Wednesday, February 6, 2019

4DK at 10: Haseena Atom Bomb (Pakistan, 1990)

[ORIGINALLY POSTED JUNE 3rd, 2009: This review of the notorious Pakistani sleaze-fest, Haseena Atom Bomb was, for several consecutive years, the most read review on 4DK. I love you people, but you are clearly monsters.]

If you wanted to make the argument that sleaze is an unavoidable byproduct of puritanism, you could do a lot worse for an Exhibit "A" than Haseena Atom Bomb. And I say that with full awareness that my own country, with its dizzying sexual hypocrisy, is in no position to cast stones in that regard. It is these United States, after all, whose porn industry seems to grow in inverse proportion to the sanitization of our mainstream cinema screens, and whose media dedicates as much energy to sexualizing underage pop stars as they do to working themselves into an apocalyptic tizzy over sexting. And let's not spare our pals the Japanese in this matter, either; as their own strident censorship laws, which prevent the depiction of human genitalia or penetration even in hardcore pornography, have lead the marketplace to fill the resulting vacuum with perverted visual delicacies like tentacle porn.

In contrast, Pashto language movies like Haseena Atom Bomb are not even explicit by Western standards. But when you consider that the members of their target audience -- men living in the tribal region along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan -- are forbidden by custom from even gazing upon women outside their immediate family, you get a sense of the yawning gap between public conduct and private desire that they address.

Haseena reminds me a lot of 1970s Telegu action films like Pistolwali, only with everything turned up to eleven. The women are more voluptuous. (Okay, they're fat, to be completely honest -- something on which I imagine even the most sensitized proponents of positive body image would have to concur.) The dances are raunchier, and the camera angles used to film them even more disconcertingly intimate. On top of that, the action is even more frantic and cartoonish; No blow can me shown to have connected with its target sufficiently unless it is shown several times in rapid succession, with the deafening sound accompanying that blow being enough to make Bollywood's trusty old "dishoom dishoom" sound like a limp slap with a wet paper towel in comparison.

Correspondingly, the histrionics on display are over the top to the extent of losing sight of it completely, with every line delivered in a full-throated bellow and every hysterically caricatured reaction shot accompanied by an ear-shattering clap of thunder. Yes, impossible as it may be to believe, Pashto filmmakers offer up a cinema that even Pistolwali director K.S.R. Doss -- a man whom I had previously thought was about as committed an enemy of subtlety as one could encounter -- can look down upon for its brashness and lack of refinement. Add to this a lack of budget and technical skill made plain by the film's grade school play level sets and abundance of dodgy camera work and the picture is complete. Haseena Atom Bomb comes at you as a film whose every mottled frame screams its utter trashiness at you, holding you forcefully by the shoulders as it does so in order that you may fully savor its ghastly, crazy homeless person breath.

Haseena and its like are also similar to Telegu films like Pistolwali in their heavy reliance on revenge themes - which is not surprising, given the prominent part vengeance plays in the Pashtun people's traditional code. In Haseena's case, we get, not just one, but three avengers. For starters, there is our titular heroine, announced at the film's beginning by a theme song, "Main Hoon Haseena Atom Bomb", whose picturization sees starlet Mussarat Shaheen's every utterance of her name punctuated by a thrust of her generous posterior and stock footage of a volcano erupting. Haseena is set on the vengeance trail after she is subjected to a protracted gang rape at the hands of a band of leering thugs on her wedding night, an act which her attackers top off by stringing her husband from the rafters and forcing him to stand on Haseena's shoulders until the poor woman's collapse from exhaustion sends him swinging.

Understandably hacked off over this treatment, Haseena sets out to murder her assailants one by one, an act which she typically accomplishes after first tantalizing her intended prey with a seductive dance. And these dances, once seen, are not soon to be forgotten: an unholy alliance between obese flesh and clingy synthetic fabrics -- often made even more constricting by the liberal application of water -- captured by the heat-seeking lens of a resolutely crotch-fixated camera. Thus is the fly drawn into our heroine's web, at which point he ends up being on the receiving end of some extremely loud fake kung fu before being strung up himself in the same manner as Haseena's betrothed. (As a side note, I wanted to mention that one of these dance numbers features Haseena singing a song that's set to the tune of "Kaate Nahin Katte Ye Din" from Mr. India.)

But alongside all of this we also get a parallel narrative -- a "lost and found" story of sorts -- about a brother and sister, separated by tragedy, who each pursue their own path to vengeance. He is a portly fellow in an awful disco shirt who rides around on a white horse, heroically intervening in the frequent gang rapes that seem to have replaced casual greetings in Haseena's milieu. His weapon of choice: A huge hypodermic needle, which he uses to spear and then drain the blood from his opponents. She is an equally portly (not judging; describing) young lady with a taste for leopard print spandex who prefers the use of her fists when it comes to giving lowlifes their comeuppance -- and who comes equipped with a ringleted paramour who's a ringer for the singer in REO Speedwagon. In addition, Haseena somehow also manages to shoehorn in a subplot involving Inspector Shabana, a lady cop who, when not hot on giant hypo guy's trail, is having romantic daydreams about her boss.

In fact, there is so much going on in Haseena Atom Bomb and -- for those English speakers like myself trying to fathom it without the aid of subtitles -- so little obvious connection between it, that, had there not been a brief scene in which Haseena and hypodermic guy appeared together, I would have just assumed that it was several different movies patched together. It didn't help matters that the version of Haseena I ended up getting my hands on appears to be severely truncated, clocking in at just over two hours when, as I understand it, the original is more in the two-and-a-half to three hour range. However, I'm not convinced that having the missing footage would serve to tie things together all that much, since the film's director, Saeed Ali Khan, doesn't give any signs of being all that concerned about doing so himself. At the film's conclusion, Haseena's path never proves to converge with that of the other characters, with each of their stories reaching their violent crescendos separately as the action cuts back and forth between them (in Hypo guy's case, involving some pretty nifty forklift-fu). Given that, I imagine that most of what I'm missing from Haseena Atom Bomb is more of the sexy dancing and implied sexual violence that appears to be its reason for being. Which is perfectly okay, really. I got the idea.

To be sure, Haseena Atom Bomb is a singular viewing experience, providing a not inconsiderable amount of trashy thrills to anyone who's up for the ride. But there's such an unremitting grotesquery to those thrills that I'm inclined to keep my experience of it at just that: singular. Omar Khan, in his review of the film over at The Hotspot Online, is right to see similarities in it to the early work of John Waters. But while, even at their most debased, Waters' freak shows always had an air of the celebratory about them, Haseena's suffocatingly masculine, crotch-cam view of the world it presents implicates its viewer in a spectacle that is all unalloyed prurience. As such - and in spite of all the reckless energy put into that presentation - it comes off as feeling more than a tad dreary.

1 comment:

Mr. Cavin said...

"...heat-seeking lens..."

I'm really enjoying reading these again. Thanks (for both times)!