Sunday, November 21, 2010

Hitlar (Pakistan, 1986)


Pakistani action god Sultan Rahi would prove his invincibility in over 500 Punjabi language films over the course of his career. (Real life assassins would prove otherwise in 1996, but that's a subject for another, much sadder post.) Given that, you can't blame his producers for occasionally wanting to up the stakes a little. And what better way than to pit their star against the most hated villain of the 20th century... or, at least, his son?

Nonetheless, despite the novelty of its concept, Hitlar plays out like pretty much every other Sultan Rahi movie from its period, which means that we have Sultan and Mustafa Qureshi trying to yell each other to death for two hours before Qureshi bloodily dies in the final reel, while Anjuman shows up periodically to perform an energetic item number to a song voiced by Noor Jehan. And if you think that constitutes a spoiler, you have obviously never watched one of these movies.

For those of us who have, though, there is so much of the familiar in Hitlar that you might think it would be easy to lose sight of the unique gravity of the threat our hero faces. That is, if the film didn't see the need to constantly remind us. This it does by way of a liberally employed "Hitler" theme song, which is both thrillingly disco-fied and completely infectious (seriously, you will find yourself singing it in the streets, no doubt to appalled looks from passers by) and by having echo-laden, off-screen voices shout "HITLER!" at moments of particularly heightened drama -- which means pretty much all the time. And in case there is any doubt in your mind as to whether it is really that Hitler that's being referred to, there are the numerous, swastika-featuring portraits of the man himself that adorn our villain's lair, which essentially serve as the filmmakers' way of saying, "Yes, we totally went there".


And that villain, of course, is Hitlar, the ill-fitting Shirley-Temple-meets-Louis-XIV wig wearing son of Hitler, who, as a shouty prologue narration informs us, fled Germany following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (by Germany, apparently) and found happiness in the arms of a Pakistani woman somewhere in the Punjab. (I owe a great debt, BTW, to Omar Khan for his review of Hitlar over at The Hot Spot Online, which was indispensable as a guide to the finer details of the un-subtitled film's plot.) Old Adolph appears to have passed on sometime between then and the events of this film, but that does not prevent young Hitlar from seeking the counsel of his dad, whom he refers to as "Master", via frequent soliloquies directed toward those aforementioned portraits.

As is typical of the villains portrayed by Mustafa Qureshi in these films, there is a tragic aspect to Hitlar, and a history that frames his despicable acts as being as much the product of pain as malicious intent. Clearly Hitlar has his own scores to settle, as well as his own steely sense of honor to uphold, which means that, as it has been since the two actors first paired off against each other in the classic Maula Jatt,  Qureshi and Rahi are depicted as being, to some extent, two sides of the same coin. In flashback, we see that life in Pakistan has not always been Springtime for the Hitlers. As a child, Hitlar was forced to watch as his beloved uncle was murdered in cold blood by a fearsome local bandit, thus leading to the boy's first, embryonic attempts at the throaty bellowing of bone curdling, vengeful oaths.

In present time, this seething lust for payback has translated into Hitlar terrorizing the people of his small village by having his thugs repeatedly raze the place and assassinate its most prominent citizens. This scenario has a rural-centric aspect to it that reminds me of  the Filipino Darna films. The idea that the offspring of one of history's most coldblooded seekers of empire would be content to exercise his thirst for domination over a dusty patch of rural Pakistan seems much like those films in which invaders from another planet seem to have specifically targeted for conquest the tiny, jungle-bound village in the Philippines that  the superheroine Darna's alter ego calls home.

In any case, the first encounter between the forces of Hitlar and "Sultan" -- the virtuous, mother-loving village boy played by an anything but boyish Rahi -- occurs at the center of what appears to be a stunt racing track, where Sultan witnesses one of the gang's assassinations. This creates the opportunity for one of those fights, rich with flipping, flying kicks and exaggerated Superman leaps, that are the bread-and-butter of Hitlar, while giving us the simultaneous spectacle of a beat-up car somewhat pointlessly circling the combatants at 90 degree angles.

Once Sultan has been established as a threat to Hitlar and his gang, the son of Hitler decrees that he should be eliminated... by bears. We are thus gifted with a scene in which Sultan Rahi fights for his life against a trio of guys in shabby bear costumes, which is so awesome that I won't even attempt to describe it beyond that. Suffice it to say that the attempt is unsuccessful, thanks in part to the intervention of a notorious bandit leader by the name of Rustam Khan, who, for the benefit of those who feel that Hitlar does not have enough plot already, is later revealed to be Sultan's father.





