Friday, December 11, 2015

Past Misdeeds: Mahakaal (1988/1993)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

The life of thirty year old college teenager Anita (Archana Puran Singh) is starting to get interesting. Right now, she and her equally old student friends (among them the most terrifying monster of them all - "comedian" Johnny Lever) are still cavorting around merrily - that is when her boyfriend Prakash and his best friend Rakesh aren't dishooming the local would-be rapists - but all this is beginning to change when Anita's best friend Seela, and very soon our heroine herself, is starting to have terrible nightmares.

In them, they are hunted by a shadowy, mulletted man with a scarred face and the propensity to laugh menacingly while showing his charming iron-bladed gloves. That would probably be troubling enough for the girls, yet the worst thing is that these dreams are leaving physical traces behind. It's one thing dreaming about getting your nightshirt ripped by claws, but it's quite another when you wake up and actually find it ripped.
Still, the friends are (theoretically) young, their hair freshly sprayed and mulletted, so they decide to drive to the country-side to have a picnic and cavort some more. That works out nicely until they want to drive back home and discover that their car won't move an inch anymore. Fortunately there's a hotel nearby. Unfortunately, it's managed by another Johnny Lever and has no working phones to call home from. How immoral! Well, at least it's dry and warm.

Anita and Prakash do the boring and responsible thing by keeping chaste. Seela and Rakesh however decide to have a real picnic together in one bed. Would you believe that Seela dreams of the nice man with the interesting gloves again? Yeah, I was completely taken by surprise myself. This time, though, he's not just appearing to scare the girl; he kills her, leaving Rakesh - who of course decides to run - as the main suspect of the dastardly deed, no matter that there's no proof whatsoever against him.
Hunting Rakesh is Anita's father, your usual Bollywood patriarchal copper arsehole. Thanks to Rakesh's brilliant idea to make a visit to his school campus in bright daylight, it's a very short manhunt, and the young idiot finds himself in a nice, damp cell.

The next night, Anita dreams of Rakesh getting killed in his cell by the mullet man and his new pet snakes, and even her sceptical father looks shaken when he learns that the young man did in fact die that night.
After a few more small revelations, Dad explains who the man with the gloves is. It's a certain Shakaal, a black magician who worshipped some undefined dark gods by sacrificing children to them. Seven years ago, he kidnapped Anita's little sister to do the same to her. Her father wasn't able to save his daughter, so he poked Shakaal in the face with a torch and buried him alive in a chained box in some ruins. Obviously, the dead man has returned to take his vengeance.

If there is one thing you can count on when it comes to the films of the Ramsay Brothers, it is their absolutely shameless will to entertain in the broadest and sleaziest (for Hindi cinema) way possible. These two aren't afraid of anything, not even ripping off one of the two films by Wes Craven that are actually any good - A Nightmare On Elm Street.

Well, there is something the Ramsays were afraid of - putting their Nightmare rip-off into the cinemas when their arch enemy Mohan Bakhri had just before thrown his own version of the tale, Khooni Murdaa, on the market. Just imagine, they could have lost money! So they let the film lie and ripen for a few years and only put it out when the Bollywood horror boom had already run its course, making it their last theatrical feature before they had to flee into the land of cable TV, as far as I've heard while being hunted by villagers carrying torches.

So the fashion and the victims of Johnny Lever's "parodies" (and does Amitabh Bachchan's comeback vehicle Shahenshah truly need to be parodied?) and "satire" are very much part of the late 80s. I have a hard time imagining that this will have helped Mahakaal's financial performance, but hey, what do I know about stuff like that.

What I do know is what I find fun, and Mahakaal definitely is fun.
Sure, if you are easily angered by really brazen theft of plots, ideas, scene set-ups or musical cues, you'll probably have a hard time watching it without beginning to froth at the mouth. I find the Ramsay method here rather charming. The first half of Mahakaal copies the plot progression and characters of its model as closely as possible, but adds a lot of flavour to prepare Craven's recipe for the taste of an Indian audience. So the viewer gets to see a slightly less bloody version of A Nightmare on Elm Street plus everything he, she or it ever loved about the trashier side of Bollywood cinema - musical numbers of dubious quality (well, I actually found the last one with its golden glitter costumes from hell rather undubious, even quite delightful), heroines with an insane propensity to get very very wet, said dishooming of would-be rapists and other assorted rabble, Johnny Lever humour you can blessedly fast forward through because his scenes are not in the least relevant for anything else in the film (although you will then miss out on things like his Michael Jackson imitation, his Amitabh Bachchan in Shahenshah stick - which is actually kinda funny - and the rare Johnny action scene).

Then the last third of the film arrives, and the Ramsays have obviously had enough of following Craven, throw out the dream demon idea completely and turn the film into the monster rumble most of their films I have seen until now end in. Which is an excellent idea when it brings us a re-jigged scene stolen from Dawn of the Dead, an inexplicable, but fun bout of demonic possession and a much better water bed death scene than in the original. The only way to beat that (or bring it to an end) is of course to end the film in a bizarre beat-down that is at once gruesome, silly and absolutely insane and alone worth the price of admission.
Technically, Mahakaal is typical Ramsay Brothers filmmaking - there's not a bit of subtlety to find anywhere, yet the brothers show an exhilarating sense for hysterical in-your-face intensity when it comes to the horror sequences or the action. If it has to do with the use of zoom, manic camera movements, fog, multi-coloured lights, more fog, or bizarre interior architecture (watch out for the temple of evil!), the Ramsays know what they are doing and (or so I suspect) love it.

Memorable acting you won't find here, but at least our heroine, future TV personality Archana Puran Singh, is as game for anything as Polly (Shan) Kuan, be it fighting an invisible man, getting very very wet repeatedly, or just screaming "Nahiiiiiiiin!". Especially her screams are something I won't soon forget.
What more could I ask of a film?

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