Also known as Naag Rani, this movie is a perfect example of how the so-called “B movie” genre contains gems (no Naag Mani pun intended, or not much) of movie history which really need to be treated with more respect. I would rather watch this and others of its ilk a hundred times over than watch Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam or Mother India more than once or twice. Sure, those are great films; but they aren’t exactly uplifting entertainment! Why is such pure uplifting entertainment as this so frowned upon and discarded? Very often the zany trappings overlay genuine emotional content and messages which are far more palatable to me than the stifling conservatism of mainstream Hindi cinema.
In any case, even without subtitles and missing a few of the lovely songs (by SN Tripathi), this is a treat. I can’t vouch for my interpretation of events as being in any way correct because most of the dialogue went way past my head; but you should just see it anyway for the opulently detailed sets and costumes, the songs which are present and accounted for, some very “special” special effects, and a whole zoo full of anipals. It is a little disappointing that despite the title and a promising start:
the heroine is generally relegated to a role which basically provides dancing entertainment (at least she is good at it!) and romance for the hero (Mahipal). But still, it’s good fun.
Ragini stars as the eponymous
Snake Cobra Queen Anjana and my now-beloved Tiwari is her foe Shigali, a sorcerer who besieges her family’s kingdom of Naag Desh at the beginning of the film. As the battle rages, Anjana’s father is mortally wounded. In the temple, he gives Anjana—his eldest daughter—his crown, bestowing her with the title Naag Rani, and expires in the arms of her younger sisters.
His loyal Diwan (Nazir Kashmiri) urges Anjana to flee, and she escapes in her chariot as Shigali’s forces crash through the gates. Shigali wastes no time in appropriating the magic Naag Mani gem which decorates the snake god in the temple, although the god himself hisses his displeasure most satisfyingly.
Deprived of the gem, the god vanishes after (I think) telling Shigali that he cannot derive full power from the stone he has stolen until he has its twin too. I think he also informs Shigali that he’ll meet his death at the hands of the Naag Rani (not to be confused of course with the Naag Mani, easier said than done when you have no idea what is being said).
Furious, Shigali orders his men to find her. Diwanji asks his daughter to pose as the Naag Rani, ensuring that the real one (Anjana) will not be pursued and captured. Shigali, who is a sorceror, transforms her first into a bird which he puts into a cage and then back into herself, only miniature—and still in the bird cage. I love the attention to detail, right down to the water and food containers and a perch!
Diwanji himself is arrested and sentenced to death, but Anjana—now disguised unconvincingly as a man—rescues him. But alas, he is shot in the back as they escape on horseback. He fills her in on the goings-on at home (mother and sisters imprisoned along with the Senapati, Naag Mani plundered) before dying.
Noooo! I liked having Nazir and his bass-baritone voice around! I am somewhat cheered by the first of the lovely songs (and dances) in this: “Nigahon Se Dil Ka Salaam” courtesy of Anjana’s sisters Rani (Rani) and Madhu (a lovely Helen-makeup-and-blond-wig-free Madhumati).
They are so pretty, these two (when not mostly obscured by Shameroo’s logo and scrolling advertisements, *eye-roll*).
When the song ends, the two sisters attempt to stab Shigali, but are thwarted—and he turns them into little tiny people too. Bliss.
Shigali is still looking for the other Naag Mani gem and (I assume) frequently visits his chained prisoner the Senapati (Ulhas) to harass him about its whereabouts. The Senapati shares his dungeon space with Diwanji’s miniature daughter in her cage, and he is vociferous and energetic in his refusal to help Shigali in any way.
In fact one of my favorite things about these films is how enthusiastically everyone involved participates.
The unfortunate Senapati’s family lives in the village: the cheerful Sagar (Mahipal) and his Ma (Mridula Rani) and sister Chanda (Surekha). There is a lot of “room talk” which escapes me, but Sagar eventually sets off with his servant Damru (Maruta). They take a room at an inn, where Sagar meets Anjana (still wearing men’s clothes) and quickly discovers her ruse by taking her hat off, whereupon her long braid tumbles out. I’m guessing she didn’t really want to be taken for a man since she never bothered to cut her hair, and she does seem happy to turn into a girl again.
