Fate has conspired to push snake movies at me from all angles this month; so be it. Until Doodh Ka Karz came along this was my topmost favorite of the genre and it is at least still tied for first. I love it for the ridiculous special effects, the Seventies style, the star-crammed cast and the shape-shifting, vengeful ichchadhari nagin Reena Roy. These things more than make up for the heavy-handed (at times) preaching on a wide number of subjects: marriage, wifely duty, religion, sacrifice, revenge, redemption. I was only planning to mine this for screenshots for my “Nahiin! Face Gallery” (coming soon), but I couldn’t stop watching once I began. There are lots of Nahiin! Face moments, but there are some surprisingly sensitive ones too. All in all it’s an odd mixture of things, almost none of them boring.
Vijay (Sunil Dutt) is a professor studying the legendary snakes who, when they reach the age of 100, can change themselves into human form. Out looking for them one day he saves a man who has been attacked hilariously by a stuffed hawk. When the young man (Jeetendra, dressed like he’s just come off the Dharam-Veer set) hears of Vijay’s interest, he confesses that he himself is one of those snakes and that he is to meet his lover that evening—he invites Vijay to come and watch. To prove that he’s telling the truth, he transforms into a shrinking paper doll and then to a snake in front of Vijay’s eyes and allows him to watch a seductive dance with his beloved (Reena Roy).
Meanwhile Vijay’s best buddies are introduced to us via a birthday party, much like Agatha Christie dinner guests. None of them are very likable at first sight. Kiran (Anil Dhawan) is shooting at balloons inside the house—with children present—then invites a pretty girl to step outside with him for some sweet sweet love. Suraj is Sanjay Khan (and therefore, unlikable) and it is his daughter Anu (Master Bittoo, in a refreshing change of pace from girls playing little boys) whose birthday they are all celebrating. Rajesh (Vinod Mehra) is there with his fiancee Rita (a voluptuous Yogeeta Bali); Uday (Kabir Bedi) shows up without his god-fearing wife Sheela (Neelam Mehra), complaining about their incompatibility (he is a proud atheist). When she finally does arrive, he insults her in front of everyone. The last to arrive are Raj (Feroz Khan) and then the lovely Sunita (Rekha), who has brought a letter from Vijay for his friends.
Vijay has written to invite them to come gawk at the evening’s snake entertainment. None of them believe in his magic snakes, but accompany him into the jungle that night anyway. They are stunned at the sight of Reena in her skimpy gold outfit (so am I), but as her mate approaches her in snake form trigger-happy Kiran shoots him to save Reena from being bitten. Vijay is appalled, but I wonder why he didn’t foresee this happening, given their skepticism. I’m thinking he might have asked them not to kill the snake.
Reena (I don’t think she ever has a name in the film) is devastated and who can blame her? Her lover was such a sexy, sexy beast.
There is a bunch of stuff about him fixing his killers in his eyes and sending the images to Reena, and he expires tragically. It doesn’t take Reena long to dispose of Kiran (it seems to me that the friends get knocked off in order of their star status). She wakes him that same night and tells him that she is a simple snake charmer who was held captive by the snake, and that she’s grateful to him for saving her. Being the flirt (at best) that he is, he takes advantage, leading her by the hand into his room and locking the door. He realizes when he sees their reflection in the mirror that—oops!—he’s not holding a snake charmer’s hand, but it is too late.
…and off she slithers to dispatch number two.
Her second victim is Rajesh, and she accomplishes her seduction of him by changing herself into Rita’s form. It has to take a little longer (if they were all killed as quickly as Kiran the movie would end in about ten minutes), so Jagdeep is introduced as a snake charmer, and then Rajesh and “Rita” go off on a picnic or something, get caught in a rainstorm, have to check into the Sun ‘N’ Sand Hotel to dry off, and are forced into a dance competition there by friends who include Aruna Irani. The real Rita shows up at Rajesh’s house; when Vijay arrives soon after that and realizes the implications, they all rush to the hotel to save Rajesh.
But Reena bites him before they can get there. As Rajesh lies dying, Reena changes back into her Reena form and her despair at losing her beloved is palpable. It is very easy to be sympathetic to her, especially given Rajesh’s taste in underwear, but it’s also apparent that all this revenge isn’t really making her feel better.
The others gather, realizing that they are all going to be targets. Vijay takes them to see a fakir (called O’sage in the subtitles) (Premnath) and he gives them each an amulet which will protect them from snakebite. Uday rejects his and scoffs at the notion that the amulet will work, nastik that he is. O’sage proves it to him by carrying a cobra past his friends; they remain unscathed, but when the snake reaches Uday it bites and he is only saved by picking up the amulet. He is cured—cured, I tell you!—of his atheism, and devout Sheela is thrilled. He apologizes to her for his earlier treatment of her and suggests it’s time to make their marriage real, wink-wink.
