mini-reviews for Deol Dhamaka: Imtihaan and The Burning Train

(To jump to The Burning Train, click here.)

My relative quiet on blogs hither and yon can be blamed on it taking longer than I'd like to recover from my huge project at work. But it's Deol Dhamaka, people! If that can't speed up the healing process, what hope is there?

In the spirit of the experimentation that is such a fun and interesting part of these blog theme weeks, I decided to try a mid-90s Sunny Deol movie. My only previous foray into Sunny Valley is Jeet, which I didn't particularly care for and remember fondly only because of his enthusiastic stomp-dancing.

And in the spirit of honesty, I will admit that I chose this particular film because it was free and easy to get (thanks Hulu!) and also featured Saif Ali Khan as a rock star, which is my kind of awful.

Imtihaan falls smack into my personal Avoid-Yaar Era of ca. 1985–1997 and does indeed include the feature that most makes me cautious of that approximate decade of films: rape. In this particular story, the villain (Gulshan Grover) threatens to rape the heroine (Raveena Tandon) not merely out of his own psychosis about power but explicitly as revenge against and torture of her boyfriend (Sunny), with whom he has had an earlier altercation. Ness and I have been having an interesting conversation about how rape is used in films and what it means, and I have come to the weary, wary, and could-possibly-change-as-I-gather-more-information-and-experiences conclusion that more often than not, rape in Hindi films (of this era and others) seems to me a double whammy of its own criminality and underscoring of a "women as chattel/property" philosophy. I abhor both of these things and in this particular era am not inspired by other components of the film (acting, music, general story) to overlook, put aside, or continue on past them. I don't think writers and directors are explicitly promoting rape and related treatment of women as a good thing or using them as much other than blaring badges of villainous behavior and as clear motivation for revenge by the men affiliated with the victims. But as with almost everything else in a film, I think there's meaning or context or resonance to be found in them and it's kind of lazy to brush them aside with "It's how you know they're bad guys." If that were true, they could set fire to houses and other physical property, steal money, set up lethal car crashes, either directly to the hero or indirectly if they're so twisted they're going after his loved ones. The other general explanation I've heard for the ubiquity of rape in this era of films* is that it's an excuse to show female skin and titillate the audience, which I find dangerous, disgusting, and demanding much more careful and informed analysis than I have the fluency with films of the era (and contemporary Indian culture) to do at the moment.

So long story long, that's why I tend not to watch films from the mid 80s to the late 90s, which means I have missed the arcs and peaks of various talented filmmakers and stars, and much of what I read in other people's Deol Dhamaka posts makes me want to learn more about Sunny Deol, so here we are.

In Imtihaan, the villain does not, technically, rape the heroine (he shoves her around and rips off some of her clothes, leaving her a sobbing wreck, all while his goons play musical instruments a few feet away), and at least the she doesn't kill herself after the attack. Um....yay? The attack does escalate the existing conflict between Gulshan and Sunny, resulting in more gory confrontations (when I told Samrat about the incident, he said "Ah, that means Gulshan is about to get his a$$ handed to him"). There's also conflict between Sunny and Raveena's dad, who shoots at his daughter and her boyfriend as they try to elope.

After about 70 minutes of this, I fast-forwarded through a significant chunk of the remainder. Deol Dhamaka or no, Imtihaan's meager charms weren't enough to hold me. Harry Baweja's name as director didn't inspire further confidence, either. Unfortunately, I also really hate not knowing what happens in books and movies, so I did watch the end ***spoiler alert!*** and about that I'll just say that somebody seems to have liked Qurbani a lot (and who can blame them!).

In the meantime, I did have fun with the clothes. 90s Bollywood clothes always intrigue me, either because I recognize them from the dubious choices I remember from high school and college or because I wonder how many ODs occurred among wardrobe crews of the era, as they were clearly consuming large amounts of very bad drugs. The outfits in Saif's rock concerts fall into the latter category: a fringed jacket with a duck on the back,

backing dancers in a delightful ensemble of lycra bike shorts and mirrored Rajasthani-ish accessories

and some fascinating trousers and hats.

