Monday, April 13, 2015

The invisibility and nudity ring: vanishing Vinod in a 1971 film called Elaan

[Did a version of this for the Daily O]

With India’s newest Invisible Man film – the Emraan Hashmi-starrer Mr X – about to release, there has been much talk about computer-generated effects, and even more talk about the fondly remembered Mr India. But forget all that. It is time to rescue from film vaults another, older movie that features an invisibility device.

Historically, the 1971 Elaan has minor importance for being the first ever pairing of Rekha and Vinod Mehra, who were an under-appreciated screen couple. Be warned though: the Rekha and Vinod Mehra in this film are a species or two removed from the same actors in, say, Ghar, which was made years later.

I’ll skip the preliminaries, such as the grisly courtship scenes between their characters Naresh and Mala (which include him being molested by a tribe of her sahelis at a picnic), and get to the main plot. Naresh – an upwardly mobile journalist
runs afoul of one of those “international” crime syndicates that use high-tech gadgets (blue rotary phones! walkie-talkies! flower pots that can be twisted about to make a door open!) and do unspeakably evil things such as printing literally dozens of fake one-rupee notes and hanging them on a clothes-line to dry. (“Ek din India ki currency fail ho jaayegi aur hum log maalamaal ho jaayenge! Ha. Ha. Ha.”)

"Well, Mrs Gandhi is saying Garibi Hatao."

This shot of white-skinned masseuses in floral bikinis, a VAT 69 bottle and a topless Madan Puri, all in the same frame, will reveal their satanic depths.

When you learn that the villains’ main den (“Phase 1”) is on a distant island, that one of the head villains (the ever-reliable Shetty) is bald and that the other head villain is played by Amrish Puri’s brother, dots will start to connect in your head. There is already a pre-echo here of Mr India. Then the invisibility theme makes its appearance. Pay attention now.

Naresh finds himself locked in a cellar with a seemingly crazy old man who claims to have invented an “atomic ring” that can make you disappear. Where is this ring, you ask. It turns out
he has kept it safely buried in his thigh for years, waiting for a goodhearted person he can bequeath it to. When Naresh respectfully addresses him as “Baba”, the old savant realises his Bilbo Baggins is here at last; so he tears open his own leg, extricates the ring from its gory hiding place, and tells Naresh:

“Put this in your mouth, then take off all your clothes, and see what happens.”

(Or words to that effect.) I should mention that there is no disinfectant in this cellar.

Remember this excellent Christopher Walken monologue from Pulp Fiction?
This watch. This watch was on your daddy’s wrist when he was shot down over Hanoi. He was captured, put in a Vietnamese prison camp. The way your dad looked at it, that watch was your birthright. So he hid it in the one place he knew he could hide something. His ass. Five long years, he wore this watch up his ass. Then he died of dysentery, he gave me the watch. I hid this uncomfortable hunk of metal up my ass two years. Then, after seven years, I was sent home to my family. And now, little man, I give the watch to you.
At least the Walken character didn’t ask little Butch to put the watch in his mouth. No such luck for Naresh.

In most invisibility stories, either the device-user disappears fully, along with the clothes he is wearing (Mr India, The Lord of the Rings), or the body disappears but the clothes can still be seen (the 1933 Invisible Man with Claude Rains, the Kevin Bacon-starrer Hollow Man). The science of Elaan is a little more complicated: you have to take off all your clothes if you want to turn invisible – otherwise it won’t work at all.

And it must be done in a pre-specified order.

1) First remove your shirt.

2) Carefully place the atomic ring in your mouth – not like you’re Rajinikanth flicking a cigarette, but like you’re Vinod Mehra ingesting a Hajmola for a TV ad. 

3) After this, remove your trousers. (No one ever needs underwear.)

It is only the magical combination of ring-in-mouth PLUS trousers-off that leads to invisibility. Omit one of these important steps and you’re either standing there half-dressed and visible with a ring in your mouth, or naked and visible with a ring in your hand.

Also, the moment your body comes in contact with any sort of cloth – if someone throws a towel over you, for example – all of you becomes visible again.

This is where I present my carefully worked out thesis that Elaan isn’t so much a film about invisibility as a film about the liberating joys of nudity.

No one is too impressed with the invisibility idea to begin with. It is treated as a plot detail, easily jettisoned when other details – such as sleek orange cars – come along. Unlike Mr India and (presumably) Mr X, where so much hinges on this marvelous superpower – and the writers know they can build an adventure around it – Elaan looks at its own script and goes: “Invisibility? Uh-huh. What else you got?”

Consider a scene where Naresh meets Mala, who has joined the CBI after her father is murdered. (It’s that easy. You just join, and get a special number and your own wristwatch-like gizmo, on which CBI boss Iftekhar can call you anytime – and he does, usually at the precise moment when you’re undercover in the villains’ den with bad guys all around you.) She yearns to avenge her daddy; we know this because she is throwing darts at a board with an expression of annoyance, like a picnic has just been cancelled due to rain.

