When the idea was pitched for a “counter culture” theme for a B-Masters Round Table, I was both excited and apprehensive. On the one hand, it was a subject with which I had acute first-hand experience, which meant I wouldn’t have to rely simply on theory and supposition to extract some sort of a review from the material. I could ramble on endlessly about some obscure thing that happened to me back when I was sixteen and the world was new. I was, however, also apprehensive, as I am sometimes loathe to throw myself into public discourse regarding the counter-cultures with which I have some connection. Not because I’m ashamed, mind you. Hell, I’m still associated in some way with pretty much every loony thing I ever believed in or adopted as an identity. But I’ve read a lot of the “studies” about these things.
Specifically about “punk,” and the studies almost always irritate me by being either ill-informed dissertations done by outsiders who claim to be authorities on the subject but aren’t; or they are highly subjective and often rose-colored pseudo-documentaries done by people within the culture itself and thus too close, or just not talented enough, to produce something I considered to be a worthwhile study. Counter-cultures are often extremely personal, and the definition of what constitutes a “punk” or a “hippie” or whatever generally varies greatly from person to person, making any attempt to represent it as part of some intellectual study moot, in my opinion. Ask a hundred punks what it means to be a punk, and you’ll get a hundred different answers. Most of these are living cultures (or counter cultures), after all, and the definition changes — sometimes dramatically — as one wave gets older and a new one assumes the mantle.
So what was I going to write about? Punks? Mods? Skinheads? Nerds? I have a foot in each of those counter-cultures. Eventually the answer emerged. I have my Mod side, but I was never really a part of a larger Mod culture. And I have some skinhead in me, but as the dominant definition of skinhead when I was a teenager was that of a violent neo-Nazi meathead, my skinhead side is restricted mostly to fashion and the bygone era of skins in the 60s and 70s listening to reggae and old ska. Nerdism and punk are the two counter-cultures with which I am most involved. So what was a good punk movie? As in, a movie about punks, rather than made by punks. Yeah, yeah. Suburbia. Or how about Thrashin’? Any of those would be fun enough. In the end, though, I wanted something a little more narrowed down.
And that’s when the Hare Krishnas entered the picture.
1990 was an interesting year for me. It was my first year away at college, exposed to a larger world than the one presented to me growing up in a small town about half an hour outside of Louisville (and farther outside of Louisville still before they built the interstate entrance). In what was then my recent past, I had discovered a something called punk rock — a journey that, I think, has probably been chronicled elsewhere on this site, though I can’t remember where at the moment (suffice it to say that it had a lot to do with that Night Flight block of programming that used to air on the USA cable channel when they used to showed cool stuff). Most of the punk rock to which I was exposed at the time was of the hardcore variety. Lots of Cro-Mags, even more Youth of Today. That kind of music. Pretty fun when you’re a kid.
Anyway, some time around…what? Was it like 1988 or 1989? Anyway, this guy Ray Cappo, who was the frontman for the popular and influential New York hardcore band Youth of Today, discovered “Krishna Consciousness” and started talking about it a lot — or more accurately, started singing about it a lot. Or even more accurately, started doing that garbled, strained thing he used to do into a mic about it a lot. When Youth of Today finally disbanded, Cappo went on to form a band called Shelter, which would concentrate entirely on promoting the “Hare Krishna” agenda through hardcore music.
Krishna Consciousness first entered the American consciousness in 1966, with the founding of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness by a guy named A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Prabhupada’s sect drew from the tradition of Gaudiya Vaishnava Hinduism and relied largely on the Srimad Bhagavatam and the Bhagavad-gita as its core texts, though many historians claim that the translations of each work commonly used and sold by Krishnas are somewhat suspect in their accuracy. I’m no expert on the translation of ancient Sanskrit texts, so I will mention that debate without making any personal judgment regarding its merits. Prabhupada chose to focus his efforts on the West rather than native India, which again caused debates of various types. Was he peddling a goofy version of Hinduism to gullible Westerners? Was he exploiting Indian culture for his own gain? Was he a true believer who simply wanted to share his philosophy with the rest of the world? Whatever the case, ISKCON flourished, particularly in the United States and England.
