Any Westerner with an awareness of International Gorillay can likely thank this notorious clip depicting Salman Rushdie laser-ed to death by flying Korans. The film was made at the height of the Muslim world’s furor over The Satanic Verses, with Ayatollah Khomeini having pronounced his fatwa against Rushdie little over a year previous. Because of the crude venom exhibited within that weathered clip -- a weathered-ness that makes it appear all the more appropriately remote and foreign -- some who are looking for such things have taken it as emblematic of a perceived, intrinsic violence and intolerance within the Muslim faith. Because what are three minute YouTube clips for if not for making sweeping conclusions about thousands of years old religions practiced by a significant portion of the world’s population?
But what one really needs to ask with International Gorillay is how much it is an exploitation of that faith rather than an expression of it. For an exploitation film is truly what it seems to be at heart, with more interest in roiling passions toward commercial ends than spiritual ones, and that within the undeniably mercenary context of a big, dumb action movie. In fact, it’s sometimes easy to forget while watching it that you’re not watching one of those overblown Bollywood actioners from the 80s fronted by an aging Dharmendra. In portraying Rushdie, actor Afzhaal Amad seems to be channeling the effetely urbane masala villains of Ajit or Madan Puri more than going for any kind of impression of the man himself, his every threatening utterance delivered in a tone dripping with mock solicitude. And then there are the many, many explosions, the back flipping extras, and the kung fu, all of which I’m pretty sure are extraneous to the Koran.
The film centers around three brothers, the eldest of whom is Mustafa, a police officer. Mustafa is played by Mustafa Qureshi, whom we traditionally see getting beaten to within an inch of his life by Sultan Rahi in Punjabi films ranging from the iconic Maula Jat to the moronic Hitlar. It’s nice to see Qureshi play a putative good guy role for a change, even if his performance, which involves a lot of righteous hollering, doesn’t vary all that much from his others. Ghulam Mohiuddin and Javed Sheikh play Mustafa’s younger brothers, a pair of small time hoods. If you think this divergence of moral paths causes tension within the family, you’re right -- until the three decide to set aside their differences and band together to kill Salman Rushdie following the publication of The Satanic Verses. Their resolve is further strengthened when Mustafa’s two college age children -- Pappo and Baby -- are shot down by corrupt police during a demonstration against Rushdie. “I want Salman Rushdie’s head”, gasps Baby with her dying breath.
Meanwhile we see that a massive criminal consortium is engaging in a plot to destroy Islam, all the better to prevent the Muslim world from uniting and putting an end to the vice and corruption that is the crooks’ bread and butter. (Which might sound extravagantly paranoid, but really isn’t any more farfetched than some of the ideas put forth in the current crop of evangelical potboilers on the US DTV market.) Pakistan is seen as a keystone in this operation, and Rushdie the gang’s not-so-secret weapon. In light of this, the author has been smuggled away to a private island in the Philippines, where he lives surrounded by liquor and ladies in a heavily fortified palace. Here Rushdie indulges all his basest impulses, laughingly executing the captured jihadis who have come for him with a stroke of his sword, then taking a deep whiff of the blood soaked cloth once he’s wiped the blade clean. Naturally, he is also surrounded by a retinue of grotesque minions, such as his right hand man, the maniacal Chief Batu Batu (Saeed Khan Rangeela). And then there are the pair often referred to simply as the “Jews”, an Israeli army commander called JC and his sister Dolly (Barbra Sharif), a femme fatale whose eyes have a special gift for “seeing” Muslims.
I’m sure it will surprise no one that International Gorillay falls a bit short of examining both sides of the Satanic Verses issue. There’s no debate over whether Rushdie should be killed in the first place, only how much, how soon, and how much torture should be involved first. In fact, if Mustafa and his guerillas have one strategic weakness, it’s that -- like any Pakistani movie heroes worthy of their mustaches -- once they get their target in sight, they spend a lot of time bellowing blood curdling oaths at him and shouting about all of the awful ways they’re going to bring about his end instead of just following through. (My favorite of these smack lines is “If everyone in the world looked like you, we would have to kill everyone!” There’s also something about feeding Rushdie’s tongue to the dogs.) Thus is the multiple Booker Prize winner offered ample opportunity to either escape or turn the tables on his captors. In similar fashion, Mustafa’s wife Zeenat repeatedly works herself into literal ecstasies talking about just how dead she wants Rushdie.
The only thing leavening all of this bloodlust is the question of just how seriously International Gorillay is taking itself. For the film is not just a dumb action movie, but a dumb comedy also. There are many terrible verbal gags, as well as a pair of broadly caricatured Middle Eastern Sheikhs on hand to seemingly provide both cross-cultural chuckles and an example of bad Muslims. Furthermore, the guerillas themselves don an assortment of wacky disguises in the course of their operations -- including that of masked surgeons with comical oversized syringes, hippie street musicians, and one instance of drag. Why, at a climactic moment, the group decides to don what look like baggy, Halloween store Batman costumes is anyone’s guess, but it nonetheless provides the film with another one of its most widely disseminated -- and mocked -- images. (Batman knock-off completists should gird themselves for disappointment, however, due to both the brevity of this sequence and its late appearance. Better to redouble your efforts in finding a copy of Super Batman & Mazinger V.)
Of course, the most hilarious thing about these Bat get-ups is how resoundingly they fail in terms of performance enhancement for the guerillas, ultimately only making their flight from Rushdie and his forces that much more clumsy. Finally, this knack on the part of our heroes for getting captured means that god has to fight his own battles, though not before those heroes engage in much protracted sung beseeching for his intervention. Only once this has reached an appropriately fevered pitch does the film deliver upon its promise of avenging Korans descending valkyrie-like from the heavens. And, all in all, it’s a fitting end to a story that basically boils down to a competition between two books; after all, The Satanic Verses may have been critically well received in the West, but it was never demonstrated to fly or shoot lasers. Still, a perhaps more jaw dropping aspect of this scene for more jaded viewers will be the spectacle of the Jewish femme fatale Dolly instantaneously converting to Islam once a white veil, born upon the wind, wraps itself around her head and shoulders.
Unlike the Pashto and Punjabi language Pakistani films that I typically review on this site, International Gorillay is in the Urdu language, and thus that much closer to the mainstream of Pakistani cinema. This is not meant to imply, however, that all Pakistani films are as insane and wrong as International Gorillay; they’re not. It’s just that it’s much more enjoyable for me to write/warn you about films like it and Haseena Atom Bomb than it is to consider a sober Urdu family drama or historical. At the same time, I don’t want to de-emphasize the fact that International Gorillay was quite popular in its country of origin in its day. The film even made inroads into the West, thanks in part to the unlikely intervention of Salman Rushdie, who publicly opposed a ban on it by the British Board of Film Classification out of principle. On a less magnanimous note, Rushdie also referred to the film as “a piece of crap”.