So Naresh gives her the good news straight.

“Mere paas atomic ring hai!”

“Atomic ring? Woh kis kaam ka hai?”

“Usse mooh mein rakhne se aadmi gaayab ho jaata hai. Iss se hamara mission aur bhi aasaan ho jaayega.”
(Mala titters, like she has heard that the weather will improve in the evening. The background music is soft and romantic and not at all conducive to conversations about atoms and protons. So they talk about things more exciting than invisibility, such as where to go for dinner.)

The nakedness, on the other hand, is what really drives this film. Often, when Naresh is being pursued by the bad guys (say, during a breakneck car chase), he has to dump his clothes and vanish. Which means that whenever he wishes to become visible again, he must:

1) find a clothes store, 
2) find a shoe store, 
3) sneak into each of them by turn, 
4) pilfer things in his invisible state without the salesmen noticing anything amiss, 
5) wait for a changing room to be unoccupied, 
6) enter the changing room,
7) check for CCTV cameras...

See how this sort of thing might slow down the pace of what was intended to be an action movie?

By the film's climax, the dominant mode is low comedy, and people are falling over themselves to get hold of the ring mainly because it gives them an excuse to take off their clothes. After all, what is the point of having both Rajendranath (as Naresh’s buffoonish friend Shyam) and an invisibility-nudity ring in the same film if you can’t use lines like these?

Naresh (having been cornered by the bad guys): “Shyam, apne mooh se ring nikaalo.”

Invisible Shyam: “Par main toh nangaa hoon!”

So Naresh takes off his own coat and puts it around Shyam’s lower half (wisely), and voila, the buffoon reappears.


Elaan’s casting was prescient, I feel. After early stints as a hero in B-movies, Vinod Mehra would go on to become one of the invisible men of mainstream Hindi cinema – not so much a second or third lead as a noble foil who always had a brave, rueful smile on his face as if mindful of his place in the pecking order; making up the numbers in multi-hero films like The Burning Train and Jaani Dushman; or appearing as a martyred policeman in the “Pre-Credits Backstory Compression” (to use Rajorshi Chakraborti’s delightful phrase in the piece he wrote for The Popcorn Essayists) segments of 1980s movies; or stumbling about in a shawl while a bizarre series of opening titles played out.

In Elaan, having got a chance to play hero, he shows terrific screen absence in scenes like these:

Vinod Mehra in an intense romantic moment with Rekha:

Vinod Mehra looking heroic as he rides a motorbike, with Shyam sitting behind him and holding on for dear life. 

(Please remember, while looking at the above image, that Naresh is nude. Thank you.)

And here is the closest thing this film has to a special effect:

Twinkle twinkle, fading star

No wonder Elaan has remained largely unseen for decades. But you could say that's a pretty good achievement for an invisibility film.

P.S. Among the high points of Elaan is one of those actors who would overshadow Vinod Mehra in the decade to come – the dashing young Vinod Khanna, still in his villain phase. 

Managing somehow to look cool even when sitting at a contraption with blinking neon lights and speaking long-distance with his island bosses, Khanna seems to have sky-dropped in from another, classier film. And he gets to be sutradhaar at one point too, with a dialogue that sums up the film’s generally disdainful attitude to invisibility. “Chaalis saal se atomic research ki hai. Ek angoothi banaayi hai jiss se aadmi gaayab ho jaata hai. Wah re, Aladdin ki aulad!” Then he chuckles for a bit and goes back to sleep. As you should too.


  1. Brilliantly written Jai. Was laughing all through. - Gopi Puthran

  2. Don't be mean. I LOVED the film. It has the hot 'Ang se ang laga le'.

    1. I agree that Shetty and Vinod Khanna were hot. Most of the rest of the film was lukewarm (which is still pretty darn good).

  3. Hahaha! :D This was hilarious and such an enjoyable read!

  4. Truly funny! My favourite lines - No wonder Elaan has remained largely unseen for decades. But you could say that's a pretty good achievement for an invisibility film.

  5. Ha ha...Will surely watch this gem !

  6. Absolutely hilarious! Sharing on FB.

  7. Brilliant. Just one question — do you know of any other movie where the protagonist and the antagonist share the same first name in real life?

    1. Interesting question. One might have to work backwards by looking at Hindi-film villains who had relatively conventional real-life names (as opposed to "Shetty"!). Unless you're including non-Indian films, in which case there might be more possibilities.

  8. OMG, it's on YouTube, all 138 minutes of it! Internet ki jai! (see what I did there?) I have a stitch in my side from laughing so hard. :D Thank you.

  9. Oh I remember this one... At one point, the henchmen take Vinod to a jungle to gun him down in the privacy of bushes. Noble henchmen that they are, they allow him one last wish, which is.... To take off his clothes! Nice of them to agree to look a man they're about to kill in all his hairy natural glory before shooting him, no?

  10. This is priceless, thank you so very much!!!

    What a wonderful start to the day :)
    I can't stop laughing