fun on a shoestring: Kaala Pani (or Kala Pani, or Kaalaa Paani, or however many As you want to use)

Don't be confused by the titles. Babita is not in this movie, but Bindu, whose item-number headwear you see under the image of Babita, is.

This has got to be one of the cheapest movies ever made to star such big names. The sound is spotty and the color leaps all over the place (and not in the "illustrating disturbing emotions" sort of way just seen in Salaakhen) (as in these two pairs of images, in which the halves are less than a second apart).

I don't think any money at all was spent on a script, or even ideas for a script, because characters, back stories, plot development, and progress of action are frequently shorthanded. For example, the leads - incorruptible officer Dharamveer (Shashi Kapoor) and feisty popsicle stand-owner and vigilante feminist Geeta (Neetu Singh) - are introduced individually, and there is no indication that they know each other or have even met previously. The first time we see them together, they cross paths at the police station, greet each other with "Oh hello," and he asks her in for a cup of tea. As they wait for the tea, they sit pensively and each voices over how much they love the other and tries to work up the courage to share their feelings.

Huh? I thought my DVD has skipped several scenes, but no, that's just how it is. In another moment of audacious telescoping, bad guy Shera (Amjad Khan) is put in jail, and his associates discuss how important it is that they bust him out. The next scene is a wall, presumably that of his cell, having a hole smashed in it, and then we cut to Shera lying on a lounge chair at a fancy swimming pool being massaged by a group of women in swimsuits. Most of the budget must have gone to salaries - and fight scenes in which piles of big objects (crates, barrels, cans of kerosene) are knocked over and people crash through walls. The one below unfolds lovingly in a few seconds of slow motion, as though the producers wanted to caress it for all it was worth.

(And because I can't figure out where else to put this but it needs to be mentioned, let me tell you what happens next: Shera drives the jeep all the way through the wall and over the pile of bricks and stops, looking for adversary Dharamveer, who has been hiding underneath the jeep. Dharamveer then drops to the ground, apparently unharmed by being crunched between the jeep and all those bricks, runs after Shera, and the dishooming continues. Props in this rambling brawl include an electric drills, chickens, and Shashi swinging on a rope over spilling boxes of what looks like those fake blue rocks you put in the bottom of fish tanks [except bigger].)

Gebruss has already covered the plot sufficiently; it's a combination of the standard mixed-up family members, unknown pasts, cops/robbers, and appropriate redemption and sacrifice, though heavily slanted towards scheming and action, with less romance and friendship-celebrating than I prefer. Apart from shockingly poor quality scattered throughout, I found Kaala Pani notable on two fronts. One, Neetu has not one, not two, but three dishoom scenes, two of them completely independent of the hero and primary bad guys. Her opening scene sees her raining down vigilante justice on a drunken wife abuser and his goonish friends.

"Your wife won't go with you until you give up drink!" she rages. It's a fun scene if you can overlook the irony of her real life. Later, a disgusting store owner tries to take advantage of her when he realizes she doesn't have enough money to buy much-needed medicine for her Maa. She sends him head over teakettle into a stack of cans of fuel that pour onto his head, then menacingly holds out a lit match while asking him what he thinks of his behavior.

This reminded me of Amitabh's dangerous cigarette-lighting technique in Trishul.
Maybe it's because I just came from a film festival screening of Sita Sings the Blues, but I found this sort of lowest common denominator style of communication and refusal to submit really satisfying. Geeta's third round of fighting is in the all-hands-on-deck brawl in the finale.

Sadly, after she lands a few good punches, she is captured by Shera and eventually has to be rescued by Dharamveer; things being as they are, I feel lucky to have had two scenes in which a woman saved herself.

The other element I really enjoyed was the songs. In "Garmi Karta Hai Nuksaan," Neetu romps around the beach singing about popsicles, and that's just about the greatest thing I've ever heard. "Heat is injurious," she says, "so come to my shop."