At the time of Krishna Consciousness’ arrival on the punk rock stage, what little punk rock press existed was up in arms. Maximumrocknroll — at the time the only punk rock publication with substantial distribution (OK, OK, there was also Flipside, for all your “yet another grainy nude picture of Lisa Suckdog” needs) — did a huge article about the dangers of Krishna Consciousness being peddled to a group as impressionable as teenage hardcore fans. The gist of their series of articles was that hardcore kids, like most kids (including most punks, despite what they may tell themselves), are, by and large, followers. In the late 1980s there were few figures in the scene who had as much influence over these kids (and when I say “these kids,” I count myself among them, sort of) as Ray Cappo. By being so open and so enthusiastic about his newfound spirituality, Cappo was going to convince a lot of young boys and girls (mostly boys) to throw their lot in with the Hare Krishnas.
Further expanded, the article and many that came after it put forth the notion that the Krishnas were basically a cult, and that by leading kids to this cult, Ray was setting up a whole bunch of unsuspecting teens to be exploited and taken advantage of. Tales began to swirl of Krishna programming centers and, more fantastically, Krishna farms that served as money laundering facilities, drug depots, and arms smuggling rings. The tone of the articles was generally alarmist and perhaps not entirely well-researched. But also not entirely off-base. Being something of a fringe religion even (in fact, especially) among Hindus, the Hare Krishnas attracted their fair share of loonies and recovering fuck-ups, including drug addicts and, for whatever reason, reforming Neo-Nazis. While some, perhaps even many, of these people truly found some sort of personal salvation in the saffron robes, plenty of others quickly reverted to their old ways or used the cover of a “benign and friendly” religion to cover the fact that they’d never changed in the first place.
In my opinion, the only thing that separates a cult from a religion is time, and like any religion (or cult), Krishna Consciousness contained a lot of kind and compassionate people and a lot of swindlers, crooks, and scumbags. The somewhat flamboyant and exotic nature of their religion simply made the exposure of Krishna crooks and scumbags more sensational than, say, the exposure of scumbag Christians or Jews. Whatever the case, the whole explosion of Krishna within the hardcore scene was a big, if somewhat silly, to-do, that occupied a lot of time and badly Xeroxed pages in punk rock fanzines across the United States. Among the people to waste words on the phenomenon was a fairly dumb fanzine out of Louisville, Kentucky, called And When There’s Darkness. The person in charge or writing, laying out, copying, and distributing this zine eventually went on to start a website called Teleport City, but we needn’t concern ourselves with that.
I remember my take at the time being apprehensive but somewhat less terrified and enraged than others. I also remember that I copied a bunch of “facts” about Krishna cults without ever once checking the accuracy of the claims. To me, having never met an actual Krishna at the time, they were mostly figures of comedy from movies like Airplane and Meatballs 2, provided you consider anything having to do with Meatballs 2 to be comedy. I was vehemently opposed to the idea of organized religion (and still am to some much less fiery degree), and while I objected to Ray being the Pied Piper of Krishna on those grounds, I really didn’t see it as a terribly nightmarish occurrence. Some kids would get into it because it was trendy. Some would really believe in it. Some might be exploited. Some might have their lives saved. Most would either like or dislike Shelter without ever waking up to suddenly find themselves playing the finger cymbals and dancing on the street corner. Hell, I dug that first Shelter record, and I didn’t turn into a Hare Krishna.
Or did I?
August 1990. I moved to Gainesville, Florida. Gainesville was notable for a number of things. I mean, things other than being the home of the University of Florida and our fightin’ Gators. Gainesville was where River Phoenix lived, at least before he died. It was home to No Idea, one of the most popular fanzines of the time, and thus had a pretty thriving and creative punk scene. And it was, it turns out, home to a big Krishna population. They had a house in town, a farm out in the county, and served free lunch in the university’s Plaza of the Americas (where all the freaks, punks, and hippies hung out) a few times a week. My interest was piqued for a number of reasons. For starters, there was all this business about Krishnas storming the hardcore scene and turning us all into chanting zombies (ever been to a hardcore show? not a difficult transformation). Second, there was my general fascination with anything outside the norm. And third, I had very little money, and free lunch a few times a week sounded pretty damn good.
