly, dressed in tidy white clothes, and conjure up a picnic. One of them receives only blood and rocks (or some other inedible thing, I couldn't quite see) in his dishes, and he laments his past sins that have led to this horrible afterlife. Haatim Tai, who seems to intuit Allah's direct personal phone number, closes his eyes, stretches out his hands, and prays a solution. This pattern is repeated several times, sometimes in droopy or plaintive song, and I think it's basically safe to say that except in the sequences with the river nymph (some former Miss India or other, possibly Sonu Walia) and super duper baddie (Amrish Puri), you would not miss anything if you decided to check your email or get up for a snack once the setting of the quest is established.
Another problem is the title character himself. Haatim Tai has a bit of half-hearted dishooming but more often dispatches the obstacles by praying or singing earnestly. So religious is he that there's a song featuring imagery from several different traditions, including Noah's ark, the parting of the Red Sea, and what I think must be some kind of Mesopotamian deity, before settling on a Mecca being swarmed by elephants.
(Side note: this song ends with a pair of eyeballs flying out of actual footage of Mecca and landing on a small child who has been accidentally blinded.
Whoever this kid is might take the cake for least convincing temporary blindness in Hindi film history, but I am never one to scoff at magical flying eyeballs. Manmohan Desai taught me well.)
I suppose Jeetendra, who was in his late 40s when this film released, is as good a casting choice as any, but as someone who really enjoys him the 1970s and early 1980s, I have to wonder why anyone would cast him but not let him prance around and be sparkly, especially after clothing him in shiny purple vests and puffy shirts. He comes across as a bit of a preachy wet blanket, so wholesome and noble that his goodness is fawned over by most of the characters he encounters on the quests. Despite his role in the defeat or reform of evil and in several romances (including his own), the emotional impact of this character is basically nil.
Actually, none of the characters in Haatim Tai matters much, but I do wish I were sharper on my late 1980s actors so I could place all the different people who pop up with each of the quests. Amrish Puri as an evil emperor in the final quest is the best of them,
and someone who sounded a lot like Rajesh Vivek as another repenting evil-doer.
What Haatim Tai does deliver, however, is many servings of very silly, usually very fun sets, costumes, and effects. Such as a "disco boob tube" (Temple's phrase) and a magical pendant that repels skanks (seen flashing red as its victim blocks her face).
A golden beehive hat big enough to house your cobra.
A vain woman cursed with gorilla arms and jaw (and also a feather duster on her head).
Dragon gargyles and stunts that re-earn Jeetendra his "jumping jack" nickname.
Lairs. SWEET LIME, THE LAIRS.
A battle between good and evil magicians whose accessories say more about their respective awesomeness than dialogue ever could.
Not one but two human-shaped furry things who walk without bending their knees. They teeter and toddle and sway back and forth, the Weebles of gorilla-suited henchmonsters.
Haatim Tai is simultaneously very good and really not good at all, creative yet lazy, generous yet cheap. For every moment that the evil emperor sets a fairy's wings on fire or people tumble down a giant tongue into another room of a lair, there's another that Satish Shah makes stupid jokes or Jeetendra wanders around the set looking sternly pious. For every amazingly glittery low-budget version of "Yamma Yamma" set in Amrish Puri's lair and sounding for all the world like he himself is talk-singing (I wish I could call it rapping),