Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Fraud (United States, 2016)


The most interesting thing about Fraud is the number of perspectives you can bring to it. In one sense, it is a movie about editing. During the screening at Fantastic Fest, my wife, overcome by all the jittery first-person camera work, left the theater, and I wondered what I would say if, when she returned, she asked what had happened. Most likely I would have said something like "well, there was some footage of the woman doing something that wasn't quite clear, and then a shot of a computer keyboard burning, and then we were in a car driving down a rainy country road."

You see, while editor-turned-director Dean Fleischer-Camp's intent was to make a narrative feature, it’s difficult, knowing the manner in which he did so, to watch it without seeing it as a collection of unmoored scenes with individual meanings independent of their function within the story. In this way, Fraud itself is a kind of fraud, albeit an ingenious and informative one.

Fraud could also be considered a commentary on the narcissistic, obsessively self-documenting character of our current age, which it is. Its stars are a superficially average--and real--Pennsylvania family whose iPhone movies of their every road trip, day out, play date, restaurant meal, shopping excursion, and family occasion have come to occupy a large chunk of space on YouTube. Fleischer-Camp discovered the family after falling into one of those internet k-holes we're all so familiar with and hit upon the idea of assembling bits of their footage into a fictional narrative. Two years later--and after a lot of meticulous work by a team of editors--Fraud saw completion.

During a post-screening interview, Fleischer-Camp described his nervousness when presenting the finished film to “Gary”, the subject family’s paterfamilias and primary documentarian. The director and his crew had taken a “make it up as we go” approach to the film’s story, and the story that eventually emerged was one of a family who, after an orgy of impulse buying, falls upon financial hard times and, to recoup their losses, commits insurance fraud by burning their house down. The rest of the film chronicles their flight from justice—with rest stops at various chain restaurants and malls, one of which is hosting a grandiose launch event for the iPhone 5.

It would be natural to worry that a family like Gary’s might find such treatment invasive, especially given they had never asked for it. But, according to Fleischer-Camp, Gary loved the completed film. “Well,” observed the interviewer. “He does seem like someone who likes to look at himself.” Fleischer-Camp agreed.

In another sense, Fraud is an examination of the filmmaking process as trickery. There are a number of points at which it’s difficult to tell whether what we are looking at is “real.” For instance, was this family really in trouble financially? In the film, this is communicated with shots of a default notice on a computer screen, accompanied by off-screen voices saying things like “wow” and “oh no.” It’s worthwhile to consider just how easy it would be to manufacture these shots and insert them into the narrative—a practice that would be innocuous with regards to source footage of paid actors, but something else altogether when that footage captures people’s actual lives.

This is important, because, at one point in Fraud, I found myself really not liking this family. That was partly because, within the film, they were being contextualized as symbols of things that I don’t like—mindless consumerism, vapid self-regard, gross eating habits, etc. I also became increasingly annoyed by the father’s need to film—and moreover narrate—absolutely every goddamn thing that his brood either did or spectated. I was particularly bothered by his fixation upon filming his wife’s ass, which, when accompanied by all the product worship on display, just came across as another instance of him showing off one of his attractive possessions. However, looking back on it, there was no clear indication that it was he who was filming these shots, or, for that matter, whether the ass featured in them was his wife’s at all. A later beach scene, in which we see successive butt shots of different women, is of even more dubious provenance.

Suffice it to say that Fraud provides for uneasy viewing. I think it will be hard for anyone with more than a shred of decency to watch it without having the nagging feeling that they shouldn’t be seeing it. Still, it’s my opinion that it is also worthwhile viewing. I know it’s a cliché to say that a film will “make you think about the way you watch movies”, but Fraud not only does that, but also takes a novel and interesting approach to doing it. I also think that it will make you think about the nature of privacy, and how easy it is becoming to surrender it in exchange for the promise of notoriety and an illusory sense of special-ness.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Dwarves Must Be Crazy, aka Krasue Kreung Khon (Thailand, 2016)


I watched The Dwarves Must Be Crazy not so much because I wanted to, but because I thought I should—in that, of all the films at Fantastic Fest, it was, to my mind, exactly the type my readers would expect me to review. Did I mention that it is a Thai supernatural comedy about a village of dwarfs at war with a gang of krasue? Given that, you might ask whether I now question some of the life choices that lead me to that decision. And, yeah, maybe I do a little.

