There are, of course, serious and contemplative films from India. There are some modern Indian films that are subdued, intelligent, and thought-provoking. It is highly unlikely we will ever review any of those films. Within the confines of the type of film I’m likely to review from Bollywood (which would be any film that is as silly or fantastical as the films we review from any other country), it’s almost redundant to describe them as “somewhat over-the-top.” If the average Bollywood film is always over-the-top, then a Bollywood “cult” film — action, horror, martial arts, or something of that genre nature — is going to be twice as over-the-top as its more mundane but still over-the-top peers. With me so far?
So it is no small claim when I say that, even within the context of over-the-top Bollywood cult films, Abhay manages to be still more over-the-top than the rest of the pack (technically, this is a Tamil rather than Bollywood film, but let’s not nitpick at this juncture). I don’t know what film classification happens above and beyond over-the-top. Perhaps there isn’t one, in which case “Abhay” is destined to become an adjective, a descriptive term for a movie so completely nutso that even over-the-top film shake their head in admiring disbelief.
Abhay first came to my attention when I was flipping through the meager selection of Indian films for rent at the local underground video store. Yes, yes, I know. World of Apu and Langaan and all that. Not what I was looking for. Suddenly, I was greeted by a cover featuring a screaming bald man, covered in tattoos and brandishing a huge knife, flying down the side of a skyscraper. At the top of the box, an employee of this particular video store had slapped a white label then scrawled a simple message in black Sharpie: “Completely Bonkers!!!”
I was sold. In my world, there’s no greater critical endorsement than “completely bonkers” followed by three exclamation points. It’s an even better public relations blurb than when all those punk bands would take out an ad in Maximumrocknroll adorned with fake critical slagging to the effect of “‘Filthy and horrible’ — Our Moms.” With considerable glee and a jaunty song in my heart (something by Kraftwerk, I believe, probably from the Computer Love years), I trotted up to the counter, paid my rental fee, and rushed home giddy with anticipation. Unfortunately, the disc looked like a team of hyperactive cats had been tap dancing on it. I don’t even know what you can do to a DVD to get it as scratched up as this one. Without much optimism for the outcome, I put the disc in my DVD player and confirmed what I feared: this disc wasn’t going to play. Putting it in the DVD drive of my computer yielded slightly more encouraging results, but not wanting to watch half the movie only to find it sputtered and died on this player, too, I advanced forward a little bit and confirmed that no matter which player I used, it was either going to not play at all or freeze up around the hour and a half mark.
With great sadness weighing down my heart, I returned the disc the next day, and the store confirmed that they too could not play the disc (though that didn’t stop them from putting it back out for rental). I used my free rental credit to rent something uplifting and spiritual (probably something where Paul Naschy turns into a werewolf), then returned to my humble hovel to seek out my own personal copy of Abhay. Heck, Indian DVDs only cost a few bucks anyway, so it wasn’t like I was taking a huge gamble. The tiny bits and pieces I’d seen as I tested the rental disc seemed to support the notion that I wouldn’t be disappointed by owning my own copy. A couple of days and $8.99 later, I was filled with a sense of euphoria once more as the package showed up from India Weekly, this times sans thousands of gashes and scratches on the surface of the disc.
Imagine my shock and woe, then, when after an hour and half of absolute joy, the disc sputtered and died in the exact same spot as the rental disc. “What sorcery be this???” I exclaimed incredulously. How could such a thing be? A little research on the internet soon turned up the answer: The disc, released by a company called DEI, was defective. Or rather, most of them were. The vast majority of people who bought the disc found that it died at exactly the same spot as my rental and purchased copy. Despite the fact that Abhay, from the half of it I saw, is prime material for release in the United States, no domestic company had snatched it up, presumably because they were saving their money for more movies about heroic cricket players. Thus, it was looking like there might be no way of ever seeing the second half of the movie short of buying a hundred Abhay discs and hoping one of them would turn out to be playable.
Oh, misery! I cried out to the heavens! Why have the Gods forsaken me? Why does the cruel, cold universe not want me to see Abhay? Dismayed at this disheartening turn of events, and reconciled with the fact that I would perhaps never get to finish a movie that freezes up right when the main character turns into a cartoon and starts spinning a slutty pop star round and round on his big Jim Bowie knife, I curled up with a bottle of rum and watched Odin instead, but its salve did little to assuage the pain.