Look out for the flaming torches!

Raveena's clothes are the former, and I think 16-year-old Beth would have understood this outfit very well, from the big hair right down to the bike shorts under the flouncy skirt.

Side note: in the parts of the film I actually saw, Shakti Kapoor was neither evil nor disgusting. What's going on?!?!
And one last shot of Saif-as-star, rocking 90s color blocking adorned with sketches of shirtless Greek goods - a harbinger of Hrithiks to come, perhaps?

So yeah. I cannot say anyone should watch Imtihaan, but I also didn't see all of it and was predisposed to be impatient with and angry at it, so maybe my opinion has little merit. But do at least take a look at the gif I made of a little girl sticking her finger in a gaping bullet wound in Sunny's chest.

In the opposite corner, safely back in the still-basically-prime Dharmendra era I know and love so much, is Bollywood's best math problem, The Burning Train. Pick up your #2 pencils and answer the following:

1) What is the maximum possible speed of our train if it contains all of the following: Asha Sachdev putting on her lipstick while Rajendra Nath leers at her, Asrani boasting about his military exploits, Ranjeet's moll smuggling diamonds in her bra, and no fewer than 1 but no more than 5 men running on the roof? 2) What year would this film need to have been made in order to secure a cameo by either Amitabh Bachchan or Feroze Khan while simultaneously avoiding even more mawkish child actors? 3) What is the probability of a film made in 1979–80 containing no male Kapoors?

It takes longer to list who is in this film than it does to recommend it: HALF OF 70S HINDI FILMI PRADESH IS TRAPPED ON AN UNSTOPPABLE BURNING TRAIN CAREENING TOWARDS BOMBAY CENTRAL STATION!!!!!! While one could, with very little effort or malice, reasonably ask for more from this movie - stronger female characters, a childhood prologue that has anything to do with the rest of the story,

All I got out of this was that the boy on the right raided mummy's closet for open-toed heels.
some sort of exploration of ideas or commentary on contemporary context, a slightly less prominent nod to An Affair to Remember, Pran - I was so happy about the bromace-turned-bitter between Dharmendra and Vinod Khanna

and playing "Oooh, there's ______! And hey, isn't that ______?" that I was perfectly willing to overlook these and other more substantial flaws in favor of hurtling along with the cast of thousands.

Bollyviewer, my viewing companion, and I found two big problems in The Burning Train that troubled us because of their flaunting of 70s film logic. First, she noted, there is no easily identifiable reason that it should take not one, not two, but three 70s heroes (Dharam, Vinod, and Jeetendra) to thwart Danny Denzongpa's ego-satiating plan to humiliate Vinod by turning his beloved "super express" train into a speeding death trap.

Surely Danny is not so evil that a full-fledged triumvirate, plus fatherly guiding figures (Iftekhar and Nasir Hussain), a helpful sidekick (Vinod Mehra), and the love of good women (Parveen Babi, Hema Malni, and Neetu Singh), is required to defeat him? (Apparently it does take all those people to realize a train with no brakes would eventually stop if the engine in front was uncoupled from the passenger cars.) Second, we also wondered whether the whole setting of a disaster film is even necessary in Hindi cinema, where convoluted and extraordinary circumstances happen all the time and dramatic sacrifices can be whipped up with the faintest nod.

But never mind. Here's a quick sample of the goodies that distracted me from that pesky logic. Perhaps number one is the qawwali on a train. (Most of R. D. Burman's music is bold and exciting and stylish, especially the title song; however, I could do without the cheesy but admittedly requisite prayerful number towards the end).

Train song + qawwali = greater than the sum of its parts. This so needed to happen.

What was I saying about this film lacking philosophical content?
Vinod wears tight white trousers, high-heeled boots, and a neckerchief.

