Thursday, May 29, 2008

Khotte Sikkay (India, 1974)

The 1974 film Khotte Sikkay, like its follow-up Kaala Sona (which also starred Feroz Khan and Danny Dezongpa) and, of course, the classic Sholay, is a Bollywood "Curry" Western, one that combines the story of the Magnificent Seven with plot elements, scenes and actual music from Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More to create it's own distinctly Indian take on the Spaghetti Western. (For the record, I prefer the term "Basmati Western", because it tidily keeps the food associations within the starch group, but "Curry Western" seems to be more commonly used.) Though I imagine that some might dismiss such a film for being a slavish imitation of a superior Western product, those people really wouldn't have been paying attention, because the adoption of such familiar genre elements only highlights the markedly different approach that a film like Khotte Sikkay takes to the themes typically addressed by its Italian forebears.

Unlike the Spaghetti Western, which raised the archetype of the rootless, self-sufficient loner to the level of fetish object, the Indian take on the genre has a far more sociable agenda. For, while the Italian oaters typically sought to depict a frontier that was as barren of decency and brotherly human feeling as it was of modern comforts, the Curry Western presents the raw land and the community that grows around its cultivation as a source of virtue, redemption and spiritual sustenance. This is not too surprising since, while the Spaghetti Western was a retooling of the Western geared toward the more cynical sensibilities of a late sixties/early seventies urban audience, Bollywood at the time of Khotte Sikkay still depended to a great extent on India's vast rural population for its viewership. To illustrate the difference, compare a film like Sholay or Khotte Sikkay to, say, Django, Kill!, one of a number of Spaghetti Westerns that depicts a community driven to depravity by its isolation from civilization, no doubt the manifestation of an urbanite's worst nightmare.

Despite being imbued with such communal spirit, however, Khotte Sikkay is far from cuddly in its presentation, and true to it's inclusion of the perpetually two-fisted Feroz Khan in its lead role, falls squarely on the more exploitative end of 1970s Bollywood action cinema. In fact, the film has more rough edges even than the decidedly pulpy Kaala Sona. This is exemplified by the gritty, obviously on-the-fly (notice the watching crowds on the periphery) location shot scenes in the streets and back alleys of the city that make up the first part of the film. As in Sholay and Kaala Sona, Khotte Sikkay's heroes are modern day urban ne'er-do-wells, making a hardscrabble living by whatever illicit means is at hand, who find themselves changed by their experience of protecting a tight-knit rural community from a malevolent outside force.

The film's action is set in motion when the timid yet essentially decent population of a small village is terrorized by the bandit Jhanga (Ajit), an especially nasty example of his kind whose preferred method of cancelling his victims is by disemboweling them hari-kiri style with a sickle-like blade. When his father is killed by the bandit, young Ramu (Paintal) flees to the city to ask the help of his uncle Jaggu (Narenda Nath), a small-time gang leader. Jaggu agrees to help, and asks five of his friends from the local underworld to join him. Among these are Danny, played by the charismatic Sikkimese actor Danny Dezongpa (though here credited only as "Danny"), Salim, a liquor smuggler played by Ranjeet (who throughout the movie wears a distinctive muscle shirt with a heart-shaped window cut in the chest), and Bhaghu, a scheming womanizer played by Sudhir. The task of defending the humble village and teaching its residents how to defend themselves awakens in these hard cases a sense of purpose and belonging heretofore unknown to them, and they ultimately decide to make the village their home. Of course, before they can really settle down, there's the small matter of settling Jhanga's hash, which, of course, means a series of increasingly violent confrontations with the bandit and his bloodthirsty, heavily armed gang.

Eventually joining this magnificent six is Feroz Khan, playing a role that's basically an amalgamation of the Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef characters in For a Few Dollars More: a black-clad Man With No Name looking to settle a score with Jhanga for a murder committed many years before (in Dollars the victim was Van Cleef's sister; Here it's Khan's father). The very significant musical pocket watch from Dollars also makes an appearance in this context, as does the climactic duel in which it plays such an integral part. Original to Khan's character, however, is the self-appointed guardian angel role he takes in relation to the nautch girl Rani (Rehana Sultan), who was orphaned as a result of Jhanga's murderousness. Of course, since the Sergio Leone Dollar films weren't too big on either romance or female characters -- both things that no Bollywood masala could stay afloat without -- it's expected that Khotte Sikkay would make corrections in this regard.

Though the heroes' spiritual regeneration through honest labor and communal participation is the central arc of Khotte Sikkay, the beneficial exchange of values doesn't just go in one direction. The relatively progressive values of the city boys are a definite boon to the widowed Madhu (Madhu Chanda), who, in keeping with some especially conservative aspects of Hindu tradition, is cruelly ostracized by the village community until Jaggu and his friends plead on her behalf. Of course, the fact that Jaggu has fallen in love with Madhu probably has more to do with this than any nascent feminist leanings on the guys' parts, since they don't exhibit any such liberal attitudes when it comes to Rani's de facto second class status. Dezongpa's Danny, in particular, is all for keeping things status quo as far as the ladies are concerned, a stance exemplified in a cringe inducing "he hit me and it felt like a kiss" exchange between him and his girlfriend Reeta (Alka) that takes place early in the film.

Watching Khotte Sikkay, I couldn't help being struck by its similarities to Sholay, which was released just one year later. Of course, most of those similarities are the result of what each film borrowed from a commonly available source -- namely, the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns. But not all of them. For instance, the tentative courtship between Jaggu and the widow Madhu bears a distinct resemblance to that between Amitabh Bachchan's Jai and Jaya Bhaduri's widowed character Radha in the latter film. Still, the unusually long time that Sholay spent in production suggests that, if there was any borrowing between the two, it was probably on the part of Khotte Sikkay. Just as likely is the possibility that these were just ideas that were in the air at the time. In any case, while Khotte Sikkay is a strong entertainer, it lacks the epic scope or iconic characters that would make it any kind of threat to Sholay's awesome legacy.

The version of Khotte Sikkay that I saw was abnormally compact for a Bollywood film of it's era, clocking in at just over two hours. The score by R.D. Burman was equally abbreviated, consisting of only two songs -- though one of them was repeated three times over the course of the movie. Whether this was an edited version or not, the brevity served the film well; like the other Feroz Khan actioners I've seen, it's the type of movie that's best served up fast and funky, and would risk overstaying its welcome otherwise. While I didn't enjoy it quite as much as its follow-up Kaala Sona -- mainly because that later film contained some phantasmagorical elements that gave it an added WTF appeal -- I would highly recommend Khotte Sikkay as an entertaining example of a fascinating Bollywood sub-genre.


Beth Loves Bollywood said...

Sometimes I just can't get past stuff like hitting feeling like kissing. Ugh.

Todd said...

You're right. It's ugly. And the fact that I still went ahead and recommended this movie is an example of how I continually forgive things in old Bollywood movies that I would be completely unable to get past in most other types of films. That may be something I need to think about... Well, either that or another piece of baggage for me to take on that sweet, Scotch-flavored train to Denial Town.

Beth Loves Bollywood said...

Oh I do it too, so you'll have plenty of company on the train ride (though I prefer bourbon). I usually pause the movie, get angry at the writers, then society in general, then resume watching and get distracted by the next song. It's all very complicated and I have only met one movie that was just too vile for words (Jigar), which I finished only because I was getting paid to review it.