Not having been to a movie hall in weeks, I suddenly find that the “ensemble film” is hot property in Bollywood, with the release of Salaam-e-Ishq, Honeymoon Travels and Life in a Metro. Haven’t seen any of these yet but I did see – and write about – Naseeruddin Shah’s directorial debut Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota, which had converging narratives about a number of Indians travelling to the US for different reasons.
But this isn’t Bollywood’s first tryst with the ensemble movie. The masala Hindi film has always been episodic by its very nature, requiring pre-formatted doses of comedy, drama, romance and action, neatly measured and sprinkled together like the garnishings on a Burmese dish. So any such film with a large star-cast becomes an ensemble movie by default: if there are three heroes, you know the songs and fight sequences will be divided equally between them. When I was growing up in that magnificently kitschy decade, the 1980s, such films used to be referred to, much more naively, as multi-starrers. Quick notes on some old favourites I’ve rediscovered on TV.
Rajkumar Kohli was a master at the forgotten art of gathering a number of heavyweights/has-beens together, giving them the money that might otherwise have been wasted on a script (along with the promise of ego-massaging credits such as “Friendly Guest Appearance By Sanjay Khan”), and convincing them they were participating in something future generations would never forget. In a way, he was right; no one who sees Nagin will ever forget this classic, which begins with Jeetendra, dressed in a short skirt (he’s an ichadaari naag – a snake that turns into a man whenever it wishes to sing Laxmikant-Pyarelal songs – and that’s just how they dress). When he is cruelly shot down by a group of friends (Sunil Dutt, Feroz Khan, Kabir Bedi and other friendly guests) who figured he was just a regular snake in a mini-skirt, his bereaved spouse (Reena Roy) goes on the revenge-trail. This means finding new and innovative ways to dispose of each culprit, but the hardest task is that she occasionally has to disguise herself as her victims’ girlfriends – which means simulating the facial expressions of Rekha, Mumtaz and Yogeeta Bali. Would you wish such a fate on a girl?
Another Kohli epic, billed as India’s first big-budget horror film. A werewolf (we think; it’s hard to tell under all that makeup) goes on a killing spree each time he sees a young bride (dressed in those knee-length frocks that village belles always wore in the 1980s). Since the village people don’t have enough sense to stop holding large weddings, a series of murders occur — until Sunil Dutt, Shatrughan Sinha and others take on the beast in his own backyard, and he turns out to be Sanjeev Kumar, in another of those character roles that he played because he wanted to be “an actor, not a hero”. (Here, as in many of his other films, he’s neither.) Don’t miss the opening scene with Amrish Puri reading a book of “supernatural stories” before abruptly sprouting hair on his back, and the title card that reads “And above all, Jeetendra”.
Manoj Kumar’s florid tribute to the patriotic men and women who fought against the evil British Empire in the early 1800s (never mind that the idea of nationalism didn’t even exist back then in the way it does today; people were probably too busy killing each other over caste, state or mohalla to bother with country-love). Kumar plays the anarchist Bharat, whose eagerness to die for the country is indicated by his waggling eyebrows, twitching lower lip, and the way he keeps smearing soil all over his face. Dilip Kumar is his father, “senior Kranti”**, Hema Malini contributes her bit to the cause by writhing about the deck of a boat during a rain-storm while evil British captors, crosses dangling from their necks, leer at her, and Shashi Kapoor is a dashing prince who switches allegiance. Just when you think the British Raj couldn’t possibly deal with any more star power, in struts the ubiquitous Shatrughan Sinha as a brave Pathan who plans to sabotage the Empire’s collective stomach by selling them chana jor garam. Eventually, our stars sing patriotic songs and die heroically ever after. Jeetendra is nowhere to be seen; they couldn’t meet the requirements of his contract, which specified white shoes and/or a snake-dance.
(To be continued)
** In an earlier Manoj Kumar-as-Bharat film, Purab aur Paschim, Dilip Kumar’s real-life missus Saira Banu played a West-corrupted Indian girl who smokes and wears mini-skirts. Bharat redeems this fallen angel, restoring her to the Bharatiya ideal of the pallu-clad bahu (and in the process fulfilling the archetypal Indian male fantasy of possessing a woman by getting her to cover up rather than the other way around). Unconfirmed reports suggest that Dilip Kumar’s appearance in Kranti was a gesture of gratitude.
[Also see this post on The Burning Train]