Sunday, October 9, 2016

1920 London (2016)

London, in some weird-looking parallel 1920s made out of Bollywood dreams (this is not a complaint). Shivangi (Meera Chopra) lives with her husband Veer (Vishal Karwal) in a palatial estate while he studies law. Both of them are Indian royalty/nobility (don’t ask me which of the two, I’m pro French Revolution), sickeningly in love, and have a chauffeur named George, so things look rather idyllic for them.

However, when some thankful peasants or other send Veer an amulet to praise his awesomeness, he becomes possessed by the evil spirit of a witch (Meenal Kapoor). Quickly, he contorts his body into the most interesting shapes, loses his luscious hair (and wins some worms), and will soon die, for the doctors are of course baffled. And who can blame them?

Shivangi quickly realizes that her husband has been cursed – she’s pretty sure his evil stepmother is the guilty party. She returns home to India to fetch help. Finding the appropriate magician to get rid of a dead witch this strong turns out to be a bit of a problem. In fact, only exorcism specialist Jai (Sharman Joshi) has any chance of succeeding at all. Unfortunately, Jai and Shivangi have a bit of a history: namely a star-crossed love between penniless shepherd and princess that ended when Jai beat up Shivangi’s evil uncle when the bastard tried to rape her, and Shivangi renounced Jai and their love in the ensuing trial, landing him in prison. Needless to say, Jai is initially not terribly keen on helping Shivangi out. But as we all know, exorcists gotta exorcise.

If you go into an Indian horror film with mainstream Bollywood sensibilities like this and expect anything like a “proper” horror movie in the less open sense of the term, you’ll end up sorely disappointed, for Dharmendra Suresh Desai’s film really is a slightly more focused masala piece with supernatural beasties, putting as much emphasis on the melodrama as it does on its witch, possession and so on, though it does leave out the odious comic relief. To me, that’s not a bad thing, at least not in a film that is as enthusiastic about entertaining me (well, its audience) as 1920 London is.

While the horror sequences certainly won’t scare the genre-savvy, the film builds such a wonderful Bollywood gothic place out of its weirdo-20s, actual locations, dubious CGI and general horror light clichés that I found myself rather in love with it for this alone. The film demonstrates ably that there’s aesthetically a lot to be said for looking at something like the 1920s in Britain through the pop-cultural lenses of a different country (even if we ignore the particularly pleasant irony inherent to this country being a former colony of the UK). It is of course about as authentic  as the depictions of India in most western cultural artefacts (read: not at all), but it is also oh so very fun, turning everything larger than life in quite a different way than Western depictions of place and era would. Besides, authenticity is not always terribly interesting in any case.

There are also quite a few perfectly decent suspense sequences in here that are about as frightening as a fun fair ride but are generally creative in their use of clichés, excellently paced, and provided regularly. For you also can’t blame the film for wasting your time once it’s gotten going, its nearly two hours of running time flying by in a series of flashbacks, melodramatic outbreaks, decorative suffering (which Meera Chopra does quite well), and scenes of general spooky action (not always at a distance). Like all good Bollywood films, 1920 London would be ashamed of itself if you were bored for longer than half a minute while watching it.

Adding additional spice to the whole affair is surprisingly tight plotting (not generally a strength of Hindi commercial cinema, mostly, I think, because that sort of thing isn’t actually important to filmmakers and audience in India in general), and some awesomely silly ideas. You will witness a game of peek-a-boo with a possessed, suspenseful chanting of mantras, a lemon chase through a haunted house as well as other fruit and nut based magic, a spiritual knife fight, and lots of awesomeness in between.

So at least for tonight, this is the best film ever made.

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