Dharmendra races a motorcycle to catch up with the roaring train.

Groovy light-up route maps illustrate the impending doom.

Families are threatened as personal loss is measured against greater community tragedy...

but you can guess which cause wins.

Note the map behind her as she puts aside her individualized worries for the sake of the 500 passengers on the train. One of the common 70s elements that made it into this film is patriotism, spelled out for you in the final frames.

It reads "This picture is about the people of INDIA & in particular those of the railways—their sense of duty, courage, & heroism. 'THE BURNING TRAIN' therefore is dedicated to the soul of INDIA which has remained uncorrupted." Well! There you have it. Dharmendra and Vinod and approximately 37 zillion other film stars save India while wearing silver space suits, helicopters explode, Mac Mohan puts his back into it, and schoolchildren warble sweetly with a chorus of multidenominational passengers. Awesome.

If I can ever catch up on sleep, there will be several more Deol Dhamaka writeups before the month is out. At the very least, stay tuned for a special post on March 18. Dun dun duuuuuun!

* Important note: these explanations have not been voiced by anyone named in this post. I'm speaking in vague terms about a general sense I have gathered over the last half dozen years of reading about and watching films and with no citations attached. Bad university academic staffperson, bad!


Suja said…
Thanks Beth, I enjoyed your flirtation with the Deol men. I am not a Sunny Deol fan so I will skip that but I think I shall have to watch the Burning Train. I love films which are, as they were then called, multi-starrers. And with Dharam & Vinod, surely I'll be too distracted to worry about logic or sense or anything like that..
BTW I too used to wonder at the rape scenes in films, thinking that there were really sick minds out there in the scripting room..
I've seen way more Dharmendra films than performance by any of the other Deols, but apart from Esha I don't dislike any of them (and like Dharmendra and Abhay very much). I haven't seen enough of Sunny to have an opinion and Bobby doesn't stand out to me one way or the other (and I thought he was great in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom).

I'm with you, I love multi-starrers here and there, even if that means that lots of characters are underdeveloped and plot threads are sacrificed for screen time. Vinod and Dharmendra make a fantastic pair. I highly recommend Mera Gaon Mera Desh (my writeup here) if you haven't seen it - they're on opposite sides of the law but are very well-matched.

I need to dig around the academic literature (as well as blogs and other cinema sites) and see what I can find about why some films use rape so much and in such disturbing ways. Surely it's been written about.
Ness said…
I'm kind of stunned to see our 'conversation' over depictions of rape in Hindi cinema referred to - especially since our thinking on the issue is quite different, I think.

I am waiting to get my hands on a copy of Mourning the Nation, by Bhaskar Sarkar, based on this review: and particularly this quote:

"That there was a deafening cinematic silence for nearly three decades and then the sudden eruption of Partition representations in the next two decades, Sakar argues, are part of the same process. The initial silence, the refusal to represent painful memories onscreen is contained by filmic narratives that displace, deflect, and defer examining the wounds, a form of mourning. Sarkar states his preference for this mode, adopted in the 1950s and 60s by Indian cinema, over the later phase of incessant and direct representation of violence, rape, and abduction that had been erased from earlier public discourse." (bold mine).

Perhaps that would be an interesting academic jumping off point/ thinking point?
2020 said…
I think you HTNOTH. Again.
Write Essay said…
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hyd said…
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So glad u wrote about my fav film- Nothing beats The Burning Train! No lack of logic, no shrieking Praveen can change that. I will admit though that the singing children (play backed by young women :S)do always make me fast forward any song, and this movie was no exception! And Danny was never crazier <3
memsaab said…
I so completely share your love of The Burning Train. I have only seen Sunny in Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani, which left me speechless :)
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hey man great reviews , actually i love reading your reviews , than watching movie , they are more interesting then the movies :)
M9 Review said…
I agree with you. You have given to us with such an large collection of information. Great work you have done by sharing them to all!

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