So after a few weeks, when I’d been properly oriented to life as a freshman at a sprawling Florida university, I started hitting the Krishna lunch line. Most of the time, the food was pretty good. There was this fake beefaroni thing (fake, as the Krishnas were strict vegetarians) that was all right as long as you didn’t get a scoop containing a giant spice ball, but there was also this gooey yellow potato-based thing that was awesome. And then there was the iced bread, which was so good that they had to keep an extra eye on it to keep people like me from stacking up entire trays worth of the stuff. After going a couple weeks, I got to know a couple of the Krishnas well enough to strike up conversations with them. The main guy was this cat named Daru who was, among other things, a legendary Ultimate Frisbee player. In fact, the Krishnas apparently fielded a championship team in the sport, but I had little interest in that since, in my opinion, Ultimate Frisbee — like hackee sack — is a war to be fought between hippies and frat boys in flip flops. Daru’s proficiency with a Frisbee really only meant a lot to me when, in my photojournalism class, I had to do some “freeze the motion” sports shots, and I used a photo of Daru in mid-leap, decked out in full Krishna regalia, snatching a Frisbee from the heavens. I believe I called the shot, “The Whirling Skirts of Daru.”
The other guy I got to know pretty well was named Goro, and I liked him best of all because he had some strange, unidentifiable accent I referred to as a “Gymkata” accent, as it, like the cultures presented in the film Gymkata, seemed to have some vague basis in reality without actually being an accurate representation of anything that exists. Plus, he frequently referred to douchebag hippies as “fartheads.” Goro was the cut-up, and he called Daru his Ed McMahon since pretty much anything Goro said caused Daru to erupt in fits of uproarious laughter, especially when it involved calling some white dude with dreadlockss and “devil sticks” a farthead.
In time, possibly because I was a slightly better person in my youth than I am now, I felt it was only fair to give back a little after taking so much free food. So I started working in the serving line and unloading the van full of grub. My increased activity on the serving side of things, coupled with the knowledge that I appreciated Shelter and was a regular correspondent of this guy Vic DiCara (who had been in Inside Out with Che Guevara after Che changed his name to Zack De La Rocha, now played in both 108 and Shelter, and was doing most of the heavy lifting for Equal Vision Records, the label Ray Cappo started to promote was what now known as “Krishnacore”), made Daru think that I might be open to throwing my lot in for real with the Krishnas. I wasn’t, though in some ways, I was sympathetic to their philosophy. There was much in it that appealed to me. I’m not the cynic many people assume I am, and back then, I was more prone to actually believing in things. But I’ve never been a religious person, despite being interested in the historic and archaeological aspects of religion. Too many religions prize things that are antithetical to my being: fasting, celibacy, and most of all, waking up early. I was pretty up front with Daru about the matter. I’d talk philosophy, religion, and history. I’d read some books. I’d drop by the house for dinner from time to time. In the end, though, my commitment to atheism, sleeping in, and trying to touch naked boobies was going to trump the Krishna commitment to the supernatural, celibacy, and waking up at 5 a.m. every time.
But it was still a pretty interesting time. People I knew back home didn’t know if I was a Krishna or not, and being somewhat impish in nature, I had a good laugh leading them to believe that I’d traded in all my rare Misfits 7-inches and changed my name to Nara-das, which I don’t even think is a real name. Eventually, of course, I did trade in those Misfits 7-inches, but that was primarily to finance a particularly impoverished yet very fun period from 1992 to some time in 1993. You can buy a lot of bean burritos with extra red sauce off the gone but not forgotten Taco Bell 39-cent Fiesta Menu with the kind of money Misfits collectibles rake in.
So given my odd interaction with Krishnas, I decided to focus my round table efforts on them, offering me as it did a chance to indulge my interest in religion, history, counter culture, and people who sing and dance at airports. The most obvious candidate for review was the Bollywood film Hare Rama Hare Krishna because…well, look at the title. It was that or reviewing David Leisure’s performance in Airplane. Of course, I formed this opinion based solely on the title of the film and a DVD cover photo of aging matinee idol Dev Anand striding purposefully toward the camera while wearing an absurd poncho. How was I supposed to know that the movie would end up containing no Hare Krishnas and was, instead, full of hippies?
Granted, it’s not off-base for the hippies to be on hand. Before they “infiltrated” punk rock, the Hare Krishnas had their roots in the counter-culture of the 1960s. In fact, were it not for the hippies and, more specifically, The Beatles coming back from India armed with sitars and yogis and whatnot, it’s likely the International Society for Krishna Consciousness would never have been born. It certainly would have found little purchase in the West (and even less in the East) without being able to graft founder Prabhupada’s philosophy onto that of Western counter-culture tendencies. And they certainly wouldn’t have had the money to one day build a giant, gaudy gold temple in the mountains of, weirdly enough, West Virginia. So when I discovered that Hare Rama Hare Krishna was less about the Krishnas themselves and more about the hippies who fluttered around the periphery of the religion, I wasn’t wholly surprised.
