The character of the high-kicking female badass was fairly commonplace in Asian cinema by 1974, especially in films coming out of Hong Kong and Japan. But in Bollywood, not so much. In fact, until recently, the only such character in a seventies Bollywood film I would be able to name off the top of my head would be the one played by Zeenat Aman in the original Don. Still, the 1974 film Geetaa Mera Naam puts just such a character front and center, talking tough, sticking it to the man, and dealing out whoopass to all comers without a thought of depending on male chivalry for her fortunes. Just what would it take to get a film focusing on such a character made in the Bollywood of the early seventies? Well, in the case of Geetaa Mera Naam, it probably didn’t hurt that the film’s director was a woman, and that that woman was also the movie’s star — a star who intended Geetaa Mera Naam to be her farewell to her audience after a short-lived but eventful career as a beloved screen icon.
Achieving stardom at the dawn of the sixties, Sadhana Shivdasani — often billed at the time as simply “Sadhana” — staked out a place as one of the defining glamour girls of that decade, inspiring trends with the sophisticated fashions she wore on screen, as well as the distinctive, Audrey Hepburn-inspired hairstyle that would come to be known as the “Sadhana Fringe”. Her dual role in the 1964 hit Woh Kaun Thi? (Who Was She?), an atmospheric mystery unusual at the time for its supernatural overtones, cemented her image as an exotic woman of mystery, and would influence many of the roles that she was to take from that point on. As the decade came to a close, Shivdasani, still at the peak of her enormous popularity, was stricken with a disfiguring thyroid condition, and was forced to withdraw for a time from the limelight. After successful treatment, she returned to making films, but by 1974 had found that the demands of her profession were beginning to wear on her. Wanting to leave the industry while still on top of her game, and on her own terms, she decided — with the support of her husband, director R.K. Nayyar, as producer — to take the reigns of her cinematic swan song by assuming the role of director as well as lead actress. As she would later say, “I wanted to be remembered as a heroine”.
It’s clear that Sadhana Shivdasani could have made any film she wanted at this point in her career. The fact that she chose to make Geetaa Mera Naam (Geetaa is My Name), to me, makes it even more tragic that she wouldn’t go on to direct more. Though not without a degree of unfulfilled promise, the film strikes enough of a balance between over-ripe melodramatic cheese and lurid exploitation excess to make it an outstanding example of the exuberant madness that was 1970s masala cinema. To further distinguish it, Shivdasani and Nayyar (who also scripted) loaded Geetaa with a level of overt kink and perverse psychosexual overtones that had to be fairly boundary-pushing by the conservative standards of its day. Or any day, for that matter, given that it’s lip-kissing-averse Bollywood we’re talking about here.
In addition to being kinky, trashy, sappy, kitschy and pulpy in fine measure, Geetaa Mera Naam is also yet another example of a film made in the “lost and found” mold so popular in its era, and as such begins by introducing us to the family whom fate will soon tear asunder. The widow Saraswati really does have quite a brood on her hands and, as the film opens, she has taken her twin baby girls, Geetaa and Kavita, and her two young boys, Suraj and Chandu, to the village fair. The boys, as any ten year old boys with an overburdened mother too exhausted to police them might, quickly get down to the business of getting tattoos, but Suraj soon becomes preoccupied with a stuffed monkey that one of the nearby vendors is selling. It’s one of those creepy fabric animals with a plastic, caucasian-flesh-colored face of the kind apparently designed to provide baby boomer children with a lifetime of nightmares. Suraj begs his mother to buy the monkey for him and, after some protest, she relents. Unfortunately, Suraj doesn’t get the chance to enjoy his monkey in peace, because no sooner is it in his hands than he is swept away by a gang of marauding bandits on horseback. As Saraswati runs after the fleeing bandits with Geetaa in arm, the fairground breaks out in pandemonium, and the other children are lost in the fracas.
After the credit sequence, we are brought up to date on how and where Saraswati’s children, now grown to adulthood, have ended up. Chandu, it turns out, was found by a kindly couple who, after looking around the fairground for his mom a bit, simply decided to take him home and raise him as their own — which makes me nostalgic for those days before Amber Alerts when the policy was pretty much “finders keepers” as far as lost children were concerned. Chandu has grown up to be a righteous and by-the-book police inspector. This makes him one of Geetaa Mera Naam‘s moral anchors, but also not a very interesting person, so it’s no surprise that we don’t see a lot of him as the film progresses. For her part, Kavita — now known as Neeta — has not fared quite so well in terms of her adoptive parents, as when we meet those parents they are in the process of selling Neeta for unwholesome purposes to an underworld figure named Mohan. Neeta, a virtuous schoolmarm, is totally taken by surprise that her parents would do such a thing, which is a little surprising in itself, given that her parents are so obviously a pair of greedy slimebags. You’d think Neeta would have had ample opportunity to notice this over the course of living with them for give-or-take thirty years.