The humor in Dwarves is of the slapstick variety, largely deriving from the innate hilarity of little people and the myriad ways in which they can be projected, catapulted and hurled through space—all to the accompaniment of Scooby Doo style sound effects. I have a friend who, during America’s cultural obsession with William Hung, posited that Hung’s popularity was due to him providing people with an opportunity to laugh at someone who acted like a retarded person without them actually laughing at a retarded person. Could a similar kind of sublimation be at work behind someone's desire to see little people gone airborne? Could it be that little people provide a somewhat less morally repugnant substitute (unless you’re a little person, that is) for some less socially acceptable target we would like to see chucked into the atmosphere… like, perhaps, babies? Hey, I’m just putting it out there.


The rest of The Dwarves Must Be Crazy’s humor centers around butts and the many things that can come out of, and be put into, them and their adjacent orifices: farts, sharts, shits, shit eating, piss, piss drinking, bumming, and implied krasue-on-dwarf analingus. Yes, I just wrote “krasue-on-dwarf analingus.” Strap in, people.

For those of you who have thus far been spared knowledge of what a krasue is, a bit of a recap from my review of Ghost of Guts Eater:

“The Krasue, as it's called in Thailand, is a horror found throughout the folklore of Southeast Asia. In Indonesia it's known as the Leak, in Cambodia as the Ap, and, in the Philippines, as Manananggal… For those unfamiliar, it is an airborne head with its complete digestive tract, intestines included, dangling freely beneath it as it sails menacingly through the night sky.”

I’ll add here that my favorite things about the krasue are (1) that it is so different from any creature in the Western horror canon (save for, perhaps, this one) and (2) that it manages to be at once terrifying and absurd.

Everything I know about krasue I learned from movies, and none of them seem to agree on just how a krasue is created. In many films, like Mystics in Bali and Witch With Flying Head, they are the product of a curse, but in Dwarves they are the result of little people eating weird glowing bugs that they find in the jungle.

Before that can happen, however, we have a wistful prologue in which the bucolic daily rhythms of the little people’s floating village are established. These, of course, involve a lot of the aforementioned farting, sharting, shitting, and pissing. I would say that the arrival of the krasue disturb these peaceful rhythms, except it turns out that they also fart a lot (albeit more strategically than the dwarfs do, as when one of the beasts forces a dwarf who is hiding underwater to reveal himself by farting into his snorkel.)

By the way, I think that adding flatulence to the krasue’s defining characteristics is at least medically sound, given they possess all of the equipment to produce gas without any of the musculature to suppress it. Keep this in mind the next time you share an elevator with one.


The fateful bug-eating occurs when a group of bumbling hunters from the village venture into the neighboring jungle in search of food. Because I did not take notes during the screening, I can only tell you that these hunters all have names like Hi Ho, Mi Mi, and Ho Ho. I know that sounds dismissive, but it’s true. Anyway, once several of them eat the bugs and subsequently lose their heads, the hunters flee back to the village with the Krasue literally nipping at their taut little hineys. Now where the Krasues’ predilection for ass play comes from, I don’t know; in most krasue movies, the monsters are presented as being exclusively female, and nourish themselves by sucking fetuses straight from the wombs of expectant mothers. Here, as most of the Krasue are male, I suppose that butt munching may have been deemed more appropriate, which I resent. I mean, I suppose it’s true that some men would rather dine on shit than eat pussy, but it’s far from a universal.

The terrified hunters arrive home to find their tale dismissed by their fellow villagers. Until, of course, the krasues arrive and start chowing down on them. This is followed by a flock of gryphon-like creatures that prey on both the krasue and the villagers. When the flying men fly off with one of the hunter’s girlfriends, the little guys resolve to head back into the jungle to settle matters once and for all. Along the way they enlist the aid of an old hermit who looks like a compacted version of a grey bearded sifu from a Shaw Brothers movie.


