I just learned this past week that Joginder Shelly, the man responsible for bringing us Pyasa Shaitan (perhaps, if reports are to be believed, by re-editing an already existing Kamal Hassan film and inserting himself into it), died back in June at the age of 65. Joginder, aside from being a prolific actor, was just one of many of India's independent B movie producers who, back in the days before more modern distribution methods were widely adopted, made their living by supplying product to regional and smaller urban theaters that had a hard time getting their hands on the current top tier Bollywood films. He set himself apart from the pack, however, not only through his renaissance-man-like tendency to occasionally also direct, write, and star in those films he produced and distributed, but also by way of his rather, um, unique screen presence.
Ranga Khush, one of many dacoit films that Joginder starred in during the 70s, actually draws its title from his earlier film Bindiya Aur Bandook. Like Ranga Khush, that 1972 film was a low budget independent production - in this case produced by Joginder, but directed by Shibu Mitra. However, Bindiya Aur Bandook was also a film that surpassed all expectations by becoming a surprise mainstream hit, having such an impact that the catchphrase uttered by Joginder's character, "Ranga Khush" (which basically translates as -- in anticipation of Amrish Puri's famous line from Mr. India -- "Ranga is happy"*), went on to become part of the popular lexicon. (As an aside, Bindiya Aur Bandook also boasted a plot that was similar enough to the later Sholay that Joginder was moved to sue G.P. Sippy for plagiarism.)
Having a good exploitation movie head on his shoulders, Joginder knew enough to milk the Bindiya Aur Bandook association for all it was worth, and so crafted -- as writer, director, producer and star -- the follow-up Ranga Khush in 1975. This film also went on to be a big hit, cementing Joginder's reputation to the point where, even today, the man himself is often referred to, with varying levels of sarcasm or affection, as "Ranga Khush".
In the film, Joginder portrays -- who else? -- Ranga, a bestial bandit chief with a wild, yeti-like appearance. To be honest, I bought the VCD of Ranga Khush because the pictures on its sleeve lead me to believe that it was a monster film. And, indeed, Joginder's character does appear to be as much a supernatural being as he is a man, for, in the end, much as in Pyasa Shaitan, it takes the combination of a laser-firing Krishna, Jesus Christ, and Mohammed -- not to mention a physical beat down from Hanuman himself -- to slow him down.
In grand low budget movie tradition, Ranga Khush depends more upon talk than action to advance its story. As such, without subtitles, it provides little to sustain interest among non-Hindi speakers, save, perhaps, for the sheer hypnotic force of Joginder's bizarre performance. In his role as Ranga, the actor punctuates his dialog with an assortment of shrill chirping sounds and gibbering, high-pitched shrieks, coming across like some kind of helium-gorged Tourettes sufferer, while serving up the visual aspect of his portrayal in the form of near-constant eye rolling and gnashing of teeth.
Despite these tics, the Ranga that we see terrorizing the countryside is indeed fearsome. But when he returns to the supposed sanctuary of his cave hideout, it's a different story. Here it becomes clear that he is under the sway of Ginnibai (Chandrima Bhaduri), a black robed sorceress who may in fact be the wife of the original Ranga, who in turn sustains his presence by way of a snarling statue given a place of honor in one of the cave's more well-lit corners. It seems that Joginder's Ranga was kidnapped as a child by Ranga Sr. and raised as the bandit's own, with the intention of him assuming the Ranga mantle once the elder passed on. Now that this has come the pass, the younger Ranga, as far as I could surmise, is under the hypnotic power of Ginnibai, whom he obviously lives in mortal terror of. This arrangement has left Ranga a total wreck, prone to fits of unhinged chattering and self-pitying crying jags -- in other words, less of an evil madman than a pitiable loony, and perhaps even a bit on the challenged side.
What is also clear from our view of the cave is that, in his time in charge, Ranga has turned it into something of a baby farm. This is thanks not only to the presence of a retinue of toddlers captured from the neighboring villages, but also to a new addition bore him by Devi (Nazima), a young village girl who has become the bandit's unwilling bride. Devi's situation has left her brother Karma (Vikram) determined to free her from her imprisonment, a circumstance that, in a normal Bollywood film, would make Karma the hero of our story, if not for the fact that Joginder, despite his relatively low billing, was hogging so much of the screen time. Thankfully for us, Ranga's stable of captive females also includes Aruna Irani in the role of Kasturi, which provides for a fair share of diverting item numbers to take our minds off Joginder's weird ululations.
By the time Ranga has had his soul awakening smackdown with the combined deities of world religion and set out to make things right -- only to find himself hunted like an animal by the forces of the law -- it has become painfully clear that he is meant to be seen by us as a tragic figure. Of course, long before that point, Joginder has made sure to play him as such a freakish caricature that it is completely impossible for us to do so, much less take him -- or Ranga Khush as a whole -- seriously on any level. Still, there is something so hysterical about that portrayal and the film that contains it that it is easy to see why Ranga Khush became such a cult item in its day. I'm confident that proper subtitling would reveal a whole treasure trove of quotable lines to us ferangi. Until then, the only way I can pay tribute to its late, great star is by gibbering incoherently like a rabid spider monkey with half of its head caved in.
Here's to you, Joginder: Ranga-a-a-a-a-a!!
*Big thanks to Beth for her help with the translation.