Some days later, the sun dared peek once more through the grey lining of clouds obscuring my horizons. Tease me not! I cried out to the sun, for twice now he had let the warming rays of Abhay fall ‘pon my face only to snatch them away at the last second. Or more specifically, around the 5,400th second. On this day, a haggard man wandered out of the desert and, in between ingesting peyote and disappearing inside a sweat lodge covered in old cowhide, he said to me, “Why don’t you just buy the Tamil DVD? It’s the same movie, only in a different language you can’t speak.” Anxious yet dubious, I cashed in my defective DVD credit with India Weekly and ordered the Tamil release of the DVD, which goes under the name Aalavandhan. And lo the clouds did part and angels blew ‘pon trumpets of gold, for I was finally able to watch the entire movie without the specter of a defective disc throwing ice-cold water down my back when I least expected it.
But even then, there was a single tear rolling down my cheek. For although the disc worked and I had finally managed to watch this movie, I noticed that the non-defective disc was a slightly censored version that had been trimmed of several moments that were present on the watchable parts of the defective disc. Once more I threw my arms toward the heavens ‘pon high and bellowed with frustration and rage as the heartless Fates looked down from above and laughed at me as they pelted my face with cold, cold rain — but nary so cold as the coldness of their hearts.
I don’t usually go into a review of a particular DVD or aspects of that DVD, focusing instead on the film itself as something independent from its presentation on a disc. In this case, however, I feel like I should preface the proper review with some quick notes about the differences between the disc you can watch and the disc you probably can’t (a few copies play fine, some play fine for a while but suffer severe “rot” and become unplayable a couple of months later, and most like mine are simply defective right out of the box), if for no other reason than I seem to have spent so much time trying to get a playable copy of the damn thing.
The first notable difference is in the spoken language, though it you speak neither Hindi nor Tamil this is going to be of minor concern. Given the multi-lingual make-up of India, either language could be considered the “correct” language. It’s a Tamil film, but the Hindi audio track is just as authentic. The difference is in the English that appears throughout the film, which is slightly better in the defective DEI/Hindi version than on the non-defective Tamil version. The English subtitles are also better on the DEI version, both grammatically and aesthetically. But these are pretty minor quibbles with which one could live, especially considering the fact that the whole “disc will self-destruct at the 90 minute mark” thing overrides benefits like “subtitles marginally better.”
It’s the trimming on the Tamil disc that really steams my monkeys. There are several scenes of drug use that are central to the plot but edited out of the Tamil version. It fouls up one’s comprehension of what’s going on in a film that is already pretty bizarre. The notable edits come when title character Abhay (called Nandu in the Tamil version) seeks medication from a drug dealer and is instead shot up with heroin (leading to the film’s lengthy, highly entertaining freak-out and hallucination sequence) and when slutty pop star Sharmilee gets him all coked up. In both instances, the actual use of the drug is excised from the film, causing it to jump abruptly. It’s not like you couldn’t figure it out, but it’s still really irritating. There’s also a point in the Abhay-Sharmilee sequence where Abhay discovers he has been given a container of Ecstasy and offers it to Sharmilee. This too has been cut, along with a few lines of dialogue associated with the exchange. These seem like small cuts, but each moment is crucial to explaining what happens next. Without them, the film suffers and seems poorly edited rather than just poorly censored (similar to how criticism of jarring edits in John Woo’s Bullet in the Head are, in fact, short-comings of random cutting after the fact to fit the film onto one laser disc, rather than deficiencies in Woo’s original editing, which is quite fluid and smooth and doesn’t do things like randomly jump to a car-chase and shoot-out at the end without explaining what the heck happened to get us to that point). If there are additional cuts beyond these, I can’t say since this is where the DEI disc stops playing.
So there you have the frustrating circumstances. You can either have the uncut movie on a disc that won’t play, or you can have a disc that will play but contains a censored version of the film. I’m thinking of cobbling together my own version composed of the first 90 minutes of the Hindi disc and the last 90 of the Tamil disc, but then that sort of seems silly since I have them both lying around anyway. I’d like to see DEI either repress and re-release the film or just have a US company pick it up and distribute the uncut version. Until then, unfortunately, the trimmed Tamil version is the best we have. Which is a shame, really. Silly technical hitches like that shouldn’t mar what is an otherwise completely mind-blowing, thoroughly bonkers, and immensely enjoyable mind trip of a film that manages, as I said earlier, to be even more crazy and insane than the usual crazy and insane films India has to offer.
