Saturday, February 6, 2010

Dharmendra vs. drugs: Charas (India, 1976)

It had been a long time since I'd watched a really slam bang Indian action movie from the 70s, and Charas offered up pretty much everything I could ask for in that department. It's the kind of Bollywood movie where everyone has a brightly colored communications console with all kinds of superfluous flashing lights on it it in their office.

See? Even Tom Alter has one. Awesome!

And communicating with them through those consoles are folks who are using pretty much every type of object known to man as something to conceal a communication device within -- shoes, ektaras, even a delicious looking watermelon (I kid you not). On top of that we have Action Dharmendra, conspicuous lair escalation, and enough big name villainry on hand for two masalas. It's an embarrassment of riches, really. Read on!

Dharmendra and Aruna Irani play Suraj and Munni, the son and daughter of wealthy businessman Brindaban, whose work has, for reasons unexplained, necessitated that the family relocate to Uganda. When we first meet them, they are frantically preparing to flee that country and return to India due to the unrest and violence that has erupted. What they don't know is that the man Brindaban has put in charge of his affairs back in India, Kalicharan (Ajit), has sold all of his boss's legitimate business assets for the purpose of investing in his own opium smuggling operation.

Because Kalicharan is played by Ajit, we already know that he is evil. But do we know exactly how evil he is? Well, let me give you some idea. He's so evil that Amjad Khan is his second in command. That's like having The Joker for a valet! And I must say that Amjad is rocking some pretty distinctive looks here -- mostly achieved by the generous application of pomade and face oatmeal, combined with the sartorial sense of an MC for a lower tier regional beauty pageant.

I also must point out that Amjad's character Robert gets the absolute best line in the movie, when, in response to one of Dharmendra's angry proclamations about the karmic retribution that awaits him, he say, "I have never seen a man die because he committed crime!" And then, pointing his rifle at Dharmendra, "I have seen him die after being shot!"

Anyway, after learning of his boss's planned return, Kalicharan dispatches Robert to Africa with orders to kill Brindaban and his entire family. Robert acts upon this directive in record time, making the trip from Bombay to Uganda in what seems like minutes, whereupon he fatally shoots Brindaban before setting fire to the family mansion with Suraj and Munni inside. Suraj manages to escape but is unable to rescue Munni, and so assumes that she has perished. Little does he know that Munni has also escaped, only to be captured by Robert, who takes her back to his psychedelic, undersea-themed nightclub in Malta, where he keeps her strung out on drugs and forces her to do drunken item numbers for the club's white hippie patrons.

Meanwhile, Suraj returns to India, only to learn of Kalicharan's betrayal. Much righteous pointing and hurling of bellowed oaths on Dharmendra's part follows -- the kind of thing that I would once have referred to as "The Full Dharmendra" but I am now forced to merely call "Sultan Rahi Lite", though it is no less awesome for it. Soon afterward, Suraj is contacted by Interpol, who want him to come on board as an agent in their efforts to smash, not just Kalicharan, but all of the scumsucking drug runners who are tarnishing Mother India's good name. Because, as we've seen in other Bollywood movies, the police love to recruit angry, grief-stricken people for delicate undercover operations.

Alongside all of this, we are introduced to "famous actress" Sudha, played by Hema Malini, who we first see performing in an Egyptian-themed production number that is confusingly set to a song about a ballerina. Kalicharan is using a combination of bogus incriminating photographs and threats against Sudha's family to blackmail her into helping him smuggle opium into Europe by concealing packets of the stuff within her dance troupe's traveling sets. Needless to say, it is not long before the paths of Suraj and Sudha meet, with both of them falling for one another while each remaining ignorant of the other's connection to Kalicharan.

What films like Eyes Wide Shut, Gigli and Shanghai Surprise have taught us is that we can't expect an on-screen couple to have sexual chemistry just because they are a couple in real life (especially if one part of that couple is Tom Cruise, Ben Affleck, or Madonna, all of whom its hard to imagine having sexual chemistry with anyone, even if they physically tried to mix their pheromones together in a test tube and held them over a bunsen burner until they created some kind of noxious sex gas). That said, the recently wed Dharmendra and Hema Malini really bring the heat to their scenes together here. In fact, for an Indian film, Charas gets downright racy in the extent to which it goes to show us just how much these two want to jump each others' bones. Of course, Hema is determined to behave like a proper Indian woman, but she's not above letting us now just how difficult that is under the circumstances. When Dharmendra asks if she is avoiding being alone with him because she is afraid of him, she replies, "I am afraid of myself." Given this obvious attraction, when the two finally do get to have their first sort-of-but-not-really-a-kiss at the film's conclusion, it feels especially gratifying and well earned.