They have a long conversation about a Rajkumar and Rajkumari but in the end all that matters is that Sagar gets her into the palace in the form of a dancing girl gift to Shigali. Perfect excuse for another great song, and I am thrilled to see my friend Edwina (sister of Ted Lyons, and background dancer plus “decent extra” extraordinaire) playing the harp!
Shigali is very pleased with Anjana indeed, and invites her to stay as his guest. He shows her his little miniature person collection and she is horrified indeed to see the fate of her sisters, although they are glad to see her. The profoundly unfunny CSP now intrudes for some time, with Maruti and Manorama at center stage as unhappy husband and shrewish wife, with smug little boy (Master Dube) and cute white pony Raja (Pony Moti, according to the credits) in the middle.
The upshot of it all is that Damru pisses off one of the townspeople, who goes to Shigali now and tells him about the Senapati’s family and Chanda’s upcoming wedding in particular. This is just the ammunition that Shigali has needed to make the Senapati tell him where the other Naag Mani is.
But wait! The Senapati remains defiant, telling Shigali that he could give up the happiness of one hundred daughters for his country, and that his family are as patriotic as he is. Furious, Shigali sends his men to “ruin Chanda’s wedding!”
He is such a mean guy.
The song which Chanda’s sahelis are singing to her in anticipation of the baraat’s arrival is absolutely lovely, and picturized so sweetly too (“Babul Ki Ladli Bhiya Ki Pyaari”)—do look it up and see it, it is wonderful. Plus, Tun Tun!
It’s all the sadder then when Shigali’s henchman rapes and murders poor Chanda after luring her away to “meet” her brother Sagar. It is truly heartwrenching:
and made only worse when Ma dies too, unable to bear the loss of her daughter. Everybody weeps as Sagar lights two pyres, especially me. It’s nice to see something so vile as rape and murder appropriately mourned.
Sagar is now a man possessed, and he wastes no time in going to the palace to seek his revenge. But shape-shifting Shigali is not a man to be easily defeated, when he’s not drunk! Will Sagar (and hopefully Anjana, it is supposed to be her movie, na?) succeed in taking the kingdom (and the one Naag Mani) back? Will Sagar be reunited with his father? Where is the other Naag Mani? Will the three poor miniature girls be restored to their regular size before a predator gets them?
Watch Cobra Girl to find out! Watch it even if you don’t care, because it is chock full of Fantastic. The art director deserves an Oscar for this one: just look at the detail in these sets. Even the innkeeper’s (comparatively) modest room is so inviting!
Tiwari doesn’t cross-dress in this one unfortunately, but he is just so good at being bad.
There are lots of animals (and reptiles!) in this providing help or acting as obstacles to the triumph of good over evil.
My favorites are Raja the CSP pony (who looks as sad when Chanda dies as the people do):
And these lovely big cats, who look very well-trained and -cared for and not at all like stock footage.
Lovely, lovely, lovely. They are excellent stunt cats, with no need for stuffed doubles; if there are times where their wrestling is obviously more playful than menacing I don’t care, and I am happy when I can see them still breathing after they’re supposed to be “dead”. There is some disturbingly realistic animal-on-animal (alligator-crocodile, hyena-leopard) violence, but I fast-forwarded through most of that and prayed that there was some sort of SPCA type on site to keep them all safe.
Even at its most tedious (ie the CSP, which veers from irritatingly dumb to racist):
there is so much to look at that it is easy to bear. I particularly love Shigali’s “vehicle” that more closely resembles a plump Chia pet sparrow than the majestic flying eagle it is supposed to be:
The film itself seems to have mostly survived in pretty good shape, until it fell into the hands of Shameroo and was chopped up, defaced (the periodic scrolling advertising is beyond intrusive), and squeezed onto a VCD. I can only hope that someday the print will find its way into the hands of someone who deserves it. If that day comes I will be the first in line to celebrate and actually pay for a copy! (*Memsaab sticks her tongue out at Shameroo*)