The bear attack sets off the cycle of alternately yelling and punching-based confrontations between Hitlar and Sultan that will make up the bulk of Hitlar's running time, the most stirring of these being a fight that takes place atop a people-mover. Like many of Rahi's movies, Hitlar proceeds as if its script was just one big exclamation point, its every scene the buildup to an apocalyptic crescendo that is endlessly postponed. To the resultant furious tempo, helmer Idrees Khan's unique directorial quirks add an element of the fevered. In addition to the usual tilty-cam style of cinematography, the director has a fondness for psychedelic optical effects that ensure the viewers eyes no respite from assault. Nor will that viewer's ears be spared, thanks to the traditional employment of thunder crashes, non plot-driven sirens, and everyone's lusty shouting being made to sound like the voice of god thanks to liberal use of the echo-plex.

On the merciful side, those ears will be happy to learn that most of the songs in Hitlar are actually quite nice, and Khan's picturizations of them often quite interesting as well. This compliments the director's particular approach to visual symbolism, which seems to center around a yen for depicting large groups of any one particular item -- feathers, oranges, scarves, discs baring Hitlar's name -- floating through the air in slow motion.

Of course, all of that is just garnish, the meat of the dish being that this is a movie in which Sultan Rahi fights the son of Hitler, and that the son of Hitler is depicted therein as being a strangely effeminate, adult incarnation of Little Lord Fontleroy who is nonetheless capable of besting an opponent with a flying kung fu kick. It sounds too good to be true, I know, but the fact is that the end product is deliriously entertaining. And for those moments where you feel your brain pulling away from the proceedings, convinced that what it is perceiving cannot actually be, the film's soundtrack is always happy to offer a helpful reminder: "HITLAAAR!!"

16 comments:

prof. grewbeard said...

you made this up!

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Man! Or rather: MAN!!!

Vinayak Razdan said...

HITLAAAR!

Todd said...

Prof: Thanks! When someone accuses me of making a film up, that's when I know that I've really done my job.

House: Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.

Vinayak: I have literally been trying to restrain myself from singing the Hitlar theme all morning, and, as you can probably imagine, it's not a song that lends itself to being sung quietly.

carol said...

pugnacious guys in bear suits should be in every movie. though i'm not so sure about nicolas cage.

maybe the guys in bear suits can take revenge on nicolas cage for sullying their reputation.

Samuel Wilson said...

I demand a region 1 DVD. Schnell!

Really, thanks for calling my attention to such an obvious must-see. What a world of cinema this is.

Todd said...

Carol: Honestly, before posting that series of screen caps of the bear attack, I had to sit down and give some serious thought to the question of whether, in this post-Nicolas-Cage-remake-of-Wicker Man era, men in bear suits were still funny. The answer, of course, was, "Fuck, yes!"

Samuel: I wouldn't hold your breath for that DVD, but we sure can dream, can't we?

Anonymous said...

i am truly embarrassed for something that was made by my country's cinema even before i was born...the condition has not improved even today...nobody i know watches these movies seriously...but we do tune in sometimes to get a good laugh..and believe me hitlaar is just one of the few gems..the stories are outrageous...the songs are horrendous and the acting will even make steven seagal cringe...my only solace is the korean entertainment....

Todd said...

Thanks, Anonymous. I keep telling myself that I need to watch some of those Pakistani films that are considered more "reputable". After all, I'd hate for someone's only experience of American films to be, say, Steven Seagal movies, and I imagine that, for some, this might be comparable. The problem is that these Sultan Rahi movies are just so damn fun to watch!

Anonymous said...

its a relief that you have not discovered another facet of our "entertainment" industry...i rather not say it...but if you want to have a good laugh i can suggest you to look for some gujarati movies...i was once flipping through the channels and saw its pure awesomeness..the guy in the lead role was naresh kanodia...kinda like our sultan rahi's equivalent...enjoy :D

Todd said...

The only Gujarati movie I've seen thus far is Ver Ni Aag, and that because I learned that Aruna Irani had a mid-career renaissance as a heroine in Gujarati movies. But now you know I'm totally going to look up Naresh Kanodia.

Anonymous said...

I found this page while doing research for a reporting project on Pakistan. I found the "HITLAR!" theme song on YouTube, and now I can't stop listening to it... you have broadened by world, sir! Thanks a lot, I should be trying to get a hold of someone at the Ministry of Tourism, and instead I'm singing, "Hitlar, hitlar hitlar..."

Todd said...

Glad to be of service! When you do talk to the Ministry of Tourism, be sure to inform them of the increasing interest on the part of Westerners in coming to see the village in Pakistan where Hitler lived.

Tom Morrisey said...

I was the last anonymous poster who was reading about Hitlar while doing the research project... I am now actually IN Pakistan continuing that research. One of the souvenirs I plan to bring home is a collection of black market Punjabi movie DVDs... of course, including HITLAR! (Um, but I am going to Israel after Pakistan... could be a problem at customs?)

Todd said...

Hmm, coming into Israel from Pakistan with a passel of black market DVDs, one of which is called HITLAR? Well, I'm sure it will make for a good story... though hopefully one that doesn't involve imprisonment or cavity searches. Is shipping them home an option?

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