There is perhaps no other filmmaker who is as devoted in his opposition to subtlety as Indian director K.S.R. Doss. While I’ve fallen hard for Doss’s comic book world of kung fu cowgirls, thunder crash aided exposition, and careening camera angles over the past couple of years, it’s certainly not the place to visit if you’re looking for something that smacks of nuance or delicate shades of meaning. Doss (or “Das”, as it’s also written) hasn’t thus far received a lot of coverage from the English language blogs and sites dealing with Indian popular cinema. For one, his films, most of which were made in the 1970s, are just not that easy to come by. Unsubtitled VCDs or gray market DVD-Rs are about your only option in that regard, and even so, what’s available represents only a small fraction of his output. His obscurity is also in part due, I think, to him being more associated with the Telegu language cinema of Southern India than with the more widely recognized Mumbai-based Bollywood film industry.
Despite this, however, Doss did indeed direct a few proper Bollywood films during his day, starting with a couple of Hindi language reworkings of his Telegu hits in the early 70s. Among these was 1972′s Rani Mera Naam, a remake of his 1970 Telegu smash Rowdy Rani, a film that Doss refers to as India’s first “100 percent action film”, as well as the one that etched in stone his reputation as an action director above all else.
If Rani Mera Naam is any indication of Rowdy Rani‘s content, I can very well understand what Doss meant by that “100 percent action” distinction. Because, in contrast to the typical “masala”-style films of its era — which incorporated action as just one part of a larger stew of genre elements — Rani Mera Naam offers its viewer a steady stream of under-cranked fistfights, shootouts, vehicle chases, and stunts from pretty much its first frame to its very last. Although, as the 70s progressed — and especially in the aftermath of Amitabh Bachchan’s introduction of the badass, “Angry Young Man” screen archetype — mainstream Indian films became increasingly action oriented, I imagine that, as early as 1972, a film like Rani probably struck its audience as being fairly novel.
Also novel, I imagine, was Doss’s placement of a woman at the center of all of this wild action — and an ethnic Indian woman at that. Sure, India’s conservative audiences of an earlier generation had accepted Australian-born Fearless Nadia as a death-defying heroine of stunts films, but I suspect that it was another thing altogether to see Rani‘s diminutive star Vijaya Lalitha furiously karate chopping and rolling around on the floor with her opponents.
With her oversized, anime girl eyes, flitting, hummingbird like movements, and immovable mass of helmet-like hair, Vijaya Lalitha (or Viyayalalitha, as she’s also referred to) is a perfect human centerpiece for Doss’s cartoon world of over the top action and histrionics. Though I know very little about her beyond what I’ve seen on screen, I do know that the actress was a major star of Telegu films throughout the 70s, in particular as a lead in action films, and also a regular featured player in Doss’s films (including his shoestring 1971 Bond-alike, the much downloaded James Bond 777). Why this was so is immediately apparent upon seeing her in action. Not only does Vijaya fulfill her traditional Indian heroine duties by performing her fair share of energetic dance numbers throughout her films, but she also commits to her many action and stunt scenes with alarming ferocity and agility.
Southern India would prove fertile ground for the popularity of Hong Kong action films during the 1970s, and it is perhaps because of this that Telegu films seem to take a markedly more serious approach to their action choreography than do their Bollywood counterparts. Not that the “martial arts” on display are any more legitimate or less laughable than the faux fu seen in the films of Bollywood stars like Bachchan or Mithun Chakraborty, mind you. It’s just that it seems like a lot more care was taken to make those fights seem more hands-on, frenetic and visceral, with less incidence of the lazy, wide-of-the-mark blows being sold by loud sound effects that you see in old Bollywood films, and more actual down-and-dirty grappling.
Vijaya Lalitha, for instance, has a tendency throughout her films to take down her foes with leaping scissor holds and other acrobatic wrestling moves, as well as via frequent, wholly preposterous-looking wire-assisted flying kicks. That Bollywood’s female stars were either ill-equipped or unwilling to partake in comparable daredevilry can be easily demonstrated by contrasting Rani Mera Naam with a later Bollywood film that was obviously inspired by it, 1974′s Geetaa Mera Naam. The dainty approximations of kung foolery executed by star Sadhana Shivdasani in that film don’t even hold a dim candle to Vijaya’s wild — and often very obviously not stunt doubled — tussling.