Ironically, The Dwarves Must Be Crazy, despite its trashiness, is a very nice looking film. It appears to have been shot entirely on location in the lush jungles and archipelagos of Thailand, which director Bin Banloerit films to stunning advantage. I mean, I don’t know how much it costs to take a bunch of little people, dress them in loincloths and set them loose in the jungle, but I can truly say that that money—save the laundry budget for all those soiled loincloths--is clearly all on the screen. The krasue effects, which combine CG and practical elements, are also quite good, although it has to be said that bad krasue effects are the best.

Another post-production aspect of Dwarves that deserves mention, although not for any positive reason, is its music, which consist of two alternating cues that wear out their welcome in the time it takes for a dwarf to fall off a log. One is a plucky, Loony Tunes style, “mischief is afoot” theme that plays whenever a gag is being set up. The other is a jaunty reggae theme that plays once the gag has putatively paid off. Neither of these cues proved of much use to the audience at the Drafthouse, who greeted most of the film with stony silence.

Ironically, the scene that drew the biggest laughs was a corny musical montage featuring the film’s two little lovers frolicking amongst the flora. Ironic, because, to me, that scene was The Dwarves Must Be Crazy’s most politically correct moment. To me it said that little people, being equal to anyone else, are as deserving as any non-little person of being the subjects of an embarrassingly saccharine rom-com montage accompanied by a cloying pop song. That’s what freedom is all about, baby.

In the restroom after the movie, I overheard some audience members expressing utter bafflement at what they had just seen. This caused me to ponder just how vast the distance between myself and the rest of humanity has become. You see, you’re going to hear a lot of people talk about how “weird” and “WTF” this film is. But to me, it’s just another movie with a bunch of dwarfs farting and peeing on one another. Next!

Monday, September 26, 2016

I fested. I feasted. I fled.



So let me tell you about last week, when I made my first ever trip to Fantastic Fest in Austin. Though first I want to thank Kristen, Meredith and Evrim of the FF for making me feel so welcome, because I truly had an awesome time.

Now, I would be remiss in recounting my adventures without mentioning that it was as hot as flaming balls in Austin. It was the kind of heat that hits you like a wall as soon as you step outside, and I have to wonder if it was detrimental to my system to be constantly moving from meat freezer-like interiors to the sweltering outdoors as I was. Anyway, it was all the more incentive to take shelter within the Alamo Drafthouse’s air conditioned theaters.

Our visit started with us being driven into town by the angriest cab driver in Austin, if not the entire world. This was a man who was clearly suffering an existential crisis that could only be relieved by punching someone in the face with one of his gigantic fists—and it took a great deal of verbal ducking and weaving on my part to avoid being that someone. Finally we arrived at our hotel, The Driskill, and things started to improve. Friend of 4DK Carol Borden, upon seeing the accompanying picture, helpfully described our temporary digs as “Not just fancy, but schmancy.” After a shower and a quick dive into the mini-bar we were off to the Drafthouse.

The festival runners spared no expense in decking out the venue for the event, especially with regards to this year’s Bollywood theme. One side of the corridor leading to the theaters was completely plastered with an incredible collection of vintage Bollywood posters. My hands down favorite was this one:


Happily, the Fest was wise enough to use this happy, turban-wearing monkey riding a dog as one of their avatars, and so I was able to acquire it on both a poster and this bitchin’ tee shirt, which I’m wearing as I write this:


The Fest also set up a few elaborate tableaus in honor of certain of the featured films, including this one for The Autopsy of Jane Doe. For some reason, as I looked at it, I couldn’t help being reminded that the hedges back home needed a trim.
 

As Fantastic Fest novices, my wife and I faced a steep learning curve. On that first day, we learned that the festival’s ticketing practices are not entirely couples-friendly. Because of this, the missus and I ended up watching Park Chan Wook’s The Handmaiden simultaneously in separate theaters. As the festival went on, though, we figured out how to work the system and were able to see all our other selected films together, thus saving our marriage.

