Sunday, May 20, 2007

Ensemble classics of my boyhood

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?

Jaani Dushman

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]


  1. Enjoyable; funny.

  2. Now please write about Himmatwala & Patal Bhairavi

  3. I love the first two. I havent seen Kranti fully yet. And I watched 'Jaani Dushman' in a video coach bus, it was such a fun.

  4. Rajkumar Kohli's son Armaan later starred in a remake of Jaani Dushman, which had one of the longest star casts (all in 'friendly guest apprearances!)of Indian cinema... and all the above stars got killed by Armaan!

    I think, in the 70-80s, we missed out on several ensemble classics because the best maker of such films (Manmohan Desai) made films only with an 'one-man industry'!

  5. I know it is not relevant but i recently saw 'Nashville' the ultimate ensemble movie by the late Robert Altman.

    To make a coherent whole out of 24 characters in the context of a 5 day music festival is a master achievement of sorts and reinforces your passion for celluloid.

  6. You, sir, surprise me with your capacity for evil.

    Love it!


  7. Hilarious! Nagin, I think, was remade in all major Indian languages; every time with an impeccable ensemble cast, of course.

    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
    This is wickedly funny! (Also, the unconfirmed reports that suggest Dilip Kumar's "gesture of gratitude!")

  8. Hey Jai...

    This is evil funny!! Brilliant!! Perfect for an unnervingly chilly Monday afternoon in my Gurgaon office... Don't know if you remember me... Prachi... :)

  9. @ Dipta - This remake of Jaani Dushman starring Armaan is considered a cult classic at work. I work in this geeky IIT types office who of course love such 'offbeat' flicks. However,it came on the tele sometime back and well of course I watched it! :D

  10. Ha Ha--

    Sanjeev Kumar trying to be an Actor not a star and being neither. It is a sensitive line likely to evoke an oversensitive reaction. I agree with you that Sanjeev Kumar made a clown of himself whenever he tried to display the art of strainful , constipated and nasal acting.Ditto for some other Buffons like Rajesh Khanna and Rajendra Jubliee Kumar not to mention our great Thespian Mr. Yusuf Khan.

  11. Shwet: if you want to see some oversensitive reactions to my Sanjeev Kumar rants, check out the comments on these earlier posts: here and here. Much enjoyment will come.

    Paresh: Is Patal Bhairavi the one where Jeetendra goes to swarg in the company of asuras? Or was that Lok Parlok?

    Anurag: Lucky dog! Everyone should watch Jaani Dushman on a coach bus video at least once.

    Dipta: well yes, but Mr Desai made several non-AB films as well, including that all-time gay classic Dharam-Veer (which I blogged about here).

    Shyam: Yes, Altman was a master indeed. Short Cuts too - though I thought he messed up with Gosford Park.

    JAP: thankee!

  12. Prachi: long time! How are you? Your Gurgaon office must be situated in an ice-bubble, because it's summer here in Delhi.

    Zero: yes, it's a timeless film indeed - a new version can be made every two years and boredom would never set in.

    Kits: have heard a lot about the new version but haven't seen it. Must log on to YouTube now...

  13. nice to read, BTW guys what is the name of the jaani dushman remake :)

  14. I don't remember the story, it was costume drama with Amjad Khan in a comedy role.

  15. What a stab at Jeetendras of our times! However, I think Jaani Dushman was a multi-starer more than an ensemble piece.
    And the Swarg movie you mention was Lok Parlok (it was banned for a few years thanks to protests by Hindu chauvinists in late seventies).
    Patal Bhairvi belongs to Padmalya house, known for making fantassy flicks. Its a remake of a B&W NT Rama Rao-starrer. The movie is more known for the cameo / item song by Dimple Kapadia, trying a comeback through Sagar et al, where she tries to seduce Jeetu Badshah (imagine?). Another movie of Padmalyas was Singhasan, with a Hatim Tai theme and Mandankini doing what Dimple did in Patal Bhairvi.

  16. jaani dushman.. ek anokhi kahani.
    a must watch, if ever there was one.

  17. Sorry for the digression from the main topic of the post but having seen Sanjeev Kumar in Aandhi, Mausam and Namkeen recently, I can't help but be surprized by your reaction to his work. He may have done appalling work in some part of the 80s, but these few performances (along with Angoor and the otherwise-terrible Silsila) redeem him in my eyes.
    HOw about Amitabh, your childhood favourite? I think he's done more terrible work and arguably, over-used his angry man persona in his films? I can understand your being biased-I too am biased (against AB and very much towards the late Sanjeev Kumar)..:-)

  18. Slytherin: I've already had way too many Sanjeev Kumar-related arguments on this blog over the years to get into that territory again (especially on a six-year-old post), but just to warm the cockles of your heart somewhat, here is a link to a post about a film in which I thought he was very good (despite being saddled with a showy, author-backed role that any actor might easily have screwed up).

  19. I was seeing Anamika, and was reminded of how adorable Sanjeev and Jaya were together. They looked like they really belonged together-a sure sign of an enduringly endearing romantic performance in my eyes. Unfortunately, not many recall them together anymore. Moreover, I was also reminded of how HILARIOUS Sanjeev and Deven were in Angoor-another pair that looked like they belonged together. I agree with you-Sanjeev should have been feted more as a performer with great comic ability though he did get the dramatic roles right quite a few times, in my opinion.