It’s just that, for this round table, I really didn’t want to write about hippies. They’re the most obvious topic for a counter-culture round table. I’m not and have never been a hippie. I have very little I could add to the popular discourse on their counter-culture, what it was, and what it has become. I might have, at one time, found some satisfaction in making fun of hippies, but for reasons that may or may not be more clearly expressed later in this review, the fight has gone out of me in that regard. I’ve made my peace with the hippies, partly because I can see that my own counter-culture — one that evolved largely as a reaction against the hippies — followed the same trajectory: rebellion against parents, embracing of new values, rejection of the status quo, eventual fragmentation, dissolution into a fashion trend, adoption by the mainstream, and now punk rock costumes hang on pegs next to hippie costumes during Halloween. One has a picture of a nameless model in generic punk clothes, snarling and shaking a fist at the camera. The other features a picture of a nameless model in generic hippie clothes, smiling and flashing a peace sign. There we both hang, old enemies with nothing to do but look over at each other and shrug.
Luckily, Hare Rama Hare Krishna affords me an opportunity to freshen things up a bit by looking at a movie that looks at the hippie movement through the lens of a culture hippies were fond of co-opting, lending a slightly different angle on the typical American approach to hippie films. Unluckily, the movie often adopts an air of smug, paternal condescension, alarmism, and xenophobia that ends up making me do something I don’t normally do: side with the hippies.
The film opens with solemn narration delivered by the disembodied voice of the all-seeing Dev Anand. In a monotone sermon, he seems moderately satisfied that the teachers and gurus of India have spread Indian culture across the oceans to the West, where people trapped in the mechanized modern world are hungry for some sort of spiritual awakening. This introductory narration will feature the only footage of actual Hare Krishnas contained in the movie, and Dev seems to be cool with them. But then, we leave behind the dancing throngs chanting Hare Krishna and move to what appears to be a Montreal hashish house and the orange mini-dress clad shaking rump of Zeenat Aman. As she and her hippie friends listen to the Hare Krishna chant, they also sing about getting stoned. Now this is beyond Dev Anand’s ability to accept. The gist of Dev’s filibusterin’ is that these hippies are stealing pieces of Hindu culture with no real understanding (and frequently, just ignorant misunderstanding) of the history or underlying meaning. To them and their long-haired Beatles heroes, the chant has no religious meaning. Instead, it’s just a tune they listen to while shaking their hips and getting high. They are simply using it as window dressing for their alternative lifestyle, and this is offensive to native Hindus and Indians. Also, drugs are bad.
Fair enough. But rather than adopting the attitude that these misguided and somewhat ignorant kids really mean no harm and, perhaps, could be corrected on and educated in the actual history and meaning of Indian culture beyond its being a trend, Anand assumes the posture that the kids are basically rotten and evil and should be expunged from Indian cultural consciousness entirely. This is odd, because later in the movie, Dev’s stance seems to be that, “Hey, you messed up kids should stop smoking all that dope and chanting Hare Krishna, and take some time to actually learn about Indian culture.” This schizophrenia in over-arching message is pretty much the defining characteristic of Hare Rama Hare Krishna.
From there, we cut to young siblings Prashant (eventually growing up to be Dev Anand) and Jasmeet/Janice (who will grow up to become Zeenat Aman) being torn apart when their parents divorce. To lay it on even thicker, Jasmeet is told that her brother died! Years, later, young Prashant has grown into an old man trying to pass himself off as a young man by getting what I guess is supposed to be…is that a Beatles mop top? Moe Howard’s haircut? I don’t really know. Prashant is determined to track down his missing sister and eventually learns that she’s hippie-ing it up in Nepal. So off he goes to expose himself to the seedy world of lazy college dropouts smoking bongs. In Nepal, he locates his wayward sister pretty easily, discovering along the way that she’s fallen in with a bunch of drug addicts. So begins a creepy sequence of stalker-y events that sees the aging Dev acting more like a flirty suitor than a concerned brother trying to get his sister off the dope and away from the hippies. It’s hard to root for him as a result. Plus, we’re forced to choose between pulling for stuffy, sermonizing Dev Anand telling people not to dance or gorgeous, charismatic, fantastically outfitted newcomer Zeenat Aman, who dances a lot. The old man doesn’t have a chance.