Of course, my primary reason for being at Fantastic Fest was to flak my book, Funky Bollywood: The Wild World of 1970s Bollywood Action Cinema (now available from all the best online book retailers), and thanks to the above-thanked festival directors, I was able to do a signing event for those people who won the book in the Funky Bollywood Twitter contest sponsored by the festival. That said, I was a little disappointed to see that the festival was not showing any 1970s Indian movies (not surprising, given the scarcity of watchable prints of such films), but I can’t fault their spotlighting the seriously bughouse Telugu actioner Magadheera, from which Die Hard 4 stole one of its most notorious set pieces.


I also managed to catch the live taping of Doug Benson’s Doug Loves Movies podcast, which was brilliant. Benson wisely chose an all-female panel for the show (Bree Essrig, Lisa Delario, and You’re the Worst’s Aya Cash), which provided a welcome respite from all the neck-bearded, board shorts wearing male energy that otherwise permeated the event. Benson is at this best when he belies his stoned demeanor with his wicked quick-wittedness, and this night he was at his best. I’ve often listened to Doug Loves Movies and always find it amusing, but I have never laughed so hard and as continuously as I did during this iteration of it.

And then, of course, I saw some movies, although not as many as I had initially planned to (fortunately, I was able to see The Zodiac Killer, which screened after we left, on YouTube). Of these, I saw three great films: The Handmaiden, Tobias Nölle’s Aloys, and Dean Fleischer-Camp’s Fraud. I also saw The Dwarves Must be Crazy, a recent Thai film in which a village of dwarves fights a gang of Krasue who like to eat ass. Expect a review in the coming days.

Happily, our failure to secure seats for some of the films we wanted us to see allowed us time to explore Austin a little. I was disheartened to learn from one of our cab drivers that the city was going through some of the same hipsters v. techies v. natives drama that we are here in San Francisco. Still, despite the preponderance of topknots, tech start-ups, and douchey bro bars, you could still find evidence that Austin is indeed part of Texas:




I also have to say that I ate quite well during my stay, despite my finicky dietary restrictions and the fact that every restaurant we dined in was called The Something Grill. Austin is truly a land of beer and meat, but if you, like me, refrain from consuming the hooved animals, you need not fear that they will start stuffing pork sausage down your throat the minute you off board the plane. There are hippies here, after all; even the Alamo Drafthouse had better non-beef option than its San Francisco offspring.

And on that topic, I couldn’t resist making some notes of comparison between our local Drafthouse and its granddaddy in Austin, with the caveat that the SF branch, being younger, has had the benefit of learning from its elder’s experience. Here are my rankings.

Location: SF (The New Mission Theater, where the SF Drafthouse resides, was formerly an honest-to-goodness grind house, located in the gritty Mission district. Austin’s Drafthouse is basically in a mall.)

Food: Austin (very tasty, with far more chicken options than the SF Drafthouse, as well as the best chicken burger I’ve ever had – San Francisco take note.)

Service: Tie (both are excellent)

Seating: San Francisco

Audience: Tie (both cater to the most well behaved movie patrons their respective cities have to offer. Congratulations to Tim League and company for achieving the seemingly impossible.)

Random notes:

1. I saw Elijah Wood, who was my lone star-sighting at the festival (unless you count Harry Knowles). I was alerted to his presence by someone (who will remain nameless) tweeting that “Frodo just spilled beer on my wife.”

2. To whoever’s idea it was to screen clips from Magic Lizard before The Dwarves Must Be Crazy: I will have my revenge.

Revenge!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

See you in Austin?


First thing Thursday morning, Mrs. 4Dk and I will be jetting off to Austin for this year's Fantastic Fest, where I will be spreading the gospel of Funky Bollywood and mingling with other world genre cinema obsessives. Of course, we'll also be catching some films. Those we most hotly anticipate are Park Chan-Wook's latest, The Handmaiden, the Thai Krasue comedy The Dwarves Must be Crazy, 1971 exploitation oddity The Zodiac Killer, Korean spy thriller Age of Shadows, and Fraud, a meta-mystery cobbled together from random YouTube clips. Oh, and I am just dying to catch the blisteringly insane Telugu action film Magadheera on the big screen.

