Friday, July 3, 2009

Ratna Dakoo (India, 1972)

You know, I'm not going to insult your intelligence or tax my own by pretending that I could even begin to tell you what Ratna Dakoo is about. The stubborn non-English-ness of the Hindi language (in this case dubbed from the original Telegu), the preponderance of lookalike male stars with pencil mustaches, and the apparent use of a Cuisinart to edit the film have pretty well put the kibosh on any such ambitions on my part. But really, what's mere comprehension when you can instead simply sit in contemplation of the majesty of Krishna's hair, the oak-like authority of Jyothi Laxmi's thighs, and the under-cranked delirium of K.S.R. Doss's direction?

As you may have already gathered, Mr. Doss's films continue to be a reliable source of cartoonish cheap thrills -- though I have to confess that Ratna Dakoo is so far the least enthralling of the director's offerings that I've seen to date. The blame for this can largely be placed upon my inability to understand the spoken language, but is also due to the film being markedly less woman-powered than films like Pistolwali or James Bond 777. Jyothi Laxmi is only here in an item girl capacity this time around, and as such only shows up for one musical number - though one that's noteworthy in part for the weird "Here's Lucy" wig that she's wearing.

Krishna's wife, Vijaya Nirmala -- who merits further investigation not only because she was a famed Tollywood actress in her day, but also for the fact that she was the director of over forty films -- is also on hand in the role of lady detective Rita. Unfortunately, her part in the action is less of the proactive, rough-and-tumble variety we've come to expect from heroines in Telegu action films, and is instead limited to the more traditional business that we see in Bollywood movies; That is, she remains on the sidelines until the heroes require her to disguise herself as a dancing girl in order for them to sneak into the villain's lair. In the final tally, probably the greatest benefit of her presence is the outfit worn by her flamboyant male assistant, which I can best describe as a hip-hugging, technicolor nightmare in which pastel paisleys and lurid floral patterns do battle like so many enraged piranha.

Despite the presence of Tollywood superstar Krishna, Ratna Dakoo really belongs to the actor playing its titular villain -- that being S.V. Ranga Rao, an iconic South Indian star with a screen career dating back to the early fifties. Now, while I can't tell you much about what Ratna Dakoo, the movie, is about, I can tell you that Ratna Singh, its lead character, appears to have just about the greatest revenge scheme in Indian cinema history. You see, years earlier, Inspector Anand (Krishna) chose the occasion of Ratna Singh's sister's wedding as an opportunity to apprehend the notorious bandit, with the result that the ensuing firefight took the lives, not only of Ratna's beloved sister, but also of his mom and dad. Now freshly broken out of prison, the dacoit sees as his only avenue of recourse the kidnapping of Anand's sister for the purpose of marrying her off to a scruffy homeless guy. (Of course, he also kills Anand's parents in the course of that kidnapping, but that seems to be incidental to his grander plan.) To this end, he has his minions drag a whole assortment of derelicts off the streets so that he may select from among them the most blighted and unsightly specimen. Once the lucky groom - a raving, ginger-bearded hunchback with one eye -- is selected, it's time to arrange for the nuptials, as well as to insure that Inspector Anand is in attendance, whether his sister's marriage is to take place "over his dead body" or not.

Having an actor of S.V. Ranga Rao's stature play the villain in a film like Ratna Dakoo makes for a performance that is somewhat bipolar in range. On the one hand, the actor provides all of the cackling, two-dimensional histrionics that we've come to expect from a masala villain, but on the other, his need to demonstrate his legendary acting chops ends up fitfully imbuing that villain with a kind of wounded dignity that is well outside the traditional boilerplate. Still, at the end of the day, this is a K.S.R. Doss film, and chances are that, once the final reel has faded, it will be Ratna Singh, the raving, overdrawn grotesque -- rather than Ratna Singh, the tragic figure -- who has won the tug-of-war over your memory. This is, after all, a man who reserves a place in his heart for his throwing knives that others would dedicate to children or cherished pets, and who commemorates that fact by wearing a tee-shirt with a picture of a knife on it throughout the entire picture.

In addition to the expected grooviness of its guitar-heavy soundtrack and the pervy inevitability of its nit's-eye-view dance numbers (a guest-starring Jayshree T is the victim of the crotch-cam this time around), Ratna Dakoo delivers much of the Itchy & Scratchy level hijinks that I've come to count on from 1970s Tollywood. In this spirit, Ratna Singh's villainy extends to him burying poor Krishna up to his neck and attempting to run his head over with a steamroller -- perhaps in the hopes of determining, by way of its resistance to pressure, the actual mass of our hero's pompadour. Of course, Ratna's mere machine is no match for that mighty edifice, and both Krishna and his hair survive to fight evil another day. And that's all to the good. Because, while I'm less enthused about this particular entry in its bearer's filmography, I know that where goes that pompadour lies more potential for catfighting cowgirls, watusi-ing lady spies, and terrifying instances of death by puppy. I have no choice but to follow.


memsaab said...

I was sadly *bored* by my first foray into Ramsay Bros. horror...this looks far more interesting.

Although it still doesn't tempt me much.

Prof. Grewbeard said...

huge fucking logos do not hinder or prevent bootlegging, only viewing. excellent review, though!

Todd said...

Yes, thank you *EAGLE*! Actually, their logo was a lot less obtrusive than some. Sadly, I've been watching so many of these $1 Indian VCDs that I'm actually beginning not to notice them.

Memsaab: Yeah, I have yet to find the proper entry into the Ramsey's oeuvre, if there is one. As far as the combined magic of K.S.R. Doss, Jyothi Laxmi and Krishna, I'd recommend James Bond 777 or Pistolwali as an introduction over Ratna Dakoo, even though I did enjoy the film.

Beth Loves Bollywood said...

Is it wrong that I want to see this just for the outfits?

I've gotta get my hands on some of these girl power movies....

Todd said...

I think you'll dig 'em. (Try Despite these movies baring a surface resemblance to Pashto films like Haseena Atom Bomb, I'm hoping that the fact that Vijaya Nirmala was allowed to direct so many films indicates that Tollywood really was more open to the idea of female power.