Distressed at the state in which he discovers his sister, even though she seems fairly happy, Dev vows to rescue her from this hell of blissed out free love and fun. But for some reason, the most obvious course of action — telling her he is her brother, and their rotten parents lied to her about his death — never occurs to him. Why be straight forward and logical when you can needlessly twist and convolute things for no real discernable reason at all? So begins his odyssey through the hippie counter-culture, and it’s both funny and cringe-worthy to watch the once hip Dev Anand try to be hip to the next generation. He can’t really pull off the hippie duds as well as he could the peg leg trousers and slim cut suits of the 1960s.
The cautionary tale about drugs isn’t enough for an Indian movie, though, so Hare Rama Hare Krishna throws in a secondary plot in which Dev romances the pretty young Shanti (Mumtaz), a talented actress hardly worth mentioning in this review, so little does she do beyond get captured by and rescued from the film’s third plot, in which Dev gets on the bad side of some local thugs who frame him for theft. The story eventually becomes as convoluted as Dev Anand’s message, resulting in a film that aims admirably high but ultimately achieves little more than any of the old American “danger of the hippies” movies that must have influenced Anand in some way when he was writing this. All it’s missing is a scene where the freaks trash a temple or something.
If Hare Rama Hare Krishna is considered a classic of Bollywood cinema, it’s primarily because of the Burman’s music and Zeenat’s performance. The young actress steps into a controversial and unconventional role with the sure hand and confidence of a seasoned veteran. From the first moment she appears on screen, it’s obvious that this woman is something different than we’ve seen before — and nowhere is this more obvious than in how much we all remember her role while more traditional Bollywood heroine Mumtaz’s character is almost completely forgotten. Watching her outshine everyone around her was a portent of things to come. As a formerly cool actor’s star faded, Zeenat and her male counterpart Amitabh Bachchan ascended; Dev Anand was left standing there with a dumb haircut and goofy poncho he thought made him look cool.
Anand is an interesting figure in Bollywood film history. In his early days, he was a matinee idol cut from the same cloth as Cary Grant. Smart, dashing, suave, but not opposed to playing a goofball moment or donning a ludicrous hat in the name of entertainment. Until I watched Hare Rama Hare Krishna, I had only seen one Dev Anand film, Jewel Thief, and I thought it was lavish fun (similar, fittingly, to Alfred Hitchcock’s espionage adventure North By Northwest, starring Cary Grant). There is no particular reason I haven’t seen many Dev Anand films. I own several. I am not avoiding him. It’s just, you know. At the end of the day, he has fought so few zombie gorillas with sparkler fingers. He just didn’t come up a lot in our typical oeuvre.
In the 1970s, Anand faced the crossroads all aging actors face: how to adapt to new tastes and styles and how to keep pace with the young guys. Actresses, as you know, do not have to deal with this crisis, as they all vanish painlessly and willingly into thin air at age 28, emerging from the ether thirty years later to star in a weepy melodrama where the creation of a quilt is used as a metaphor for the rich tapestry of happiness and tragedy that is life. Dev found himself up against the rise of the trademark Angry Young Man, Amitabh Bachchan, and a shift in film away from frothy romance and old-fashioned adventures toward grittier, more streetwise masala films. Anand responded in one way that was predictable and one that wasn’t.
On the predictable front, he continued to play roles that called for a different man, often romancing actresses young enough, quite literally, to be his granddaughter. As far as I can tell, he never went so far as to cast a substantially younger actress as his mother while he himself played a character barely out of his teens (as Jackie Chan did, in his forties, with Anita Mui and Drunken Master II), but Dev Anand in the 1970s definitely gives off a creepy uncle vibe in some of his movies.
Less predictably, though, Anand took his aging star cache and used to to launch an auteur career of films that tackled difficult social subjects and unconventional characters. He often wrote, produced, and directed these films. Hare Rama Hare Krishna is one of the first “Dev the Auteur” films, though he was known for frequently appearing in films with more social value than usual throughout much of his career. This film is known primarily for two things. It is the first (and one of the only) Indian films to attempt to deal seriously with the counter-culture and social upheaval of the 1960s, including the adoption of superficial elements of Hindu culture by Western hippies, drug use, and the impact of hippie “pilgrims” on native towns and cultures. Second, and perhaps even more memorable, it is the film that introduced the world to iconoclastic actress Zeenat Aman.