Between screenings I will probably be wandering the Alamo Drafthouse complex in a dazed stupor. If you see me, please grab me and point me in the direction of the bathroom, the snack bar, or the nurse's station as circumstances dictate. Oh, and also say "howdy". I look like one of these three people:





POP OFFENSIVE returns TONIGHT!

Awaken from your slumbers, pop fans, for Jeff Heyman and I are returning to the airwaves with another episode of Pop Offensive this very evening starting at 7 pm Pacific time. If you live within spitting distance of Oakland's Lake Merritt, you can tune us in on KGPC, 96.9 FM. The rest of you can stream us live from kgpc.org. It's going to be a real smack-a-roonie!

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Quick and the read


Of all the obscure music acts I've written about in my time, The Quick are probably the most undeservedly so. Existing at the historical crossroads of glam and punk, the Los Angeles quintet had a unique sound, great songs, undeniable star quality, and an unforgettable live show. As you may have guessed, I am a fan; it took everything I had to keep my profile of the band--which was just published over at Teleport City--from lapsing into hagiography.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Fantastic Fest goes Funky Bollywood!


As you may know, Fantastic Fest, which is just about a week away, is adopting a Bollywood theme this year. I am thrilled to announce that, in keeping with that theme, they will be holding a contest to give away five copies of my book Funky Bollywood. The lucky winners who are at the festival will also get to have their books signed, most likely by me. Yes, I'll be there, so come and say hi! I look like this:




See the contest details here.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Women of Whirlpool Island, aka Jotai Uzumaki-to (Japan, 1960)


After cutting his teeth on the Super Giant movies (that’s Starman to you, yankee), Teruo Ishii went on to direct a wide variety of genre pictures for Shintoho, including a series of film noirs. All of them, to some extent, bare traces of the perversity that Ishii would later give free reign in his euro guro films of the 70s, 1960’s Women of Whirlpool Island included.

Women begins with Okami (Yoshido Teruo)--a classic hoodlum with a conscience, laconic and steadfast--returning to the island hideout of his gang, a shady nightspot called Club Seaside. Here he attempts to reconnect with his former lover Yuri, who is played by Mihara Yoko, a later Pinky Violence mainstay. Yuri, sadly, has been reduced to a heroin dependent slave of the gang, and is being forced by them to help recruit the young women of the island to act as drug mules, sex slaves, or both.


One of these young women is a fiery dock worker named Shima, who is played by Masayo Banri (Tane in the Zatoichi movies). Through Shima, we see the cruel process by which these girls are inducted—lured with promises of travel and adventure, and then, for those destined for the sex trade, raped by one of the gang higher ups before being forcibly hooked on drugs and shipped out to wealthy clients overseas. Yuri, for her part, is sick over her complicity in this racket, and begs Okami to end her life upon their first meeting. Instead Okami helps her to get clean and, then, after befriending Shima, partners with Yuri in bringing the gang down through a series of violent escapades.

In Ishii’s hands, Women of Whirpool Island is a film noir swathed in a fog of melancholy. The island setting seems primarily intended to represent a place isolated from law, where evil enjoys free reign. There is no literal whirlpool here, only a metaphorical whirlpool of vice and degradation that is impossible to escape once one dives in. The righteous have little hope in a place like this and, for them, the island’s sheer cliffs, towering over a roiling sea, represent an ever-present invitation to suicide.


At the same time, Ishii’s approach to this material explodes with visual invention. Much of the film’s first half involves scenes of two or more characters talking, and the director enlivens these potential longueurs with dramatic, deep focus compositions and inventive lighting schemes involving the use of colored gels (in one shot, Yuri is illuminated by a single, pure white spotlight, while the rest of the gang is bathed in a deep red.) He also employs so many low angle shots of his actors that he at times appears to be paying homage to Ozu.