Alas, their new happy and religious married life is doomed. It’s Uday’s turn (Kabir’s international career had not yet been born), and Reena sends a telegram calling Sheela away to tend to her sick brother.
She takes on the guise of a village girl (Prema Narayan) whom Uday saves from being raped and takes home to dry off (more rain). She puts on his wife’s “bridal attire” which seems presumptuous to me, but Uday doesn’t appear to mind. He offers her some brandy and seems very tempted to seduce her despite his new fondness for his wife When her attempt to bite him fails, she sees the amulet and realizes she will have to find another way or get him to take it off. Thwarted by yet another of Vijay’s convenient arrivals—she puts venom into Uday’s brandy but Vijay sees it and knocks it from his hand (is snake venom really blue?)—she disappears, and reappears on a hilltop pretending to be suicidal in order to attract the attention of Ranjeet in an afro wig.
He is astonished and pleased when she calls him bhaiyya: it’s not a common occurrence for him since he is, well, Ranjeet.
Anyhow she convinces him that Uday is her husband, bewitched by an amulet given to him by the prostitute he is now living with and calling his wife. Of course he believes her instantly (oh! the power of that word bhaiyya!) and vows to make things right, with predictable results. Kabir may be tall and handsome and God-fearing, but he’s no match for Ranjeet.
I love the delicious irony of Ranjeet trying to do a good deed which turns into disaster. Three down!
Reena skips and laughs in the forest but then—like the previous two times—is lost in memories of her beloved. These little episodes are quite entertaining, involving as they do a lot of snake-like writhing and contorting on the part of both Reena, who actually does it fairly well, and Jeetendra, who looks awkward and uncomfortable and makes me giggle. I am probably supposed to reflect once more upon the fact that vengeance does not take away the pain of loss or bring back the dead…but I just giggle.
O’sage is still pursuing the female snake too with apprentice Jagdeep, whose ineptitude for snake-charming forces O’sage to magically reproduce himself.
This tactic works, and O’sage’s been playing forces Reena to change back into a snake, which O’sage easily now captures. He leaves her in the care of incompetent Jagdeep and goes to tell the three remaining friends that they are out of danger. They aren’t so sure and want to kill her, which prompts another lofty speech from O’sage about the sanctity of life and how God is the only one who has the right to give it or take it away.
They turn to Jagdeep, who is easily bribed into giving them the poor snake. Raj somewhat gruesomely shoots her head off and I fret once again about animal safety on the sets.
But can it be that easy to kill an ichchadhari? I guess it was pretty easy to kill her mate, but there’s still another hour to go!
If my theory about star-power regulating the order in which they die holds true I figure Suraj-Sanjay must be next (actually I would have put him first but maybe that’s just me). And so he is, and I’m pleased when it’s accomplished with little fuss or plot contortion. The snake menaces his daughter Anu, and he gives up his amulet and his life for his little girl.
The peaceful look on Suraj’s face as he accepts his fate and waits for the snake to strike is touching—he is happy to exchange his life for his daughter’s. He is also, interestingly, the only one Reena does not attempt to seduce in some form. Vijay rushes in (conveniently again) and promises to care for her as Suraj dies. Four down!
The death of Suraj is the last straw for Raj. He tracks Reena down in the forest and tries unsuccessfully to shoot her in her human form. She taunts him that he’s next and nothing can stop her and vanishes. As he broods and drinks in his bachelor pad, a pretty girl appears in his doorway.
She introduces herself as Raj Kumari, fresh from London, whose mother wants her to marry Raj.
Is she really the nagin? Or is she who she says she is? Is Feroz a big enough star not to be killed off or will Raj suffer the same fate as his friends before him? And what about the ever-present Vijay? Will his beloved Sunita (who has sadly been mostly absent from the movie) be the instrument of his death? How did the nagin survive having her head blown clean off?
Plus, snake fight (which distresses me)! And a cat-fight too. This is an interesting film from a feminist angle: the women in it are all very self-confident and strong, but they are also the means by which the men die. Sex (or attempts at it) equals death, and the female snake is implacable and unmerciful in her quest for vengeance. “Women are scary” kind of seems to be the message, especially if they stray beyond traditional roles, but the women in this film are mostly fairly modern girls and they aren’t the ones killed off.
In any case I can be totally on board with the “vengeance is wrong” message, and that’s the main point of the film. I’ve now gone on even longer than usual so I’ll end with: just watch it, and have fun.