As for Suraj, his life among the bandits has lead to him meeting adulthood as Johnny, the leader of what is — judging from his lavish-if-eccentrically-appointed lair — a very successful international smuggling ring. Despite the name change, it’s quite easy to identify Johnny as Suraj, because, in one of Geetaa Mera Naam‘s many deliciously crackbrained touches, he carries that same stuffed monkey from the fairgrounds with him literally at all times. In this sense the monkey serves as a more disturbingly psychologically revealing version of Ernst Blofeld’s Persian cat, and Johnny can often be seen stroking its head distractedly as all manner of depravity plays out at his bidding. Johnny’s numerous foot soldiers — who, when not busy smuggling, serve as models for an array of colorful neckwear — sit in rows alongside the walls of the space-age assembly hall that makes up the centerpiece of his lair, and when one of them displeases him, Johnny flicks a switch which tips that minion’s chair back, dumping him into a waiting vat of molten wax, after which the underperforming toady appears in one of the glass cases lining the wall as a glistening wax statue.
Johnny is far from a soulless killer, however, and on those occasions when his high standards have driven him to take a human life, he does penance by having a brawny, leather-trussed and handlebar-mustached lackey named Sheru lash him repeatedly across the bare back with a whip. Now, you would be right in wondering how Johnny can effectively command a successful international smuggling operation when he is so obviously fucking out of his mind, which is why it’s fortunate he has at his side his longtime friend and trusted right-hand man Raja, who keeps him on a relatively even keel while himself tending to some to the day-to-day unpleasantries that such an operation entails.
Appropriately, the cast of Geetaa Mera Naam is well-stocked with co-stars from Sadhana’s previous films. Sunil Dutt, in fact, had been her leading man no less than three times, including in one of her biggest hits, Waqt (which also featured Achala Sachdev, the actress who here plays Saraswati), so it’s no real surprise that he was handed the meaty role of Johnny. Dance queen Helen, who plays Raja’s conniving girlfriend Savitri, was an even more frequent player in Sadhana’s films, though, given her prolific output, that might have been as much a statistical inevitability as it was the result of any special relationship between the two. Finally, for the role of Raja, Sadhana and Nayyar cast her co-star from 1965′s Arzoo: that he-man among he-men, Feroz Khan, a choice which, if you’re familiar with Khan’s work at all, guarantees you that Geetaa Mera Naam will not be light on testosterone-drenched mayhem.
I used to think of Amitabh Bachchan as being, by default, the king of 1970s Bollywood action cinema. But the problem with that concept is those pesky acting chops of his. Because of his range and versatility, Bachchan could play drama and comedy as well as action, and often did each separately, in addition to often combining all of them within one picture. Because of this, his name doesn’t have quite the branding effect that today an American star’s like, say, Steven Seagal does. This is because of the looming potential for one of Amitabh’s films to actually be different from the one that preceded it — despite it being marketed very similarly due to the bank riding on his “Angry Young Man” image at the time. In the case of Feroz Khan, on the other hand, there were apparently just three things that the actor did — or cared to do — well: punching people, taking his shirt off, and being hairy. And if you invest your time in any Feroz Khan film made between 1970 and 1980, the chances are astronomically high that that is precisely what you are going to get. The man is simply the living trademark for seventies Bollywood at its most two-fisted and funkily furious. Furthermore, evidence suggests that he was very much a player in forging that association, because when he finally got the chance to direct his own film in 1980, what he made was Qurbani, arguably one of the greatest — and not to mention most absurdly, insanely macho — action films in Bollywood history.
