Interestingly, just as in America during those decades previous to the advent of the big budget special effects extravaganza, it was India's B movie industry that took up the challenge of visualizing the fantastic, even though they were the most ill-equipped to do so. Indeed, many of Hawa Mahal's effects are so technically crude that I felt like I could have been watching one of Georges Melies' efforts from the turn of the century. This, of course, only adds to the movie's charm, and doesn't detract in the least from my delight in finding that there was, despite its near invisibility in the mainstream, a home for monsters, magic and feats of scientific wonder in Indian cinema during this period.
Due to the lack of subtitles, I can only be very general in terms of synopsis, but suffice it to say that Helen plays Champakali, some type of sea-dwelling enchantress -- a siren? a water sprite? -- charged with the task of luring seamen to their watery doom. When she ends up sparing Kumar (Ranjan), a sailor whom she has taken a particular shine to, her sister, Neelampari (Bela Bose), is outraged, and banishes her to the surface world. No sooner has Champakali seen land, however, than the evil Jadugar Vaital comes soaring by in his flying palace with his evil wizard sidekick in tow and, catching sight of her, decides to steal her for his own. This leaves the brave Kumar, who has taken an equal shine to Champakali, with the task of rescuing her -- a treacherous one, considering that he is a mere mortal and Jadugar Vaital has all kinds of powerful black magic at his disposal. To this end, he enlists the aid of a shaman's two bumbling disciples, who provide him with an assortment of magical objects, including a magic flower that shoots squiggly cartoon rays and enables teleportation and a small statue that enables the person holding it to fly and can also cause massive amounts of hair clippings to fall from the sky. (Believe me, you just have to see it.)
Much like Kumar in his quest to rescue Champakali, the viewer of Hawa Mahal must overcome an array of seemingly insurmountable obstacles in his or her quest to enjoy those treasures that it holds, not the least of which is the fact that the evil wizards at T-Series have decided to render the VCD of it in fake wide-screen, effectively saying "off with their heads" with regards to most of the cast for much of the movie's running time. Aside from that, irksome is the amount of screen time dedicated to the two comic relief holy men, and disappointing -- given the presence of two such stellar item girls as Helen and Bela Bose -- is the fact that the film features essentially no musical numbers (though two songs composed by Avinash Vyas can be heard at its beginning and end).
Despite these shortcomings, however, Hawa Mahal, in its modest way, managed to cast a kind of low-key, non-binding spell upon me, resulting in a contented, if not ecstatic, smile remaining on my face throughout its minus-two-hour stay in my DVD player. On the other hand, my warm feelings might have been as much the result of what Hawa Mahal promised as of what it actually delivered, because, thanks to the many strange wonders it showed me, I am now anticipating those further wonders that the world of Indian poverty row cinema has in store.