As for the director who would later make Horrors of Malformed Men, he is evident in a druggy dance sequence reminiscent of the alien dance troupe (or, as I like to call them, the Alvin Aliens) in Invaders From Space and the wave of sadism that sweeps through the film’s final act. The latter occurs after the gang’s uber boss arrives on the island in the wake of repeated failed attempts by his underlings to keep Okami in check. The boss has a glowering teddy-boy enforcer who is quick to dole out consequences. First, he viciously whips the lieutenant in charge and then literally grinds his face into the dirt with his shiny Cuban heel. Then Yuro is hung from a chain and whipped. This being a Japanese film, the preceding is all aestheticized to some extent, but, as it’s also a gritty film noir, it is not aestheticized to the point that it doesn’t provoke a few grimaces.


Unless you are someone completely devoid of imagination—or who has never seen a movie --I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Women of Whirlpool Island ends in a hail of bullets. All I’ll say beyond that is that it is a satisfying conclusion to the competent genre exercise that has preceded it. The film’s main attraction may be its controversial director, but it is nonetheless strong enough to stand on its own—itself an island, distinct from Ishii’s larger body of work. In that metaphor, I guess that body of work would be some kind of larger land mass. A continent, I guess. Anyway, good movie.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Nagina (India, 1986)


It's a sad fact that Western horror cinema has produced no female creature as enduring as India's Nagin. The closest it has come are Jacques Fournier’s The Cat People, which only merited one sequel, and Hammer's The Reptile, which was one of the studio’s rare “one and done” monster films. The Bride of Frankenstein’s debut was also her swan song, although she did get an Aurora model kit out of the deal. By contrast, the Nagin, a poisonous snake given the form of a beautiful human woman, has been a part of Hindi cinema almost since its inception.

As with most iconic beasties, the fixity of the Nagin’s image in the minds of her audience has allowed filmmakers to be fluid with both her meanings and representation. Take for example two of the most well-known versions of the Nagin’s tale in modern Hindi film, Rajkumar Kohli’s star-studded Nagin from 1976 and Harmesh Malhotra’s 1986 Nagina.


Kohli’s Nagin, following the trends of the time, is one part “body count” horror film and one part funky action thriller. His Nagin, played by the bodacious Reena Roy, is an unstoppable killer, driven by vengeance to mow down everyone in her path, be they man, woman or child (Kohli would take this concept several steps further in his blighted 2002 remake of the film, Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani, by giving his Nagin unexplained Robocop powers.) Malhotra’s Nagina, on the other hand, makes of the tale a gothic romance, complete with haunted atmosphere worthy of comparison to Hammer’s classic horrors of the 60s. In this context, the Nagin becomes a sympathetic and ultimately heroic figure.

The story begins with young Rajiv (Rishi Kapoor) returning, after a long absence, to the palatial estate of his birth, where he is enthusiastically welcomed by his mother (Shushma Seth.) There is some talk of Rajiv having been sent to Europe as a child due to some kind of vague mental issue (chances are he was put under the charge of one of those wacky German psychoanalysts). Now he has returned to take control of the sugar plantation to which he is heir.


On a tour of the grounds, Rajiv is shown the ruins of a mansion that was once the family home. There he hears a ghostly female voice singing a haunting melody. He returns later and meets Rajni (Sridevi), a beautiful woman of mysterious origins who claims to have known Rajiv since they were both children. Rajiv is entranced by her and, because this is a Bollywood movie, falls in love with her before the day is through. He later announces to his mother his intention to marry Rajni, which scuttles her plan to marry him off to Vijaya (Roobini), who, if I followed this movie correctly, is Rajiv’s cousin.

You see, Rajiv has an uncle named Ajay Singh, who has acted as overseer of the plantation in his absence. Ajay Singh is also father to the now-heartbroken Vijaya. Unfortunately for Rajiv, Ajay Singh is played by Prem Chopra, which means that, in the unforgiving calculus of Hindi cinema casting, he is a rat bastard. Enraged at Rajiv for rejecting his daughter, Ajay Singh vows to obstruct Rajiv’s happiness in any way he can. When it comes time for him to sign control of the plantation over to Rajiv, he refuses to do so and rips up the agreement.(Ajay Singh’s plan was to swindle the family anyway, so this is really just a case of one plan dovetailing nicely into another.) Later, he learns that Rajiv has a file containing all the documentation he needs to prove his title. He sends wave after wave of grubby henchmen to steal the file, only to have each thwarted by the mysterious intervention of a cobra.