Kamal Hassan stars as heroic moustachio’d Vijay (always with the heroic Vijays, aren’t they), commander of a crack squadron of commandos who specialize in combatting terrorism. More important to the story, however, is that Vijay is about to marry gorgeous newscaster Tejaswini (Raveena Tandon, of Ziddi infamy). On this joyous occasion, Vijay decided he should visit his psychotic brother, Abhay (Nandu in the Tamil version) in the mental asylum and tell him the good news. I’m not sure what sort of reaction Vijay was expecting from the gibbering, bald nutcase (also played by Kamal Hassan, thanks to cinematic and shaving magic) who murdered their stepmother when he was twelve years old, but Abhay doesn’t take the news too well. In fact, he immediately proclaims Tejaswini to be a man-eating succubus who must have her throat slit in order to save Vijay. All things considered, Vijay decides against inviting Abhay to the wedding, obviously afraid of what sort of Best Man speech the guy would make. Abhay is obsessed though, and he soon orchestrates his escape from the asylum and begins a completely bizarre and violent quest to track down and murder Tejaswini.
Director Suresh Krishna and writer/star Kamal Hassan set lofty goals for themselves. Abhay was to concentrate heavily on the world as perceived through the eyes of its titular drug-addled psychopath, which means that there are ample opportunities to ratchet up the weirdness. To realize Abhay’s hallucinations and insanity, as well as facilitating Hassan playing dual roles without relying on age-old split-screen trickery that can give us so many Amitabh Bachchans in a single film, they tapped the visual effects wizardry of Das Chinmay, Sylvan Dieckmann, and George Merkert — who between them have logged major special effects work on big-budget Hollywood films like Serenity, Superman Returns, Poseidon, Starship Troopers, The Ghost and the Darkness, and Total Recall. Regardless of what you may think of those movies, there’s no denying that Hassan and Suresh Krishna were calling in some visual effects big guns, putting forth a vision that far exceeded anything ever attempted in Indian cinema, where effects work is often crude. The result made Abhay one of — if not the — most expensive Indian movie of all time. A huge amount of hype surrounded the film and the many special effects it would boast. Expectations were sky-high, and Abhay was poised to be the biggest release of 2001.
And it might have been, if many people had bothered to see it. Apparently, to be a big release, people have to actually show up for your release. Instead, and for a variety of reasons at which analysts can only guess, audiences shied away from the film, and it wasn’t long before the biggest film in Indian history became one of the biggest flops in Indian history. Like Megaforce, except that the effects are better, the movie is actually good, and Kamal Hassan never kisses his own thumb and thrusts it lovingly toward the camera.
Still, box office failure and critical and audience puzzlement at just what the hell Hassan was trying to do doesn’t mean the film isn’t spectacular, especially from the viewpoint of a cult film fan. It packs in a ton of breakneck action, some quality acting, and some absolutely inspired freak-out scenes. In particular, viewers go along with Abhay on a protracted heroin binge that is realized on-screen by everything from a seven-foot-tall Ronald McDonald wise man to Abhay turning into a cartoon character so he can engage in a bone-jarring kungfu fight with an animated version of Tejaswini. It’s absolute delirium, and for the most part the film manages to keep the frantic pace. Only once, during a lengthy flashback detailing the events that lead up to Abhay murdering their mother-in-law, does the film stumble. The flashback is interesting and essential, but far more drawn-out than it needs to be. The highlight of the overlong flashback scene is a prancing, dancing half-naked village idiot who keeps you thinking that the film is going to delve into weird pedophile territory, though it never does. The guy is just a harmless weirdo. Hassan could have chopped this sequence in half and had an even stronger film. As it is, it serves as a bit of interesting back story in a sequence that gets tedious, but at least it recovers for a blowout of a finale.
