Kaiju Shakedown: Wild World of Bollywood
Bollywood is where celluloid craziness lives. The slab-o’-style opening of Don</a>, the first dance number in Gumnaam, the moment when Amitabh Bachchan emerges from an enormous egg in Amar Akbar Anthony and sings “My Name is Anthony Gonsalves,” Anil Kapoor’s performance as Quincy Jones by way of Mr. Mxyzptlk in Taal, Anil Kapoor (again) doing a naked Matrix fight scene while on fire in Nayak. But it’s the rare Bollywood film that stays crazy and entertaining throughout, adding up to more than the sum of its nuttiest parts. After all, once that opening number is finished, Gumnaam turns into a pretty boring Ten Little Indians remake. But here are four pre-Nineties Bollywood movies that know how to keep things hopping all the way to the end credits.
The ultimate Manmohan Desai dshoom dshoom actioner, Mard was a superhit, becoming the top-grossing movie of 1985 and getting a 70mm Tamil-language remake by Superstar Rajinikanth the following year. But where Rajinikanth failed (gasp!) with his remake, Amitabh Bachchan takes home all the macho trophies. Director Manmohan Desai makes movies where the Brits are evil, the working class are king, rich girls ride around in convertibles with bodyguards wearing complicated S&M gear, no one can find a top hat that fits, and he’s never met an emotional beat that didn’t call for a 360-degree camera spin, a couple of zooms, and quick cutting between five different angles.
Mard reveals the secret truth behind British colonialism: they were basically vampires (at one point they even drain the blood from their Indian slaves to ship overseas). Looting Mother India of its precious artifacts in the morning, the Brits round off their afternoons with some light machine-gunning of innocent Indians while cackling through their tea and crumpets. By the time this flick is finished, you’ll want to march on Downton Abbey and burn it down.
Desai likes to start his films with the parents of his hero, and here Bachchan’s dad rides his horse after the damned looting Brits escape in an airplane. He shoots them in their wrists with his Tommy gun and throws grenades into their tanks, then lassos their plane, ties it to the ground, and kills a British general with his bare hands. After carving “Mard” (which means “macho”) into his newborn son’s chest, he’s betrayed by a doctor, drawn and quartered, and then blown up. It’s up to this macho baby, played as an adult by the Big B, to continue the good (albeit totally over-the-top) fight. Providing able assistance are his hyper-intelligent dog Moti and talented horse Badal.
Delivering so much psychic whiplash that your brain needs a neck brace, the film presents the young colonial beauty Lady Helena in a leather catsuit, trying to ruin the Big B’s self-esteem by whipping him. When that doesn’t work, she resorts to flamenco dancing, but Moti sneaks into the torture dungeon underneath a room-service cart and frees his master. Then the next minute, Lady Helena and the Big B are getting married. Deal with it.
The movie that almost killed Bachchan when a stunt went wrong was the second-highest-grossing Indian release of the Eighties. Though it does not feature any colonial vampires, it is another all-singing, all-dancing, all-macho mind-blower from Desai.
Exchanging the Hindus of Mard for Muslims, things start rocking when ultra-criminal Zafar Khan gets out of jail, ready to marry the nubile young Salma. First stop? Her dad’s bird store, where he is informed that Salma has married some guy named Aslam. Enraged, Zafar kills her dad, then flies off in his helicopter. He lands at Salma’s house, but her mom fights him off with a burning log, aided by lightning bolts of divine disapproval. Back into the helicopter Zafar goes, next turning his rage on Aslam, the man who stole his Salma. Aslam works at a dam, which Zafar destroys, unleashing a flood that drowns half of India. Salma washes up unconscious on the roof of her house, so Zafar rescues her with his helicopter, despite being attacked by her dead dad’s highly intelligent falcon (who wears more gold chains than Mr. T) which rips out his pilot’s eyeball. By now Salma has amnesia, and she’s forgotten that she lost her baby in the flood.