And Feroz’s fists do indeed see a lot of action in Geetaa Mera Naam, as does his chest see a lot of open air, most memorably in a scene where Helen — reclining with him on his round, revolving bed — undoes his zippered shirt with her teeth. All this made me wonder if female audiences at the time really wanted to see Feroz’s lushly-carpeted upper torso as much as he wanted to show it to them. However, it may just have been that it wasn’t their fantasies that were being addressed. After all — to put it in a more contemporary framework — Feroz is nothing if not the ideal to which consumers of Axe Body Spray desperately aspire, despite them being separated by several musky gene pools from ever attaining it. Perhaps then it is the deepest fantasy of all men to go shirtless whenever they please, and to do so with greater frequency the more hirsute they are, proving their dominance by forcing the women around them to behold their lush topiary in all its magnificence. If this is indeed the case, then the Feroz Khan of Geetaa Mera Naam is truly living the dream.
Anyway, back in Geetaa Mera Naam‘s more civilized quarters, we find that upright police inspector Chandu, not surprisingly, is pining to bring Johnny and his gang to justice, but is hamstrung from doing so by a complete lack of evidence. Meanwhile, the paths of Johnny and Neeta (played by Sadhana in one half of yet another dual role) are about to cross with fateful results. It seems that Mohan, in addition to being a defiler of virtuous young schoolmarms, is also a business rival of Johnny’s and, as masala movie logic would have it, ends up on the receiving end of a well-timed dagger in the back from Johnny at the very moment that Neeta is fighting off his unwelcome advances. As Johnny slips away unseen, Neeta is arrested for Mohan’s murder and thrown in jail.
It is at this point that we meet up with the last of the adult versions of Saraswati’s children to be accounted for, Geetaa (also Sadhana), who is being let out of Jail just as Neeta is being thrown into it — though without either one seeing the other. A switchblade-wielding, small time ne’er-do-well and street brawler, Geetaa is just getting off a short stint in stir for what Chandu describes as “bullying” some poor fellow who had the sac to hit on her. To mark her exit, the inspector deals out a boilerplate “yours is a path to ruin” speech, and Geetaa, clad in the first of many redder-than-red outfits that will make the most of the film’s highly-saturated comic book color scheme, deals out some fairly boilerplate J.D. attitude in return. Geetaa then hits the streets, and is immediately set upon by some of Mohan’s men, who have mistaken her for Neeta. The thugs drive her to a construction site with nefarious intentions, and are there joined by more of their number, though it quickly becomes clear that they had not counted on the power of Geetaa’s daintily applied sort-of kung fu. To make things worse for the hoods, Raja just happens to drive by at that moment and, knowing a stone fox in a jam when he sees one, joins in the fight himself.
Now this would probably be a good time to point out that, while I love Geetaa Mera Naam, there are a lot of instances in which I give it points more for what it attempts than for what it actually achieves. While Sadhana is good at the tough girl posturing that her badass streetfighter role requires, when it comes to actually selling the action, Sue Shihomi or Angela Mao she is not. In fact, she’s pretty atrocious. As sexist as I know it will sound, the only way I can think of to best describe it is to say that, throughout Geetaa‘s fight scenes, she appears far more preoccupied with not breaking a nail or heel than she is with defending herself against any mortal threat. (Though, of course, any of my own attempts at athleticism could easily be described in the same terms.) A scene in which she has to run while firing a pistol, in particular, crosses into the territory of self parody. Certainly, Feroz Khan isn’t any more convincing, but, in contrast, he’s typically spirited in his commitment, doing all kinds of gymnastics and pointless jumps while throwing his fists around — and he even does a little high bar action in the aforementioned construction site brawl that prefigures Pran’s Gymkata-prefiguring moves in Don a couple years later. And while it can definitely be said that the fight choreography — by the ironically named Mohammed Ali — is partially to blame, in the final analysis I’d have to conclude that Sadhana, as an action star, is a great romantic lead. To my mind, though, that doesn’t really hurt the film, because adequately staged fight sequences would only serve to make Geetaa Mera Naam that much less weird, and would in effect sap it of its very essence.