The special effects range from competent to outstanding, and though the film obviously revels in visual flash, it seems for the most part to be justified by the plot. And even when it’s just indulgence, it’s still pretty fun. The bulk of the effects are up to the standards of Hollywood productions of the time (2001), and they set a new benchmark for the quality of effects work in Indian films in much the same way Star Wars did in the United States and Zu Warriors did in Hong Kong. The animated sequences are also a real treat, though the animated versions of Raveena and Manisha Koirala aren’t nearly as sexy as the real things.
The martial arts choreography isn’t spectacular, but it’s still pretty good, and there are a couple stand-out action sequences, such as a car chase that sees Abhay leaping from vehicle to vehicle and the final showdown between the two brothers, that really make Abhay a stand-out action film as well as a screwed-up acid trip of a movie.
Highlighting the action is the fact that the cast performs quite solidly. Top Tamil star Kamal Hassan is wonderful in his dual role, creating two characters so individualistic and unique that you never once even realize you’re watching the same actor in dual roles. Vijay is stable, caring, but determined to protect his bride from his brother. Abhay is a scenery-chewing madman with a tendency to turn into a cartoon. Hassan is hardly a typical matinee idol. He lacks the rock-hard abs and sculpted male model body that so often passes for “tough guy” in the movies. Anyone who’s been in a scrap knows that most of these preening pretty boys are useless in a pinch. What you want is a guy like Kamal Hassan, boasting the same sort of body Joe Don Baker had in the 1970s. Yeah, sure, he ain’t got a six-pack. There’s a bit of a spare tire around the waist. But you never have any doubt in your mind that this guy could kick your ass while downing half a dozen beers without spilling a drop. He’s not buff, but he’s solid, and you know he’s tough. That he’s an engaging performer only sweetens the deal.
Raveena has little to do other than be occasionally stalked and menaced by Abhay while she looks ravishing, but one of my favorite actresses, Manisha Koirala (Dil Se, Company) has a hilariously grotesque part as a sleazy, sex-crazed, cokehead popstar who tries to bed Abhay before ending up on the bad end of one of his drug-induced hallucinations. She appears in a weird musical number, then shows up for the hotel scene, which she plays out almost entirely in English. I love Manisha. Love her to death, but man, acting in English is not what you might call one of her strong points. I have no idea what she thought she was doing. Bad as it is, though, it’s still pretty entertaining (and not as bad as all the English-language acting in the Hong Kong film Gen-Y Cops). Kitu Gidwani appears in flashbacks as the manipulative mother-in-law, while Anuradha Hasan plays the saintly real mother of Abhay and Vijay, who appears frequently to Abhay as a sort of ghostly Ben Kenobi hallucination.
The music is a non-entity most of the time. There are a couple run-of-the-mill numbers that simply wash over you and are rapidly forgotten. The only musical scenes that matter or are in any way memorable are Abhay’s hallucination about dancing with Sharmilee, and then Sharmilee’s utterly bizarre African-themed stage performance. The background score is…well, I don’t remember a thing about it, honestly. I don’t suspect audiences were coming (or not coming) to Abhay for the music.
Hassan’s script wastes no time, and even at three hours, he keeps the film skipping effortlessly from one crazy moment to the next. Hassan has a reputation as one of Indian cinema’s bolder and more unconventional risk-takers (placing him in the company of men like Ram Gopal Varma), and Abhay was certainly a risky movie. It’s equal parts psychological horror, Hong Kong action film, fantasy effects film, and musical comedy — even Indian audiences accustomed to seeing every genre imaginable crammed into a single film didn’t really know what to make of Abhay’s gloriously madcap combination of ingredients. Although it’s a financial failure, as a piece of mind-blowing phantasmagorical entertainment, you’d be hard-pressed to find a film more enthusiastic and strange than Hassan’s big-budget ode to schizophrenic kungfu insanity. It’s a bit bloated, definitely way over-the-top, wildly imaginative, and as a result, an absolute joy to watch — if you get to watch it at all.
Release Year: 2001 | Country: India | Starring: Kamal Hassan, Raveena Tandon, Manisha Koirala, Shri Vallabh Vyas, Milind Gunaji, Kitu Gidwani, Anuradha Hasan | Writer: Kamal Hassan | Director: Suresh Krishna | Cinematographer: Tirru | Alternate Titles: Aalavandhan