Zeenat casts such a long shadow in this film that I feel bad for poor Mumtaz, who is saddled with the traditional good girl role. There’s really no hope of her character competing with Zeenat’s. The tortured, flawed wild girl is simply more interesting (at least to me) than the predictable, helpless good girl. Despite the destructive nature of Janice, her modern, liberated sensibilities make Mumtaz seem…quaint. And here, at least, I can recognize that my reaction to the two women is very much rooted in the culture in which I grew up. I understand that others can watch Zeenie spiraling out of control and lament that she’s not more like that nice Mumtaz. But I’ve always liked the free-spirited, the dangerous, and yeah, the slightly insane.
Which brings us to the difficult task of deciphering just what the hell Dev Anand was trying to do with this film. I mean, here we have his character, for whom we are expected to root as he champions “tradition.” But he’s not really championing tradition, because the movie is also pretty explicit in establishing the parents as abusive jerks. And here you have Dev Anand the actor, being at once progressive and reactionary, making a daring movie that challenged Bollywood conventions and mainstream Indian cinema, but using that same movie to promote the defense of “tradition” from cultural outsiders. Ultimately, the hippies of Hare Rama Hare Krishna come across as the most likable people in the movie, as the authority figures surrounding them are a uniformly seedy bunch. The hippies may be dumb and misguided, but the destructive nature of their drug culture is restricted to self-destruction, as opposed to all the jerky parents and thugs running around. Dev ultimately isn’t defending the old ways as much as he defending his ways — less about the whole of tradition, and more about the portion of tradition with which he is familiar and comfortable.
The final outcome is that Hare Rama Hare Krishna feels like an aging hipster trying to keep up with the times while, at the same time, fearing the change around him. As flippant as it may be to reference The Simpsons, it reminds me of a quote from Grandpa Simpson: “I used to be with it, but then they changed what ‘it’ was. Now, what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary to me. It’ll happen to you!” It also reminds me of the scene in Murderers’ Row where Dean Martin, formerly the coolest guy on the planet, awkwardly maneuvers through a club full of go-go dancing young people who regard him as some square old man.
In this sense, I can understand why this film and Dev Anand seem so confused about the message. I identify a great deal with Dev in one regard. I’ve watched the various counter-cultures I was part of over the years slowly change and become something else. I catch myself frequently ranting about how the kids these days don’t get it, how they’re adopting punk style without understanding any of the history or philosophy that underlies the look. I’m irritated by hipsters co-opting film buff stuff like zombies and ninjas without really knowing anything about them other than they are funny pop culture references. And because of that, even as I was sitting in judgment of Dev Anand’s killjoy stance in Hare Rama Hare Krishna, I realized that I was Dev Anand. Dev saw his culture being stolen by a bunch of people who didn’t get it.
As an independent traveler and backpacker, I’ve been int he company of people very much like the hippies Dev rails against in this movie. And while many of them have been kind, considerate, and well-informed, just as many have been selfish, inconsiderate, and destructive, turning potentially nice places into shitholes because they can’t be bothered to learn about the native culture or pick up the trash they may produce. I’ve seen formerly lovely backpacker hotels turned into festering sewers by my fellow travelers, and I’ve seen my fellow travelers reacting with condescending nastiness to locals even as the traveler rambles on about native cultures and wears one of those pointy Tibetan knit caps. It just goes to show you that grafting a hippie/Bohemian appearance onto someone doesn’t necessarily rule out their being an asshole. And India got hit with a lot of these people, and I know it’s annoying. I was annoyed when punk culture started getting blended up with crusty “got any spare change” hippies. I know what legions of unwashed, blissed-out Westerners did to parts of India and Nepal. So yeah, Dev, I understand why you are confused.
Similarly, and to tie this somewhat tenuously back to that Hare Krishna intro I wrote when I thought this movie was going to have Hare Krishnas in it, I saw the superficial aspects of a culture important to me co-opted to advance a religious agenda in the 1980s and 1990s (starting with Krishnas, but really coming to a head with the mid-to-late 1990s crop of fundamentalist Christian bands calling themselves hardcore or straight-edge). Just as I was yelling at him on screen to lay off the sermonizing to hippies, I recalled being like him. And just as Dev was defending the old ways that weren’t really like the old ways, it’s not lost on me that the “old ways” of punk that I defend are not the old ways of the punks that came before me. They are just my ways…the ones with which — like Dev Anand’s India — I am familiar and comfortable.
