The use of special effects in Indian films was one of the many things pioneered by producer/director D.G. Pahlke, who employed primitive optical effects to depict fantastical scenes from the Hindu religious epics during the early silent era. These techniques were further explored in the coming years by adventurous technicians like Babubhai Mistry, who used them not only in the production of mythologicals, but also in “Arabian Nights” style fantasy films and Italian Peplum inspired stunt films like Dara Singh’s King Kong.
Still, despite all of this practice, one could be forgiven for observing that these effects didn’t appear to grow all that much more sophisticated come the 1960s, or even the 1970s. This is in part due to the fact that, in India as in America, fantasy films were usually confined to the realm of B cinema, where budgets and schedules were tight and –- perhaps more importantly -- audience expectations were correspondingly low. As evidence of the latter, take for example 1964’s Khufia Mahal, whose opening credits boast a cavalcade of “Wonders” that include a “Flying Horse”, an “Apeman”, and a “Gorilla”.
Mind you, the credentials of Khufia Mahal director Aakkoo are not to be questioned where primates are concerned, as he was also the director of the sole starring vehicle for 4DK’s primary totem animal, Pedro, as well as a film simply titled Gorilla. But beyond the trotting out of various members of the animal kingdom, most of the movie magic in Khufia Mahal -- whose “Trick Photography” is credited to R.R. Ramarao -- involves crude double exposures that combine actors, boats, carpets, men in genie costumes and model palaces with aerial or undersea backdrops to make them appear, to those most charitable in their willingness to suspend disbelief, as if they are either flying or sinking. There is also an appearance by an awesome killer fish that, as its victim fights for his life, appears to be swinging from the soundstage rafters like a piñata.
Viewed alongside similar low budget Indian fantasies of its day like Hawa Mahal or Magic Carpet, Khufia Mahal appears to tick off a list of what were essentially generic plot elements. There is a wicked, all-powerful sorcerer (Sheikh) who, smitten with a beautiful princess (Zimbo’s Chitra), abducts her in his flying palace, much to the displeasure of her manly suitor (P. Jairaj), who, along with his comic sidekick (?), endeavors to defeat the sorcerer’s powerful magic with muscle alone. Along the way we have the aforementioned genie, who gets shrunken by the sorcerer and imprisoned in a bird cage, the aforementioned flying horse, and lots of magic auras projecting from people’s hands by way of someone drawing them directly onto the film.
Among Khufia Mahal’s more or less natural wonders is Hungarian wrestler and regular Dara Singh nemesis King Kong, who shows up during the final act to throw down against the advertised Apeman and Gorilla. The former is a fellow in an ape mask and a shiny black bodysuit, while the latter is a guy with no ape mask but a full-on gorilla suit. Way to maximize on that costume rental, people.
The fact that I have very little to say about Khufia Mahal itself shouldn’t reflect poorly upon it. It has all the naïve charms of most of the other crudely-realized old Indian B movie fantasies I’ve seen -- which comprise quite a lot by now -- those charms being considerable, provided one has a high tolerance for flying everything realized via dodgy process shots (which I do). Sure, there’s little that distinguishes it, and all of that flying about begins to blur together after a while. But, as with all of these films, there’s the added benefit that, if you nod out and wake up during it, you might actually think that you’re having some kind of monochrome, print-damaged hallucination. Then again, if you don’t buy my usual “Indian stunt films as cheap high” argument, I’m afraid I’ve got nothing for you.