Anyway, having been introduced to Feroz Khan’s shirtless chest, Geetaa hits the streets once again, only to be mistaken for Neeta by a group of Neeta’s young students. Getting the clue that something unusual is afoot, she has the kids lead her to the jail, where she finally meets Neeta face to face. Gaetaa’s mother confirms that Neeta is indeed her long lost twin and, armed with that knowledge, Geetaa vows to make it her mission to clear her sister’s name. Suspecting Johnny’s involvement in Mohan’s death, she approaches Raja and asks to be made a member of the gang. Raja resists at first, but later, when a rival crook tries to immolate a bound Raja, Johnny and monkey on a makeshift pyre, Neeta comes to the rescue (in the process setting off a gas explosion that sends Johnny’s enemies’ graphically-realized flaming body parts whizzing through the air), and as a result is as good as made. An initiation ceremony follows that involves Geetaa holding her hand over a flame G. Gordon Liddy-style while reciting a loyalty oath, and concludes with Geetaa and Johnny mixing the blood from their sliced fingers. Geetaa Mera Naam is the type of film that never risks leaving anything to audience interpretation — at points voiceovers are provided to let us hear the anguished thoughts that the characters’ extravagantly anguished expressions already make abundantly clear — and this blood ritual provides one of many occasions for the soundtrack to chime in with a musical refrain about how “blood will recognize blood” (a sentiment which basically sums up the message of all “lost and found” films).
Now a member of the gang, Geetaa finds herself immersed in the shirt optional (for the guys, of course), pleather-clad, rotating bed-riding and oh-my-god-you-can-totally-drink-a-highball-while-floating-in-the-pool high life that the denizens of the underworld according to Geetaa Mera Naam inhabit. As with many of the most entertaining masala films of Geetaa‘s era, this is visualized by way of hyperbolic costume design and art direction that, in setting out to give the film’s predominantly working class audience a tantalizing glimpse of a world of impossible glamour and decadence, creates caricatures of seventies style that go way beyond anything seen in even the most savage contemporary parodies of that era. Finally, after performing various small-time assignments for the gang, Geetaa is recruited, along with Raja, to take part in a daring train robbery that for some reason is plotted out using a toy train and a kewpie doll. The robbery does not go as planned, however, and Raja (who I think was represented by the kewpie doll) is wounded, surviving only due to Geetaa’s ministrations. Thus saved by Geetaa a second time, Raja, who is now falling for Geetaa, pledges his indebtedness to her. In response, Geetaa comes clean about her plan to tie Johnny to Mohan’s killing and clear her sister’s name. This affords Feroz Khan the opportunity to model a series of those aforementioned extravagantly anguished facial expressions as he mulls over whether he should betray his best friend or the woman he loves.
Meanwhile, Helen’s Savitri is none too pleased about being replaced by Geetaa as Raja’s arm candy of choice, and sets out to expose her rival’s duplicity to Johnny. When she succeeds in her plan, the stage is set for Geetaa Mera Naam‘s most astonishing sequence, and for one of the most “I can’t believe what my eyes are seeing” song picturizations I’ve seen in all my long history of indiscriminately devouring these films. The song is “Haan Mujhe Maar Daalo”, and it occurs at the moment when Raja and Geetaa return to Johnny’s lair, only to find a Johnny who is wised up, wrathful and all too ready to deal out punishment. What follows is that whip-wielding brute Sheru stalking a white-mini-and-go-go-boots-clad Sadhana around the confines of the lair, lashing her mercilessly as she mimes the word of the song through grimaces of pain. At the same time, on the opposite end of the hall, Helen, clad in a spangly chorus girl get-up, dances in a giant bubble bath-filled sauna equipped with disco lights, mirrored walls and its own waterfall.
But Helen’s is no solo act in this instance, for dancing with her is a paunchy, pompadoured gentlemen in a clingy, beige polyester bodysuit that, with the addition of a wide belt to complete the ensemble, looks remarkably like one of the uniforms from Space: 1999. Such a physique and outfit would not seem conducive to lustful, serpentine writhing, but that is exactly what this fellow does, and to quite disturbing effect. As these carnal undulations progress, the gestures become more violent, with the man slapping Helen, pulling her hair, and pushing her to the ground as, all the while, she wears an expression of pained ecstasy. The song’s refrain is “There is life in death, death in life”, and we see both Sadhana and Helen alternately miming the words. But in Sadhana’s case it is a mournful yet resigned acceptance of life’s tragic nature, while in Helen’s case it’s a dark celebration of eroticized violence. It’s quite remarkable really, and despite the unbelievable bounty of kitsch that it delivers, still manages to be startlingly powerful on an emotional level.