I imagine that, for the above reason, despite the fact that Rani Mera Naam‘s producers replaced almost all of the Telegu version’s original cast with recognizable Hindi film stars (including even certified Telegu superstar Krishna, who was replaced by relative newcomer Vinod Mehra), Vijaya Lalitha alone was allowed to recreate her role. Of course, this didn’t prevent those producer’s, her being the titular heroine notwithstanding, from listing her eighth in the credits — with an “and introducing Viyayalalita”, despite her having appeared in films since at least as early as the late 60s. Nor, apparently, did it translate into any long-lasting crossover success for her, as she seems to have subsequently returned to making regional films for the remainder of her screen career.
Now, at this point, I think I need to step away from the podium and point out that I am in no position to speak about Telegu cinema with anything approaching my usual air of unimpeachable authority. (That’s right, yuk it up.) In fact, my personal experience of that varied and venerable cinema is pretty much limited to the films of K.S.R. Doss and other similar, female-driven action films from the 70s. These include not just other films starring Vijaya Lalitha — like the kinetic curry western Kaun Sachha Kaun Jhoota, directed by Jankiram — but also those starring Doss’s other favorite leading lady, the earthy item-dancer-turned-action star Jyothi Laxmi, one of the most confusing combinations of sexual allure and flat-out human fugliness to ever grace the screen. Of course, my experience of even this genre is far from exhaustive, which means that whatever generalizations I may make about it will be purely speculative and probably wrong. Which, of course, won’t prevent me from making those generalizations.
That said, I see some commonalities between these Telegu action films from the 70s and those of certain other regional cinemas whose loci lie considerably northward — by which I refer to those action films catering to the Punjabi and Pushto speaking audiences of Pakistan. In Pushto films like the notorious Haseena Atom Bomb, and Punjabi films like those starring one man industry Sultan Rahi, we see a reliance on revenge themes (frequently involving rape) that is strikingly similar to that seen in Telegu action films, along with an also similarly raunchy — especially in comparison to Bollywood films — approach to both choreographing and filming the female dancers. Also present in all three is a corresponding focus on hyped-up violence, lavishly grotesque villains, and shouty, oath-filled dialog, not to mention an absurdly profligate use of thunderclap sound effects and deliriously overstated camera moves to drive home already none-too-subtle plot points.
Now what these commonalities arise from, or which way the line of influence — if there is one — travels, I have no idea. In pointing them out, I’m actually trying less to shed light upon them than broadcast, as I’ll do, my own ignorance about them, hoping that someone out there who is more knowledgeable will throw me a bone and enlighten me upon the topic. But in any case, I will say that what sets these aforementioned types of Punjabi and Pushto films apart from film’s like Doss’s is the cathartic nature of their violence. These Pakistani movies simply seem a lot angrier than their Telegu counterparts, while the Telegu films’ employment of violence and volume — though, to my mind, too similar to be coincidental — seems to be more about simply showing their audience a rowdy good time. I should probably also point out that Telegu efforts like Rani, Kaun Sachha Kaun Jhoota and the Jyothi Laxmi fronted Pistolwali also sit squarely in the continuum of low budget, independently produced, “lady bandit” movies — almost invariably bearing titles that combine the word “Daku” with one of many badass sounding lady names — that continue to be made in seemingly bulk quantities throughout the subcontinent up to this very day.
What also distinguishes these Telegu films from the aforementioned Pakistani films is their reliance on the same hyper-real color schemes prevalent in many Bollywood films from the 70s, which further serves to take their violence out of the realm of the real and further into that of an especially bloody Tex Avery cartoon. My thesaurus is going to prove redundant here, because there are just so many ways you can call something “cartoon-ish” or “comic book-like” – and I’ve just used them all. The problem is that those two phrases sum up the look and feel of movies like Rani Mera Naam so perfectly that to use alternates would sacrifice clarity. Rani Mera Naam doesn’t make this situation any easier by so obviously drawing upon equally comic book influenced European films for its look, bringing to mind, among others, Modesty Blaise, Danger: Diabolk and even, to some extent, a bit of Jess Franco “Red Lips” films. And this is without mentioning its debt to some of the more surreal Spaghetti Westerns. So let’s just say that you’ll have to forgive me if I end up repeating myself a bit.