In addition to some appealing performances, Charas boasts some pretty impressive production values for a film of its type -- especially if you compare it to some of Dharmendra's earlier action joints from the 70s like Saazish and International Crook, which were both about as chintzy as a movie could be while still being considered a movie at all. (Could this have been the result of a post-Sholay boost in Dharam's popularity?) There are multiple vehicular chases, shot on location in both India and Malta, and rather than simply stealing the footage of the car-being-airlifted-by-a-helicopter sequence from You Only Live Twice -- like cheap old Jugnu did -- Charas actually recreates it, using both a real helicopter and what looks like a real car. And for those moments of spectacle that can't be created in full scale, we have on hand our old friend, Indian FX wiz Babhubai Mistry, to contribute some fun and fairly intricate model work. Also worth mentioning are the sets, such as the Maltese hotel that allows us to see all of both Hema and Dharmendra's rooms via views through adjoining windows, while looking out upon a detailed miniature skyline and canal.

Finally, of course, there are the lairs. And, yes, I'm talking plural, because life for the Indian opium smuggler she is quite obviously very good indeed. Once Kalicharan is forced to flee from his hideout beneath the aforementioned undersea-themed nightclub, he simply switches refuge to a super-lair that's housed beneath a castle on a private island off the coast of Malta. This is mainly represented by a pretty cavernous looking indoor set of a subterranean dock with room for a number of launches and speedboats, overlooked by a catwalk and a system of balconies from which Kalicharan's uniformed minions can fire upon the invading forces of the law lead by Interpol's man in Malta, Tom Alter. In summation, I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that this set blows up real good.

Some masala fans may find Charas to be a bit lacking in heart, but those seeking old fashioned thrills will, I think, find that its heart is in exactly the right place. Sure, Munni and Suraj's eventual reunion is nowhere near as moving as those seen in other lost and found dramas, but once you're treated to the scene in which the two of them desperately flee from Amjad Khan and his goons, and then turn to fight them, all while handcuffed together at the wrist, I don't think you'll care -- as that is simply one of the most gripping action scenes that I've seen in an Indian film of its era.

And that's all that I'm going to tell you about Charas for now, because this is one of those happy occasions on which I can give a film my full recommendation. Not that it's a movie for everyone, mind you. But if it's for you, I'm pretty sure you know who you are.


Beth Loves Bollywood said...

I KNOW WHO I AM! I am a person chortling to herself as she reads this review, both for your fine, fine writing AND for the film itself.

Please to not be creating said noxious sex gas. Ew. I would also like a demo of The Full Dharmendra sometime soon.

memsaab said...

I love this movie too...although (not to be nit-picky) Dharam and Hema didn't get married until 1980. They were a solid couple by this time though ;) AND SO CUTE together. I love the song "Kal Ki Haseen Mulaqat Ke Liye" that they sing, with all the gori extra "hotel guests" as peeping Toms. FAB. And of course anything called "Mera Naam Ballerina" cannot be anything but awesome.

Todd said...

Beth: I realized, as soon as I wrote "The Full Dharmendra", that that could be open to multiple interpretations. Glad you enjoyed the review!

Memsaab: I stand corrected! I figured you had to have seen this one, because it's so your cup of tea.

sunil said...

Lol @ Rahi Lite and so evil that he has Amjad Khan as a sidekick - though it is possible Amjad signed the movie before Sholay. The way Ajit pronounced Raabert here is nearly as legendary as the "The whole world knows me as Loin!!" line from Kallicharan. And if you wanted to be shocked - SHOCKED by rising sexual tension in a Hindi film check out the early parts of "Tum Haseen Main Jawaan". - another fun suave Dharmendra-Hema thriller-caper.

Beth Loves Bollywood said...

I think Keith has sufficiently covered that sort of "Full Dharmendra." It's a very useful and complex term, indeed.

memsaab said...

For me the best example of at least one type of "Full Dharmendra" is Yaadon Ki Baraat. I was really scared at times that he might burst a vein in that one.

Another stellar example of a different "Full Dharmendra" is, of course, Saazish :D

Todd said...

Memsaab, Beth: And we came very close to getting a glimpse of the Full Dharmendra in Dharam-Veer, thanks to his leather mini.

Sunil: I ALWAYS want to be shocked. Though it's funny how much it depends on context, isn't it? I can watch a Norifumi Suzuki Pinky Violence film, see all kinds of depravity played out, and not bat an eye, because that's exactly what I expect his to throw out at me. But if an Indian movie even gives the vaguest acknowledgement of the possibility that two unmarried adults might share a bed together: SHOCKED! Seriously, if I had some pearls I'd be clutching them right now.

Keith said...

Antoehr movie for my production company that doesn't exist: Charas Dharmendra meets Apradh Ferox Khan. "They took on each other, now they're teaming up to shoot up drug dealers! Also starring Bob Christo as White Powder Willie."

Todd said...

He'll, yes. And you should have Bruce Li do a cameo so you can call it Bruce Lee vs. White Powder. Cuz who wouldn't want to see a movie called that?

JOE PHILIP said...
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mahesh said...

Dear todd, your interest in indian movies is awesome, i.e. As good as memsab's. I grew up in western india with 70s movies as a staple diet. Hence so much interest. However there is lot more to india besides gorgeous movies. Spiritualism