If I have not until now mentioned that my good friend Beth over at Beth Loves Bollywood writes a weekly column for the Wall Street Journal's RealTime India blog, it should not necessarily be assumed that that is because I have not until now been personally featured in that column. That said, check me out! The topic, an old favorite of Beth's and mine, is Bollywood's plethora of furry, four-legged and flying animal heroes.
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.
Despite the contributions of Indian special effects wizard Babubhai Mistry, Baghdad Ka Jadoo's title is something of a misnomer. For the most part, the only magic that the film alludes to is that of star Fearless Nadia's 1930s heyday, the recapturing of which seems to have been at least a tertiary goal. And, in that, Baghdad Ka Jadoo appears to have been largely successful. For present here are all those fabled elements that second hand knowledge has taught us were the hallmarks of Nadia's -- sadly, now largely unseen and unseeable -- classic stunt films: our heroine's lusty laughter in the face of danger, the wall-to-wall acts of daredevilry punctuated by the frequent trademark "HEEYY!"; the men hoisted up on shoulders and gleefully tossed, etc. We even see that Nadia can still do the splits!
Of course, alongside this are telltale concessions to Nadia's age, among them the cutaways to stunt doubles that were a rare occurrence in her salad days, as well as a scene where a dance started by Nadia is quickly taken up by another, younger female star. But the tone of Baghdad Ka Jadoo is so jaunty and good natured that it's hard to see much pathos in any of that, as, overall, one gets a sense of a past that is being celebrated every bit as much as it is being relived.
At the time of making Baghdad Ka Jadoo, Nadia had been with longtime lover Homi Wadia's Basant Pictures for fourteen years. Though it was under the Wadia Brothers/Movietone banner that she had first achieved fame, her career continued at full steam following the split that lead to Basant's formation. Still, by 1956, public enthusiasm for the stunt film formula was on the wain, and the regular release of Nadia's trademark actioners would trickle to a stop within just a couple of years. Given that, it's hard not to see something elegiac in a later film like Baghdad Ka Jadoo, whether it was intentional or not. For instance, along with the aforementioned return of many narrative elements warmly familiar to Nadia's fans, we also have a return by Nadia's frequent costar, John Cavas, here not only taking his customary place at her side, but also directing.
Given its stunt film framework, the plot of Baghdad Ka Jadoo is impressively convoluted (the original program booklet's synopsis, reprinted over at Indian Film Trade, manages to go on at dizzying length without even touching upon the whole "lost and found" aspect of the story). Suffice it to say that Nadia and Cavas play a pair of merrily thieving gypsies who fall on the wrong side of a corrupt sultan, thus necessitating their repeated breach of the castle walls in order to free members of their band who have been wrongly imprisoned, not to mention cause other varying forms of righteous trouble. This scenario provides the opportunity for all manner of showy leaping up and down parapets and onto the backs of charging horses, much of which is thrillingly impressive regardless of who was actually doing it.
One such episode involves Nadia entering the palace in the guise of a visiting prince -- such gender bending masquerades being another signature aspect of her classic screen adventures -- and meeting with the unintended consequence that the young princess' heart is set aflutter by her dashingly bearded visage. Nadia then goes so far as to woo the young girl, even performing a romantic duet with her in which a concealed Cavas, in the tradition of Cyrano, acts as her personal on-site playback singer. And while these scenes are played for laughs, they nonetheless can't help but carry a racy, transgressive charge; all told a pointed demonstration of how, when it came to Fearless Nadia, Bollywood's normally rigid gender boundaries somehow found themselves helplessly crashing in on themselves.
Baghdad Ka Jadoo ultimately fulfills its titular promise during its final minutes, folding in elements of the Arabian Nights style fantasies that were, at the time, Basant's bread and butter. This episode sees Nadia sidetracked on an abbreviated magical quest that ends with her riding to the rescue on a flying chariot as, meanwhile, Cavas leads a rousing peasant revolt against the palace. In the spirit of Baghdad Ka Jadoo overall, it's gloriously, triumphantly silly. And if throughout Nadia and Cavas aren't having the absolute time of their lives, they're certainly doing an uncannily good job of acting it.
This month, the hairless apes over at M.O.S.S. -- of which I am a proud member -- are paying tribute to hairy beasts in the world of cinema. My first modest contribution, just posted over at Teleport City, is a newly revised version of my 4DK review of Da Khwar Lasme Spogmay, aka Cat Beast, that incontestably classy treasure of Pakistani cinema starring Shehnaz Begum as a ferocious feline avenger who uses rapists for a scratching post. Check it out, won't you?
In this latest episode of the Infernal Brains, Tars Tarkas and myself discuss the perhaps rightfully obscure Toho giant monster picture Daigoro vs. Goliath. If watching it below with a painstakingly assembled slideshow simply isn't good enough for you, you can download it here.
Though Decapitation Island would make a fantastic title for a reality TV series (while obviously not as fantastic as Celebrity Decapitation Island), it is instead an example of that surprisingly near-inexhaustible 1970s sub-genre, the women in prison film. And being that it is a Japanese example of the form -- in this case from Gamera’s zookeepers over at Daiei -- you can rest assured that it includes a fair share of picturesque bondage and torture.