That baby grows up to be Amitabh Bachchan, king of the train coolies! The Big B gets the coolest entrance in motion picture history: leaping off a bridge with a cigarette in his mouth, a falcon on his arm, and a gun in his hand. A story about the power of labor unions and the inherent justice of international socialism, Coolie is also a movie in which a grown woman lusts after a 9-year-old boy and plasters her bedroom with life-size photographs of him that she kisses with erotic longing. Coolie knows what its audience wants (separated sweethearts, the love of a boy for his mother, helicopters, highly intelligent falcons) and serves it up by the shameless shovelful.
DISCO DANCER (1982)
A major hit, this flick made Mithun Chakraborty a star in the Soviet Union, where Disco Dancer sold close to 50 million tickets. And why not? This is a universal story about a boy, a dream, and a disco. Everybody can relate! Chakraborty plays Jimmy, a little boy from the slums who plays a mean guitar and grows up to be a disco dancer, singing his unforgettable hit “I Am a Disco Dancer” (D is for Dance, I is for Item, S is for singer, C is for chorus, O is for orchestra). But Jimmy has dethroned Sam, the former king of disco, and Sam will not go easy into that long night. First, he hires a gang of finger-snapping thugs to take Jimmy down. When that fails, he electrifies Jimmy’s guitar, and while that doesn’t kill Jimmy, it does give him a crippling case of discophobia. Will Jimmy overcome his trauma in time to face down the world champions of disco?
There is no way to discuss a movie like Disco Dancer in any human language. We simply don’t have the words. But Jimmy doesn’t need our words. He's got kung fu and disco. When things get really hard, he puts on his poncho of sadness. Anuvab Pal, who published a book about the movie, writes: “It was perhaps the greatest cultural event of the Eighties. Everything we were going through, socialism, class struggle, culture clashes, [all told] through the existential journey of Disco Dancer.” Maybe, but don’t forget that there are also plenty of onstage machine-gun assassinations during disco concerts.
TEESRI MANZIL (1966)
Some swinging jazz! A girl runs up a hotel stairwell! She leaps from the roof! She smashes to the ground! Then the camera pans across gawking faces surrounding her bleeding body, each actor’s credit perfectly timed for the moment their grim mugs hit the screen. Teesri Manzil is shot in shimmering jewel tones, filmed on sumptuous sets with plenty of soft focus and surreal Sixties style, and if any movie was crying out for a Blu-ray restoration, this is it.
Sunita, the dead girl's younger sister, heads to the resort hotel where big sis worked, determined to discover why she jumped. All she knows is that her sister dated Rocky, lead drummer for the hotel band and the man Sunita is certain drove her to suicide. But on the train she meets Rocky, and he’s instantly smitten. Telling her his name is Anil, he hides his true identity and, despite the fact that Sunita finds him so annoying she gets her entire field hockey team to beat him up, the two eventually fall for each other.
Any camp here is 100 percent intentional. The musical numbers are New Delhi Dali, with famed item dancer, Helen, gyrating inside giant eyes and crawling over sculptures of Rocky’s name spelled out in 10-foot-tall letters, while making multiple costume changes (three in the first number alone), and hoofing it with backup dancers wearing wedding dresses while Rocky plays the water glass, the spoons, the trumpet, and the drums. Even when the music’s not playing, the film’s a delight. Asha Parekh is a spitfire as Sunita, and Shammi Kapoor plays Rocky like Jerry Lewis and Jerry Lee Lewis rolled into one, doing a sort of screwball Elvis-by-way-of-Nic-Cage performance as a man high on his own cologne.
And yet Teesri Manzil has a heart. The number “Tumne Mujhe Dekha Ho Kar” is as close to perfection as Bollywood gets. Rocky/Anil has confessed his double identity to Sunita in a letter, telling her she can reject him or, if she still loves him, she can come to his show that night and see him as Rocky for the first time. Helen, because she’s Helen, decides to be evil and intercepts the letter, making sure it’s not delivered into Sunita’s hands until she’s seated and the show is about to start. When Rocky comes onstage, he thinks Sunita’s accepted his proposal, but as she reads his words, her tears smear the ink.