It is apparent from the start of Rani Mera Naam that Doss and his screenwriters were confident enough in the novelty value of their film to not feel pressed to come up with an original plot. Here we see, as in countless masala films — and not a few Spaghetti Westerns — a terrified child watching helplessly from a secure hiding place as her family members are brutalized and murdered by a gang of vicious bandits. The awesome thing about this scene is how it shows that young Rani was born with her hairdo at its full adult size, requiring that the poor girl grow into it over time; honestly you can practically see the child actor’s knees buckling under its weight. Anyway, from the vantage point of her hiding place, little Rani is only able to see certain identifying features of her family’s attackers: the leader has a gold skull necklace, another has a tattoo of three aces on his chest, another a weird growth on the top of his bald head, and another a gross, googly eye like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. These, of course, are all burned into her traumatized brain, both for future reference and as fuel for fevered flashback sequences.
In addition to Rani, only her family’s faithful manservant, played by Don‘s Iftekhar, survives the massacre. As a result, he pledges to raise the child as his own. As the credit sequence will demonstrate, this will mostly involve him overseeing Rani as she undergoes the rigorous training in marksmanship and hand-to-hand combat that will enable her to become an effective weapon of vengeance against those who killed her loved ones. With the credits out of the way, Doss then wastes no time in cutting straight to the business at hand, with the adult Rani (Vijaya Lalitha) — sporting the first of a series of eye-nabbing outfits that will range from Mrs. Peel Euro-chic to what can only be described as psychedelic Annie Oakley garb — making her grand entrance in the lobby of a swank gambling resort called the Hotel Three Aces.
Within minutes of Rani’s arrival, a chaotic multi-party shootout has broken out on the casino floor, with our heroine coolly dispatching all challengers with her trusty sidearm. Undaunted by the considerable property damage that has arrived in her wake, the Hotel’s manager, played by serial Bollywood baddie Ajit, then graciously shows Rani to her suite, only to promptly thereafter send some of his thuggish minions in to try to rough her up. In the ensuing fight we get our first dose of Doss’s approach to filming this type of action, which, in addition to the radically under-cranked tempo, seemingly involves having the camera literally thrown across the room and tumbled side-over-side as if it itself was a participant in the brawl. (Seriously, Paul Greengrass’s films look static and stage-bound by comparison.) Finally, Rani escapes from her assailants, though not before learning of the manager’s plan to have his henchmen rob the nearby “Citybank” of its gold deposits.
Our heroine then proceeds to the bank in question, where she foils the robbery by disguising herself in one of the henchmen’s uniforms — a bright red, sort of cardigan with a face-covering, ninja-like hood — then, posing as the getaway driver, delivering both the crooks and their loot to the waiting police. What then follows is a staple of Doss’s films, the obvious and quite terribly executed rear-projection motorcycle chase. I think the pinnacle of this appears in the later Doss film Rani aur Jaani, in which Aruna Irani and Jyothi Laxmi both take swings at each other and leap back and forth between their obviously completely stationary bikes as an anonymous stretch of highway spools out on the flickering screen behind them. With two-plus hours to fill with “100 percent action”, Rani Mera Naam actually gives us more than one of these, along with the chance to see an assortment of cast members doing their best to look like they are actually riding a motorcycle without any support from the surrounding ambiance.
Finally, disguised as a mustache-wearing prince — and with perpetual Bollywood comic sidekick Jagdeep (not given enough screen time here to be irksome) in tow — Rani makes her way back to the hotel, where she exposes Ajit as the Three Aces Tattoo Guy and then summarily executes him in a hail of bullets. As Ajit’s material circumstances indicate, the criminal lot of the slayers of Rani’s family has improved with the years, to the point where each of them now commands his own army of minions and elaborate cave lair. In fact, anyone who thrills, like I do, to the grotesque extravagance of 1970s Bollywood villains and their accoutrements will find Rani Mera Naam an embarrassment of riches in this regard. So much so, that it’s difficult for me to pick a favorite out of the several lairs on display — though I think it would ultimately have to be the one that’s entered via a cave located in the center of what looks to be the graveyard from Plan 9 From Outer Space.
