As I’ve mentioned again and again, pioneering Indian action director KSR Doss had a gift for focusing on powerful women in physically demanding roles. In the 70s, these assignments typically fell to Jyothi Laxmi or Vijaya Lalitha, but, come the 80s -- and with them Toofan Rani, a Hindi dubbed version of the director’s Telegu hit Toofan Mail -- we see that he had found a worthy successor to those formidable stars in South Indian sex bomb Silk Smitha.
The tragically abbreviated life of Smitha, who died of an apparent suicide at the age of 35, was the basis for the recent Bollywood biopic The Dirty Picture. As that title suggests, she was primarily known for appearing in so-called Indian “erotic” films. That said, the actual viewing of one of those films is much less likely to provide erotic thrills than it is to underscore the deep conservatism of Indian cinema as a whole. For, while Smitha on occasion wore onscreen just about as little clothing as an Indian starlet could get away with, what remained still left a considerable amount to the imagination.
Despite such chastity, the Indian sex film’s treatment of the female form is oftentimes marked by a kind of leering, shame-based furtiveness that nonetheless renders it sleazier than outright pornography. Smitha counteracted that somewhat by exuding a powerful physical confidence and lack of self consciousness, and was rewarded for it with a fame that was apparently as constricting as it was elevating. It’s reported that, at her peak, the insertion of a dance number featuring Smitha into an otherwise unrelated, unreleased film was enough to make a difference between that film moldering on the shelf and going on to reap rich box office receipts.
As one might expect in a film directed by Doss, Smitha’s unabashed physicality is dedicated to violence as much as seduction in Toofan Rani, and the lusty abandon with which she throws herself into its many brawls and acrobatic stunts both recalls and easily matches that of Laxmi and Lalitha before her. Of course, either scenario serves as much as a means of display as it does of moving the action forward, with the result that the girl-on-guy fights veer recklessly from liberating to exploitative. An initial scrap between Smitha and a hulking goon is a demonstration of pwnage at its most comically devastating, with the star laying waste to her opponent in an unrelenting flurry of high kicks and back flipping body blows. Doss here shows that the years have done anything but teach him restraint, and brings to the scene his trademark rolling camera style, with the result that the combatants’ appear to be propelling themselves up the walls and ceilings of the room by the power of their very ferocity.
Elsewhere, fight scenes against multiple male opponents take on a somewhat more porny quality, with Smitha, in the course of her thrashings, giving her body over to the anonymous stuntmen to be bent every which way for the camera’s benefit. In one of these, she wears a sensible shorts ensemble that could easily be seen as an attempt on the part of the filmmakers to underscore her place as a heroine in the tradition of Fearless Nadia, who made such outfits a personal trademark during her heyday. And while the association is unquestionably appropriate and deserved, it’s doubtful that Nadia ever had to submit to her opponents forcefully splaying her legs open to give the viewer an eyeful.
Toofan Rani came along just in time to catch India’s ill-timed 1980s flirtation with disco fever, meaning that, if you ever wondered what Disco Dancer might have looked like if it were directed by Doss, this is probably the closest you’ll come. Smitha’s numerous dance numbers, set to the inoffensively percolating tunes of music director Satyam, are so shiny you could almost swear you see yourself in the copious tinsel adorning the dancers’ bodies. As for Smitha’s dancing skills, while it can’t be said that she’s particularly graceful, it likewise can’t be said that she doesn’t get the point across. Bringing to the task the same natural fire that renders her so credible as a vengeance-crazed heroine, she’s a truly stirring screen presence (with what exactly it is that’s being stirred dependent upon the individual viewer). This is also due in no small part to her smoldering looks, which bear a rare ethnic cast that ironically renders her something of an exotic within the relatively whitewashed world of Indian commercial cinema.
Smitha’s presence aside, Toofan Rani is otherwise a minimal update of the signature Doss style, positively stuffed to bursting with under-cranked action, monolithic pompadours, absurdly pitched melodrama and crazy comic book flourishes. My favorite example of the latter is a section in which a young police inspector tries to determine whether his wheelchair bound father, whom he suspects of being the film’s mysterious “Boss” figure, is faking his disability, doing so by way of a variety of cartoonish means -- first by setting a cobra loose in the old man’s room and later by practically setting the whole house alight. And then there is the long lost brother of Smitha’s character, played by the conspicuous Kamal Hassan ringer Naresh, a karate champion whose family home is adorned throughout with giant posters of him in various karate poses, one of which is directly over his bed.
Toofan Rani ends in a manner almost identical to Doss’ earlier classic Rani Mera Naam, with its heroine refusing to be denied vengeance against her parents’ killers despite the consequences, and then, once the deed is done, accepting those consequences with resigned stoicism. Thus we end on a shot of Silk Smitha being lead, handcuffed, into a police wagon, followed by the sad glances of both those she has liberated in the climactic melee and the law enforcement officers whose jobs she has essentially done for them. Over the preceding two hours, we’ve had a blast watching her kick ass, uninhibitedly shake her junk, and crash motorcycles through walls, but, in the end, someone clearly has to pay. And once again -- for the time being, at least -- it ain’t going to be us.