Rocky sings his song full of romantic longing (“Finally your footsteps have found their way to my heart/As if all roads have at last reached their end/O my dear, O my dear/You have been kind enough to look at me/The earth has stopped moving, the sky is silent”). When it’s over, Rocky asks Sunita to marry him. Furious at his betrayal, she flips the table and accuses him of murdering her sister, both their hearts breaking while mascara runs down each of their cheeks. What adds extra poignancy is that Kapoor shot this scene immediately after his wife, beloved actress Geeta Bali, passed away from smallpox. Shooting was stopped so he could be by her side while she died; then he returned to the set and, with much coaching and support from the crew, shot “Tumne Mujhe Dekha Ho Kar” on his first day back.
It’s a motion picture moment that is gorgeous and goofy, silly and sublime, extravagant and emotional, and, if you let it, it will break your heart.
That’s the beauty of Bollywood.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
… The dancing god of Bollywood, Hrithik Roshan the Double-Thumbed Dynamo, is rumored to be starring in Step Up 6. While Hrithik would honor Hollywood if he graced it with his presence, India already has plenty of movies that serve up far more of what the Step Up series dishes out, and in tastier portions with extra cheese. If you want to see proof, it’s as simple as ABCD: Anybody Can Dance</a>.
… Speaking of Hrithik, Dhoom has turned 10! On August 27, the first in Bollywood’s very modern, very loud, very popular heist/action/musical/stunt/special-effects/comedy/thriller series hit the big screen, and since then, the three films together have grossed well over $120 million. Dhoom 3 has even become the highest-grossing Bollywood movie of all time. The Times of India gives us seven reasons to love the franchise, and if you’re looking for a frame of reference, just imagine the Fast & Furious movies with more musical numbers. You can catch all three Dhooms on Netflix streaming: Dhoom | Dhoom 2 | Dhoom: 3
… Helen, co-star of Teesri Manzil, is one of the biggest stars of classic Bollywood, famed for dancing in what were known as “item numbers,” musical show-stoppers inserted in a film that were bound to generate pop cultural frisson due to their daring, their sexiness, and their ambitious staging. Her stepson is Bollywood star Salman Khan, one of the most controversial actors in the world. Accused of stalking and perhaps even abusing his former girlfriend Aishwarya Rai, he has served prison time for poaching an endangered species (the chinkara), and in 2002 he drove over a group of homeless men sleeping outside of a bakery. He pled not guilty to killing one of them and injuring three others. A trial has been a long time coming, but it was set to begin on August 19 of this year. Then most of the documents, including witness statements and the case diary, went missing. However, a week later, they were located elsewhere in the police station. Finally, 12 years later, the trial is set to proceed.
… Actress Priyanka Chopra plays world-champion boxer “Magnificent Mary” or “Mary Kom” in the film Mary Kom premiering at the Toronto Film Festival, so the news is full of her doings. Makeup artist Uday Shirali talks about making Chopra look like Mary, Viacom has announced they’ll be distributing the movie on 250 screens outside of India on September 5, and Chopra has officially announced that she is almost definitely not taking part in the ALS ice bucket challenge.
… For decades, film was not recognized as an official industry in India, which meant that producers couldn’t get bank loans. To fund their projects they borrowed from private investors, including loan sharks and companies with ties to organized crime. The result was that many famous crime figures often used productions to launder their cash. In 2000, the government finally recognized film, and the industry began the complicated business of disentangling itself from its less savory business partners. Recently, there’ve been fears that the crime bosses are back, with Shah Rukh Khan requesting extra police protection after allegedly being threatened, and shots reportedly being fired outside the home of Karim Morani, producer of films like Chennai Express and Ra.One. This week, police are having to reassure jittery industry insiders that the bad old days are not making a comeback. Read more about organized crime in Bollywood in this interview with reporter Anupama Chopra.