Around this time, an imposing shaman called Bhairon Nath (Amrish Puri) shows up at the family mansion with a retinue of orange-clad disciples. Bhairon Nath and Rajiv’s mother are apparently acquainted, and soon reveal themselves to have some kind of secret history together. Bhairon senses the presence of the Nagin and, upon seeing Rajni, demands that Rajiv and his mom banish her from the house. Rajiv responds by instead showing Bhairon and his entourage the door. Later when Rajiv is shot by Ajay Singh and hospitalized, Bhairon seeks revenge by dispatching a cobra to his bedside.

You have to feel sorry for Rajiv, seeing as he is on the receiving end of both Amrish Puri’s and Prem Chopra’s bad tidings. It is hard to imagine any filmi hero surviving such a villainous one-two punch. Sadly, I am unable to judge Rishi Kapoor’s performance as Rajiv due to my almost pathological inability to be moved by anything he does. All that I can say for him is that he serves as a good model for a number of cozy looking sweaters. I think this is partly due to Kapoor’s misfortune of having his career coincide with those of such exponentially more exciting actors as Amitabh Bachchan, Feroz Khan, and Vinod Khanna. In fact, my saying that makes me ponder just how great Nagina¸ an already good film, would be if Vinod Khanna were its male lead.


It also has to be said that an actor like Rishi Kapoor stands little chance of standing out when cast alongside a formidable pair of scene stealers like Amrish Puri and Sridevi. Puri is at the top of his game here, bringing all of his natural authority and presence to a portrayal as iconic as the one he would give as Mr. India’s Mogambo a couple of years later (and speaking of authority and presence, it only just occurred to me that Amrish Puri is India’s answer to Christopher Lee, and vice versa.) Sridevi, for her part, was a newly minted superstar at the time and earns the title, delivering a performance of fierce intensity. Her Nagin has both a soul and a conscience and, despite whatever plans she might have started out with, comes to dedicate herself to being the loyal protector of Rajiv and his family. It’s something of a reversal of the Kipling story “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” with the cobra acting as the protector of the family rather than the threat against it.

In Puri and Sridevi’s hands, one gets the sense that the rivalry between Rajni and Bhairon goes back several lifetimes, with all of the accumulated enmity that would entail. As such, every meeting between them sees them matching each other blazing eye for blazing eye, flaring nostril for flaring nostril, and curled lip for curled lip. Bone shuddering oaths are exchanged while thunder roars and lighting flashes, eventually leading us to “Main Teri Dushman” (“I am Your Enemy”) a song and dance number that is, to me, the film’s inarguable highlight.


“Main Teri Dushman” provides a direct counterpoint to an earlier musical number in the film, “Balma Tum Balma Ho Mere Kali”, in which Rajni tries to woo Rajiv away from a dangerous engagement by distracting him with an erotic dance. But where “Balma Tum Balma Ho Mere Kali” is a song of seduction, “Main Teri Dushman” is a song of defiance. In it, Rajni delivers a fiery-eyed challenge to Bhairon’s attempts to control her with every thrust of her hip and insolent jut of her chin. Bhairon, meanwhile, circles her like a beast of prey, trilling away on his flute in a vain attempt to rein her in. Between them, they generate more of an air of combined sex and menace than in all of the love scenes between Sridevi and Rishi Kapoor combined.

I’m not going to spoil any more of the plot developments in Nagina, because I am going to enthusiastically recommend it to you. It has a couple of unforgettable performances, I story that is rewardingly complex without being convoluted, a tight script that is light on trivial digressions (well, there is a bit where Jagdeep tells some sub-Borscht Belt fat jokes about his wife, but we can’t ask for miracles), an appropriately hip-swiveling score by Laxmikant-Pyarelal in full tribal mode, and a lot of moody atmosphere. Bollywood rarely delivers genre cinema as pure as this. Watch it and be enchanted.