Monday, November 10, 2008

Hawa Mahal (India, 1962)

Hawa Mahal is a low budget fantasy film starring Helen that is equal parts Arabian Nights and Flash Gordon, so brimming with shoe-string visual wonders -- all struggling to reach your eyes through the film's timeworn curtain of decay like a parade of dimly perceived hallucinations -- that it becomes mesmerizing even without the aid of subtitle-enabled comprehension. In all, it's an artifact of a side of Bollywood that until only recently had been unknown to me, one in which can be seen undersea kingdoms, spectral swordsmen, flying horses, and, most impressively in this case, a giant suitmation monster that looks like it could have jumped right out of an episode of Ultraman.

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.

10 comments:

duriandave said...

Sounds fun! Too bad about the fake widescreen. I can't even begin to fathom what they were thinking when they made that "improvement".

Looking forward to future B-treasures that you happen to discover!

Rum said...

This looks fantabulous! I love the cheapo sets and the dinosuar like thing, Helen always featured in great anon movies like these,
By chance did dara pop into the set of this movie and do some wrestling with the the animal or anyone! I need a dara and helen fix!

Todd said...

I agree, Rum; In a lot of ways this one seemed like a Dara Singh movie without Dara Singh in it, and, while Ranjan was fine, Dara's presence would have made it just that much better.

I just started watching Samson, the packaging of which promises Dara wrestling some kind of dinosaur, though all I've seen of note so far is a distressingly young looking Mumtaz and a very clean-cut Feroz Khan.

By the way, "anon movies"?

Dave: Yeah, I have no idea what the intention is behind fake widescreen. In T-Series' case, it might just be a matter of the movie not looking horrible enough to meet their low standard of quality. When that happens, they have a choice of either making their logo much MUCH bigger, inserting a bunch of ads into the movie, or simply lopping off large portions of the frame.

Michael Barnum said...

A wonderful film, and it makes you wonder what other delights may someday turn up on VCD(or better yet, DVD).

Here is the plot summary from another obscure one with Helen in the lead:

MISS CHAAL BAAZ

"She was not a witty girl. In order to track down the murderer of her own father, she had to adopt several means and ways which were looked upon by the people as cunning designs. . As soon aS Roopa (Helen) retuned from England, she saw the dead body of her father who was the biggest scientist of the country. Her late father had devised a formula to reach the Mars. Due to this discovery he had to sacrifice his own life. Later, the formula came into the hands of Dr. Sinha. Dr. Sinha, with the help of the formula and by unsing all sorts of crafty means, tried to destroy the entire world. He also got the help of the scientists of Mars. In order to save the world from disaster Dr. Ghosh, Ashok, and Roopa had to face lot of troubles. How Roopa outwitted several people to attain her object, can be seen in details in the proud offering "Miss Chalbaaz"."

Direct from the film booklet. A must see, if it ever becomes available!

Todd said...

Oh. My. God. I must see that, even if I have to invent a time machine to do it. It sounds fantastic. Thanks for sharing, Michael!

memsaabstory said...

"struggling to reach your eyes through the film's timeworn curtain of decay like a parade of dimly perceived hallucinations" --- that is GENIUS :-)

No dances? That is such a waste. But it does look like lots of fun.

And Michael, my lord we must find Miss Chaalbaaz!

Todd said...

Thanks Memsaab! I think that the many hours I've spent watching severely distressed prints of old Thai movies on VCD has accustomed me to waxing poetic about damaged film stock. And, yes, I think all of us must make it our first priority to track down Miss Chaalbaaz ASAP.

Beth said...

I kept thinking "Wait, what?" as I read this and was once again reminded how wonderful it is that there seems to be an audience and blogger for every movie.

Todd said...

Ha! Which is a very nice way of saying, "I can't believe anyone actually watches this kind of crap!" ;)

Beth said...

You're not wrong about that, but the same could be said of me - and a significant portion of my near and dear ones - so I had to be kind about it, didn't I?