And here I was about to go on my standard riff about how I don’t really get the music of Laxmikant-Pyarelal. The duo scored dozens upon dozens of pictures during the seventies, and it’s true that the small sampling of those I’ve seen have yet to provide me with evidence of just why they were so widely employed. That’s not to say that I think that their scores are bad; its just that they come off as very humdrum and conservative when compared to the wild genre-blending work that composers like R.D. Burman and Kalyanji-Anandji were doing at the time. Not only that, but, to my ears, L-P don’t have the gift for infectious melody that those other greats have. Of course, that might just be a matter of these ears of mine being white, Western ones, because Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s music sounds like it draws a lot more on traditional Indian themes than that of Burman and Kalyanji-Anandji, who made their mark partially through their incorporation of Western pop styles into their compositions. Whatever the case, Geetaa Mera Naam seemed to me to be the type of film that screamed out for the funky-ass Kalyanji-Anandji treatment, and because of that I approached L-P’s score with both trepidation and lowered expectations.
That said — and upon second listening — I have to say that the team rose to the challenge and delivered their best score that I’ve heard so far, built on slinky, minor key melodies, pulsing tabla rhythms, and augmented by staccato stabs of reverbed guitar. In fact, all but one of Geetaa‘s songs (a Sound of Music style number featuring Neeta and her schoolchildren) are good, and there is even one great one. That would be the pounding, oh-so-manly “Mohabbat Hi Mohabbat”, as great a musical showcase for Feroz Khan as there could possibly be. And in its visualization we get to see Feroz mime the song while joyfully doing all of the things he does best: beating guys up, wooing babes, swinging from vines and…well, and also feeding some monkeys. (Interestingly, despite all the monkeys in this movie, there weren’t any overt references to Hanuman that I noticed.)
One of the things I like about Geetaa Mera Naam is that it gives lip service to pieties without affording much screen time to the pious themselves. In so doing it distinguishes itself as that rare masala film that demonstrates an understanding of just how deeply boring such characters are. As I stated earlier, the character of Chandu, the morally irreproachable policeman played by Ramesh Deo, disappears from the movie for long stretches at a time, and is never around long enough to overstay his welcome when he does show up. Likewise, while it is Neeta’s fate that sets the whole plot of the film in motion, we never see Neeta herself again after her jailhouse reunion with Geetaa and her mother — not even to see her enjoy the freedom that has been so hard won by Geetaa at the movie’s conclusion. No, this is undisguisedly a movie about those who live on the other side of the law. And why wouldn’t it be, anchored as it is by a performance as commitedly maniacal as Sunil Dutt’s?
Still, in order to wrap things up, the virtuous must be brought back onto the stage, and so a climax is contrived that brings not only Chandu and Geetaa, Neeta, Johnny and Chandu’s wheelchair-bound mom, but also all of Neeta’s young students (don’t ask how) to Johnny’s lair. A truly chaotic free-for-all ensues, with much leaping, whipping and punching on the part of all parties, and, at its peak, Johnny produces a pair of rapiers and engages Raja in a nicely staged swordfight that rages across the entire expanse of the hideout. This whole sequence reminded me a lot of the cast-encompassing fight at the end of the original Casino Royale for all it’s everything-and-the-kitchen sink absurdity. And while the intention obviously wasn’t outright parody, it’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t conceived and conducted with a bit of a tongue-in-cheek attitude. In any case, it probably goes without saying that the movie comes through with a climax that is wholly appropriate to all of the fevered insanity that has preceded it, and which will disappoint no one who has been thrilling to that insanity throughout its running time.
As both Keith and I have alluded to elsewhere, exploring Bollywood’s past can be a bit of a blind slog for those of us English speakers committed to plumbing that cinema’s less reputable depths, especially given the dearth of written material that has anything more to say than how great Mother India and Sholay are. (Which they are, of course, but that’s beside the point.) We’ve all kissed our share of frogs, to be sure, and many of us might have given up long ago if not for the discovery of the occasional twisted gem like Geetaa Mera Naam. After all, how could one turn one’s back on a cinema that would give us so much unhinged perversity in the service of a simple morality play about the strength of family bonds? Or so much eye-rending comic book exuberance? Or so much pleather?
Geetaa Mera Naam‘s opening title card, displayed immediately before the title itself, introduces the film as “R.K. Nayyar’s Conception of a Super Hit”. And R.K. Nayyar’s conceptual instincts were apparently right on the mark, because the film indeed turned out to be quite popular with audiences. Sadhana would get her wish and be remembered as a heroine, even though the most indelible image to be taken away from the film might not be so much one of her heroic exploits as it would be her being whipped while wearing a white mini and go-go boots by a guy who looks like a Village People version of a medieval blacksmith. To my mind, however, that does nothing to lessen her status. Just the fact that she made this crazy movie is enough to make her a heroine in my eyes.