The film follows the classic WIP template by introducing its oppressive milieu through the eyes of a pair of new arrivals, the mouthy card cheat Okiyo (Genshu Hanayagi) and her opium addicted pal Osen (Reiko Kasahara). Together these women are ferried to a small prison colony on the remote and barren island of Nenbutsu, off the coast of Nagasaki, where they and their fellow inmates are forced to perform perilous slave labor along the island’s treacherous cliffs, overseen by both an unforgiving sun and a crew of abusive male wardens. Meanwhile, the arrival of a newcomer among the island’s administrators, a disgraced policeman who is also the son of Nagasaki’s governor, creates dissention between the officials that, along with an untimely outbreak of bubonic plague on the island, ultimately sets the stage for a daring escape attempt on the part of the prisoners.
Despite its Edo period setting, Decapitation Island bears some surface similarities to Roger Corman’s jungle set “women in cages” films from roughly the same time, though without those pictures’ gleeful debauchery. The mood is instead relentlessly grim and pessimistic -- in a manner that will likely be familiar to anyone who’s seen enough of these 70s era Japanese exploitation films. As often as not, these female centered entries come across as howls against society’s thorough and irredeemable rottenness, with society’s most manifest crime being, apparently, it’s turning of the woman characters away from the feminine ideal and instead toward a violent life as cold eyed and masculinized she-thugs. Not that these hardened dudettes exist alongside men equally, mind you; as in Shunya Ito’s Female Prisoner Scorpion films, Decapitation Island presents its society of women, while fractious, as being forbiddingly insular and coven-like, with its members, even in slavery, still able on occasion to exert an unearthly power over their male captors via their lady parts.
Given this vantage point, it should come as no surprise that the female prisoners in the film suffer as much at the hands of their own as they do at the hands of their male jailers. Each is constantly and ruthlessly gaming for their own advantage, with the only example of any kind of nurturing behavior being that shown between Okiyo and the doomed Osen. Omasa The Ripper -- the self-appointed leader of the group, who is every bit as delicate as that name suggests -- maintains discipline through a program of ritualized beatings, while at the same time secretly colluding with the island’s officials in hopes of gaining release. Meanwhile, Segoshi, the disgraced policeman, is positioned as something of a protagonist due only to the threat he poses to his scheming colleagues, yet is nearly as enthusiastic a participant in the sadistic goings on as the rest.
Decapitation Island came along during what was something of a golden age for torture in Japanese popular cinema, what with the success of Teruo Ishii’s long running Joy of Torture series over at Toei and its spiritual brethren. Still, the film is comparatively retrained, with little nudity and a general avoidance of being too graphic in its presentation of violence. It also helps that the tortures presented are at times baroque to the point of being surreal. One major set piece involves a naked Okiyo being poked with swords as a flaming pot of oil, attached by a chain to a bit in her mouth, teeters precariously over her head. Of course, all of this is lensed by director Toshiaki Tahara in that classic Japanese manner which, by its aggressive formalism, maintains a tenuous air of respectability in spite of however unsavory its subject matter might be.
Ultimately, Decapitation Island ends up being only nominally about decapitation, with just one token beheading in its opening moments to establish the penalty faced by the women for attempted escape. This may serve as a disappointment to fans of head rolling, but the film is nonetheless capable of satisfying the casual viewer whose demands are perhaps not so specialized. All told, it’s just one of many Japanese potboilers made with rigorous competence but little in the way of audacious artistry. While comparing it to Ito’s aforementioned Scorpion trilogy might seem unfair, there is certainly no shame in falling somewhere between the median and the high bar of artistry that those films set for the WIP genre. Nor is it necessarily damning that Decapitation Island shies away from the more confrontational approach to sleaze taken by directors like Norifumi Suzuki when tackling similar subject matter, as a lot of people find Suzuki’s movies pretty hard to take as it is.
So, despite the temptation on my part to establish my mainstream reviewer credentials by saying something like “You’ll lose your head over Decapitation Island!”, I must, like it, exercise a level of restraint that appearances might not otherwise lead one to expect. For those taxed by the extremes of Japanese exploitation cinema, the film might perhaps represent a somewhat more user-friendly middle point, while at the same time leaving more hardcore fans wanting. This, of course, leaves aside the much wider swath of humanity who see no appeal whatsoever in the spectacle of female bodies being bound and brutalized, no matter how prettily it may be realized.
It seems the whole world has gone mad for superhero movies, and the Drive-In Mob is no exception! And we know better than anyone that nothing captures the excitement and grandeur of superheroism like a low rent 1970s TV movie. So please join us tonight as, starting at 8pm EST, we do some avenging of our own against 1979's Reb Brown infused Captain America, followed, at roughly 9:30pm EST, by the Bixby redolent The Incredible Hulk. As always, true believers can both follow and tweet along at home by using the Twitter hashtag #DriveInMob. Please be sure to check the official Drive-In Mob site for full details.