There’s a mirror effect going on in this movie. Just as it explores the foibles of a group of outsiders who adopt the superficial trappings of another culture without understanding it, Dev himself is using the superficial pop culture image of hippies without really attempting to learn anything more about what motivates them. Why have they dropped out of society? Why have they become attracted to Hindu culture? He flirts with trying to understand the counter-culture; it’s obvious that Janice has become a free-spirited, self-destructive hippie because she had such rotten parents. But in the end, Dev Anand is an outsider looking into the hippie lifestyle, and he’s just as unable to grasp its history and intricacies as the non-Indian hippies are unable to understand Hinduism from the viewpoint of a lifelong cultural Hindu.
It’s unlikely that I will be able to make much more sense of the message of the film than that. It’s closer to say that, if I haven’t made sense of it, I’ve at least made my peace with it. I understand Dev’s dilemma, and I understand why his message is such a jumbled mess of progressive thinking and reactionary sensationalism. It makes for a sloppy movie, but I have to say that as I’ve sat here and written it out, I get what’s happening in the man’s head even if it’s impossible to get what’s happening in the movie itself.
Speaking of “the movie itself,” all this talk about themes and culture and identity crisis fail to answer one question: is the movie any good? Well, yeah. Sort of. It’s not great, and there’s a reason that Zeenat and her fabulous array or outfits and sunglasses are the most memorable part of the film. It’s more historically interesting than it is genuinely enjoyable, but there’s enough of the masala mix so that, while it’s a bit of a chore to get through, it’s ultimately worth the effort. As you would expect from a 1971 Bollywood film about hippies, the costumes and set design are candy-colored and lavish. Zeenat parades across the screen in a dazzling array of gaudy and gorgeous outfits. Concentrate on them, because pretty soon, Dev Anand will show up in his poncho, and there’s no salvaging that look.
Poncho aside (and to say nothing of the outrageously gigantic orange scarf he wears — it may very well cross the line from scarf and stray into granny’s shawl territory), Anand crafts a decent movie. This was his second film as a director, and the first that was successful. A year earlier, he wrote, starred in, and directed the espionage thriller Prem Pujari. The film wasn’t really a success, possibly because India was ready to move on to the era of Amitabh Bachchan and didn’t want to see an old guy Bonding it up in a 60s style spy movie. But he must have learned a lot from the experience, because he comes out swinging with Hare Rama Hare Krishna, and while he doesn’t hit the ball out of the park (because he’s probably playing cricket, you know), there’s notable progress. He doesn’t really succeed in balancing his masala movie with his hippie drama, but then, plenty of Indian films fail to achieve a proper balance of their many conflicting elements. And the musical numbers are pretty great, including Zeenat’s iconic “Hare Rama Hare Krishna” number.
A serviceable if somewhat awkward masala adventure, very much in the spirit of old exploitation films that seek to teach us the perils of assorted alternative lifestyles even as they indulge in endless scenes of said lifestyle. Heck, even the confused message of the film is a throwback to the “have your cake and eat it too” style of cautionary exploitation films. In itself, that isn’t bad. But with a bit more work and a bit more willingness to question the convictions of his own character, Dev could have created something more along the lines of Joe, another film that revolves around an authoritarian figure (a father, in this case) seeking to “rescue” his daughter from a hippie lifestyle.
Hare Rama Hare Krishna never delves into the dark territory explored by Joe, but there are definitely similarities as Dev’s character immerses himself in the hippie lifestyle while trying to get someone out of it. And while Hare Rama Hare Krishna may not culminate in the explosively violent shotgun massacre ending of Joe, it certainly doesn’t end on an upbeat note. The big difference between the two films is that Dev presents his character as the hero, with very little ambiguity, where as the father and his eventual anti-hippie ally in Joe are much darker, questionable characters. Such moral greyness would have been out of step with the Bollywood Dev Anand knew, but perfectly in step with the Bollywood that was being born just on the other side of Hare Rama Hare Krishna. Like Dev himself, his movie ends up with one foot in each era, belonging to neither.