Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Awara Abdulla (India, 1963)

Over his long and prolific career as a star of Indian stunt films, it seems like Dara Singh at one time or another embodied every type of iconic movie adventure hero. It's almost as if he was some kind of human paper doll whose all-purpose heroic proportions allowed him to be dressed as Tarzan, Prince Valiant, Flash Gordon, Hercules, James Bond, or a swashbuckling pirate as suited the occasion. In the case of 1963's Awara Abdulla, that range of guises was expanded to include Zorro, with Dara playing a black clad, masked rider fighting for the rights of the poor and oppressed. It's a pretty obvious transition for Dara, and one that only Dara's horse, buckling under the wrestling star's famous bulk, might have seen as inappropriate.

Awara Abdulla was written by K.P. Pathak, who would later contribute to the screenplay for Manmohan Desai's delirious masala masterpiece Dharam Veer. This also makes a lot of sense, as, like Dharam Veer, Awara Abdulla involves babies switched at birth and families torn apart and then reunited by fate, as well as a fast and loose approach to period detail. Elements of Arabian Nights tales and Westerns recklessly carom off one another, with scheming princes in ornate towers, captured princesses and Parvin Chaudhary as a gunslinging cowgirl all maintaining an uneasy coexistence. Awara Abdulla even ups the ante on Dharam Veer about half hour in, when a couple of characters are seen speeding off in an automobile. For all its generosity, I have to admit that this is something that Dharam Veer is lacking -- something, in fact, that would make it even more perfect than it already is: a scene in which we see Dharmendra and Jeetendra tearing around in stock cars, or perhaps a motorcycle chase involving Zeenat Aman and Neetu Singh. Damn you, Bollywood; just when it seems like you've given us too much, you prove once again that it is in fact not enough.

Beyond the above details, Awara Abdulla sticks pretty close to the template set by Dara's debut vehicle King Kong, which had been released just a year previous. This was the early phase of Dara's stardom, after all, and, given that, I doubt that the filmmakers were eager to mess with the formula -- or to put too many demands on their hero's still budding skills as a thespian. Once again, we have Dara as a hero whose humble circumstances belie the fact of his noble birth, Master Bhagwan as the comic sidekick, and Chandrashekhar reprising his role from King Kong as the adversary who ultimately proves to be a sibling whom Dara had not previously known existed. Helen is also on hand in a substantial supporting role as the bad girl gone good, and, of course, the cast is also augmented by a coterie of "world renowned wrestlers" -- including Dara's brother Randhawa -- for our star to engage in some extremely drawn out fight sequences with.

Of course, the difference here is that Dara's fugitive status eventually requires that he don the aforementioned black mask and go about his heroic business incognito. How effective this might be as a means of disguise seems dubious, though, not only due to the star's distinctively imposing silhouette, but also to the fact that, once bemasked, he continues to go around spinning his opponents over his head and tossing them in the same signature manner that he did before. I also have to draw special attention to a later scene in which Dara engages in a wrestling match while wearing a head covering, Santo-style mask. I've crowed on insufferably about the parallels between Dara and Santo in the past, and I think that here is the closest thing we're going to see to Dara bringing it full circle.

The version of Awara Abdulla that I watched had been pretty savagely cut, with not only a number of transitional scenes missing, but also quite a few noticeable chunks missing from those scenes that remained. In this case I think we can place the blame more on those projectionists back in the day who were too eager to take home a souvenir than on the folks at Bombino or Moser Baer, but the result either way is that this version of Awara Abdulla barely clocks in at 90 minutes, which indicates substantial amounts of missing footage. This, combined with the VCD's lack of subtitles, means that any attempt on my part to describe the finer details of the film's plot would require an act of clairvoyance -- which is fine, really, because I suspect, from what I did see, that those details are pretty incidental. If you choose to watch this VCD, you will see plenty of Dara Singh hurling people over his head and flexing his pecs while being chained between two pillars, which are exactly the type of visual thrills that Awara Abdulla, and other films like it, were designed as a delivery device for.

Despite the considerable number of Dara Singh's films that I've already reviewed, I still have a pretty formidable stack of unwatched ones ahead of me. Of course, it's possible that I may throw my hands up and eventually abandon the project of watching and reviewing all of them -- but, even though what's behind me has revealed a whole lot of sameness, there have also been enough singular moments to make me wonder what I might be missing if I did choose to do so. "My God, man," a little voice in my ear might say. "Think of the dinosaurs!" And so, for the moment, I forge on. The only question will be which Dara I will find in the next entry I choose. Will he be wearing pants?

Okay, admittedly, that's what it all boils down to: Dara Singh movies can be roughly divided into those in which he wears pants and those in which he doesn't. In Awara Abdulla he does both, so it's something of a tour de force really.


memsaab said...

"Damn you, Bollywood; just when it seems like you've given us too much, you prove once again that it is in fact not enough."

That's exactly why I can't stop watching :)

I have this, have not watched it yet...and now thanks to you I can put it off a little longer in favor of something else---but what?!

Anirban said...

Where, oh where, do you find these gems? Dara Singh behind the mask of Zorro seems like something that should not be missed.

Todd said...

Memsaab: Glad to be of service. I think the condition of this film would drive you absolutely bonkers, to be honest. I don't want to read about you being in jail for punching the CEO of Bombino in the face.

Anirban, I've got one word for you: Induna

Michael Barnum said...

I live for the fact that there are still so many Dara Singh movies yet to see, and knowing that dinosaurs, giant apes, and other suitmation creations inhabit many of these yet unseen classics is what makes life worth living!

And Todd, I could never forgive if you were to stop reviewing his films! Same with you Memsaab! You don't know the joy I get from both of you when reading your thoughts on these iconic films!

Jai Dara Singh!!!!

Todd said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Michael. I'll continue writing reviews of Dara Singh's movies as long as there are people out there like you who enjoy them. After all, I watched all of those Sompote Sands movies, so I should at least be able to muster the spleen to watch something as comparably benign as Dara's body of work.