Not surprisingly, given how beside-the-point plot mechanics are to Rani Mera Naam‘s success, Rani’s subsequent hunt for the rest of the gang is enabled more by coincidence and dumb luck than anything else. After a near fatal car wreck following one of the film’s many chases, Rani is rescued by a young woman who takes her back to her village to recuperate. Soon thereafter, that village is raided by bandits, and Rani and the woman are taken captive by a dacoit who is quickly revealed to be the Guy With The Weird Growth On His Head. Fevered, flashback assisted payback follows, and, in the course of laying waste to the bandit’s cave lair, Rani rescues a young boy who is for some reason being held captive there. The boy’s wealthy father, once having his son returned to him by Rani, then introduces Rani to an apparently kindly local politician, whose portrayal by also serial Bollywood baddie Madan Puri pretty much amounts to a spoiler in itself.
By this point, however, Rani need not look too hard anyway, because the villains, now well aware of her crusade, are simply coming to her. This they do initially by way of the hired help, which includes such colorful figures as a guy with a Freddy Krueger claw hand and a burly, hot pants wearing lesbian assassin — both of whom provide the opportunity for more camera hurling fight scenes, but ultimately fall prey to Rani’s righteous fists and superior ka-ra-te. Eventually the “kindly” politician, in a dramatic Phantom of the Opera-style reveal, is exposed as the Gross, Googly-Eyed Guy and exterminated, after which Skull Medallion Guy comes forward and successfully lures Rani into his trap. What follows is a series of sadistic tableau, with Skull Medallion stalking Rani through his lair with a whip (in a scene that was later mirrored in Sadhana’s Geetaa Mera Naam), then tying her to the back of his jeep and dragging her through the desert, and finally burying her up to her neck under the hot sun and filling her mouth with salt. Of course, this only qualifies him for the nastiest of treatment once Rani has gotten the upper hand, and she is happy to oblige by dousing him with gasoline and setting him on fire.
This being an Indian film, there are plenty of musical numbers to supplement all of this mayhem, all featuring Vijaya or one or another of 70s item girls Faryal or Jayshree T at their center. In an indication that Rani Mera Naam, perhaps unlike its source material, was a bit more than a low budget throwaway, the songs here are composed by RD Burman, who was at the time one of Bollywood’s most in demand tunesmiths (a fact that the film is happy to advertise by having Burman’s theme from the hit Hare Raama Hare Krishna playing on a transistor radio in one scene). Because this is a Bollywood film, Doss tones down considerably the nether-focused, upskirt approach to filming the dancers that is so prominently seen in his Telegu films. Still, other of his peculiar visual quirks survive, in particular his fondness for below-the-waist favoring, forced perspective shots that make his heroines appear to tower over their male co-stars. In fact, this is so pervasive in the films of his that I’ve seen that I think he can fairly be said to be, not only India’s first director of modern-styled action films, but also its first purveyor of giantess porn.
I watched Rani Mera Naam in the only form that I could find it: on a DVD-R made from a wobbly, Greek-subtitled VHS tape. Despite what you might think, though, that less than ideal presentation in no way prevented me from having an absolute blast watching it. Although I know a lot of its dialog must be priceless, it is a film that requires no translation. For one thing, the silent movie level histrionics insure that you are never in doubt as to the characters’ feelings and intentions, and, furthermore, given the film’s mandate, those feelings and intentions are little more than a formality, anyway. What’s more, like all of Doss’s action films, the director’s signature combination of — and I’m going to say it again — cartoon-ish style and nonstop carnage is enough to leave you in a state of “did I just see that?” disbelief even in the immediate aftermath of watching it, thus making it a prime candidate for compulsive re-viewings.
At the end of Rani Mera Naam, after having burned a swath through the criminal underworld like some kind of hell-bent, one woman wildfire, a spent Rani willingly surrenders to the forces of the law — who, being more than happy to oblige, throw the cuffs on her and cart her off. And much like her, I now, having gone on record with my feelings about Rani Mera Naam, submit myself to the harsh judgment of the lockstep, law-abiding world. Is this film trashy? Stupid? Gaudy? Lurid? Oh, hell yes. That and so much more. But if loving Rani Mera Naam is a crime, I don’t even want to know what’s right. Just lock me up and throw away the key.