I don't care if this is a for-profit song - I love it! Especially because Geeta gets to have one too - she hops on the merry-go-round with her berry-hued treat (though clearly this one tastes like red, not like actual fruit) and tips her head back with glee. It's so summery and wonderful.

The other standout, "Shama Jalti Hai," features Bindu and a troupe of backup dancers who are very literally costumed, perhaps by my grade school art teacher, to complement the lyrics' moth/flame analogy.

Another clue that this was probably a low-budget film is that there are only four songs. "Koi Roko" is a preditable "lovers in a park" thing; the only notable detail is that Neetu's hair is mysteirously about a foot shorter than it is in the rest of the movie.

I think I also caught stolen James Bond music during a scene of criminal activity.

There are many other little nuggets of fun in this film. Raza Murad has a nice side role as Dharamveer and Geeta's friend Abdul, who despite being legless is always in the right place at the right time to overhear the villains' plans. He and Dharamveer have a particularly snuggly relationship.

His makeup looks green. It's really freaky.
The relationships between Dharamveer and his fathers - yes! there are two! - and Geeta and her mother make a refreshing change of emotional focus after countless films about Maas and their sons. Geeta seems pretty independent, earning a living through honest work, and she seems to be as active in the romance as Dharamveer is. An eye-scarring interior from Shankar Dada reappears, giving me hope that this is a real place and not just a set.

The villains use an unnecessarily complicated piece of machinery to crack a safe. No idea why a mini cassette is useful in this device, whose effect I've seen achieved with a simple stethoscope in less loony films.

A question for the ages: is Shera's bomb is labeled with skull and crossbones to mislead people into thinking it's poison but safe to, say, throw out of a window, or is this just a new application of an appropriate basic message to avoid the item?

It being 1980, there is some fun fashion, but almost all of it goes to criminal head honcho L. K. (Ajit), who wears exuberant patterns in jarring combinations.

At least a dancing girl at the lair gets to shimmy in red sequins and fishnets.

I've seen museums in filmi heists (Dhoom 2), mentioned in dialogue (Hum Tum), and as settings for songs (Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic), but I've never heard an outright mention of people who work in them. Finally (if ethically bankrupt)!

Not only does a car chase make use of a model to show a perilous bridge over a ravine, but as Dharamveer leaps it, he magically transports from a sea-level road along the beach to well above the water and in a forested mountain range.

And despite all the action sequences, blood splattering across a windshield took me totally by surprise.


Kaala Pani is less an actual movie than it is a loose collection of fun ideas, plenty of dishoom, and two good songs. It's as though the filmmakers could only pay attention to about half of the things they chose to include, leaving some of the story woefully undeveloped and sloppily executed, with other elements and scenes constructed with real zest. I don't think there's any reasonable way to call it "good," as it languishes so often at the sketch stage of development, but I certainly enjoyed watching it when I wasn't distracted by wondering what they could have made if they had saved a bit of the budget for something other than fake brick walls and a helicopter that never takes off.

Shashi wonders too.


Sounds delightful in a ramshackle way.
The helicopter thing is part of the founding principles of International Z-Grade Cinema. "If you can either have a helicopter in your movie or have a script, take the helicopter" is the exact rule, I believe. If you can then rent someone semi-famous for five minutes and put her or him into the helicopter for one scene, you're gonna be rich.
That's the theory, at least.
memsaab said…
Oh this sounds right up my lowbrow alley! :-) I'll see it for Neetu bashing up men alone. How have I missed this until now?
gebruss said…
Probably because it seems not to be easily available in North America. But it is fun, if one is able to embrace the lack of budget and minimal script.
bollyviewer said…
OK. First things first. Where in Helen's name, did you find this one? I've looked for it everywhere!!!! :-(

Lack of a coherent plot and a well-developed story dont really constitute my favorite type of film. But in the face of Shashi + Neetu, I am willing to waive such unimportant conditions - if I could only find the film!
Filmi Girl said…
Bollyviewer, I'm going to have to steal your phrasing!! "Where in Helen's name?" indeed! LOVE IT!

This looks like one I would like - I just need one good item number to pull me through a crappy film!

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