Saturday, July 19, 2008

Ajooba (1991)

The oriental state of Bahrujistan has it all: Barren landscapes, brownish towns, a virtuous Sultan (Shammi Kapoor) and Amrish Puri as the prime minister. It is of course possible that the prime minister has something to do with the high mortality rate of potential heirs to the throne, but really, who could mistrust such an honest face?

The newest heir seems to be doing just fine, anyway, thanks to to the intervention of a bunch of gods (I suppose) we'll never see again.

So Amrish starts a little palace revolution, starting with the disposal of a friendly magician (Saeed Jaffrey) who knows of his evil ways and is all to willing to explain the source of his magical powers to someone he himself calls a devil anyway. Amrish is as grateful as one would expect, steals the wise man's amulet and throws him into the deepest, darkest dungeon. Afterwards he attacks the royal family's escape boat on the flying carpet he also stole from the magician, seemingly killing them all, but actually doing his worst job ever.

The baby heir is rescued by a helpful dolphin (whom the grown-up boy will call his mother) and adopted by a smith who starts to train the boy early to become a bad-ass-by-way-of-a-terrible costume revolutionary, who will be known as Ajooba (Amitabh Bachchan). Besides his superior fighting skills (like catching flying arrows and throwing them back at his enemies with deadly force; also, compelling his enemies to never shoot more than two arrows at once), Ajooba also develops the ability to always appear where his name is spoken and make us listen to his cheesy synthesizer theme whenever he heroically rides to the rescue.

On the way to the Happy End, our extremely heroic hero and his cross-dressing side-kick Hassan (Rishi Kapoor) will rescue old, blind women who certainly won't turn out to be someone's mother, rescue amnesiac saints gifted with healing powers who certainly won't turn out to be someone's father, fall in love with Amrish's daughter (Hassan) or the magician's daughter (Ajooba), shrink to the rescue, ride a flying boat, go all King Arthur on us, get rescued by a giant crab and fight an authentic Bollywood kaiju. I have probably missed a few things here, but you get the gist, I think.

But, as awesome as all that may sound, a part of the film is marred by Shashi Kapoor's (or his Russian co-director's Gennadi Vasilyev's) problems with setting scenes up properly. The first hour of the film is just puzzling - important characters aren't set up, but just appear somehow sometime (Ajooba has to wait quite some time until he gets a little more character than "absurdly costumed guy on white horse"), sensible ways of transition are eschewed for, well no transitions, and so on. The later two thirds of the film are a lot better though, at least I wasn't in doubt anymore that there was a professional editor available.

The mad ideas that didn't want to stop anymore also did a lot to alleviate my irritation. Still, some directorial decisions just bug me. Why use boring brown and gray locations when you could have color-coordinated sets? Why film many scenes in such a way that everything has to look so incredibly cheap and tacky?

Less irritating and a lot more fun are Ajooba's very special effects. Seldom, if ever has the screen seen less detailed models than in the flying carpet sequences which really let you appreciate the good old Thief of Baghdad. Let's not start talking about the kaiju or the giant crab, creatures of singular and beautiful ineptness that nearly made me weep for joy.

Finally, the acting...There are in fact actors on screen, some of which sometimes decide to do some acting, but even Amitabh (who at least is able to wear his costume with some kind of dignity) is overshadowed by the greatness of Amrish Puri's bug-eyed stare and his repeated utterance of my new catch-phrase "Praised be the devil!". I even have a theory to explain this performance - after his many years as the evilest of the evil of Indian evilness, Amrish Puri set out on a journey to the west to find new ways of being, well, evil. Sadly, his quest was cut short by an unscrupulous German film merchant who sold him Bela Lugosi's collected poverty row films as the apotheosis of Western evilness acting. Amrish Puri, being kind-hearted and perhaps a little naive in the ways of evil German film merchants, of course believed him and used Ajooba to do his best to rise up to Bela's challenge. We all should love him for that.



Beth Loves Bollywood said...

Oh Shashi, why did you have to go all mythological on us? Why not a comedy of manners? Why not a family drama? Why not a gentle but prodding look at contemporary Indian society?

Still, I wait with bated breath. I hope to be able to make something out of the idea of regarding the movie in the light of the Shashitabh pairing on-screen - something about Shashi as elder guidance and Amitabh as youthful heroics. I don't know.

Giant crabs? Really?

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Because mythology is more fun? *g*

It's just one giant crab. At least I suppose it is one. It comes out of the water, has pincers, is kind of reddish and sorta crab-shaped. Could be giant, pincered flounder, though. I don't think zoology was the script writers' strength. They call the dolphin a fish...The devil be praised!

Todd said...

I think having this one on an un-subtitled VCD might have been to its benefit. I could look past the (many) narrative flaws and just focus on the weird visuals. Seriously, I really enjoyed this one!

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Even when you have subtitles, the whole mess has its charms...