Every time I sit down to muddle my way through another cheap Indian horror movie, I assume that I’m not going to have much new to say about it that wasn’t said in a previous review, that eventually they would start to look so much alike that I would pretty much use up all my ammo and have nothing else worth shooting at. But so far — and we’re still, frightening as this may be, at the very beginning of our journey — each new movie I watch ends up being weird and incompetent in a way that, while similar to previous films, is also completely unique, allowing me to latch onto some tiny branch and inflate it into a full review. I’m sure I’ll run out of steam eventually, but for now, the ride still manages to surprise me no matter how prepared I think I am ahead of time. Eventually, and in typically convoluted, non-linear fashion, we will weave together, as best we can, a loose history of the Indian horror movie and its common themes. Along the way, though, we’re going to watch a lot of movies featuring guys in store-bought gorilla suits.
Pyasa Shaitan (aka Thirsty Devil — hey ma, get a load a’ me — I’m learnin’ to speak another language!) differs from our previous forays (Shaitani Dracula and Bhoot Ke Pechhe Bhoot) in a number of significant ways. First, it predates them either by a good ten or twenty years, depending on which production date you believe. Some sources list the movie as being released in 1984, others in 1985, and some in 1995. Indian films being stuck in a fashion and technology vortex, it’s impossible to judge the potential date of release based on film stock, the technical prowess of the effects team, or the clothing being worn. However, I’m leaning more toward the 1984 release date, as that seems to be the most popular. If I’ve chosen it, that probably means it’s wrong, but whatever. 1984 puts this film smack dab in the middle of the Golden Age of Indian horror films as ushered in by the oft-mentioned Ramsays (don’t worry — we’ll get to them soon enough). 1995, if that is the release date, would put it at the tail end of the big horror boom, making it one of the early south Indian attempts to inherit the Bollywood horror trend.
The second thing that sets Pyasa Shaitan apart from the pack is the appearance in it of an actual movie star. If horror films in the United States and India share anything (and they share much, despite the plentiful differences), it’s that many of them feature actors who are either washed up (Roddy McDowell in pretty much every horror film he ever made) or on the rise (Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun). For the has-beens, the movies attempt to cash in on the fact that we respected and enjoyed their work at one point. Sometimes, the has-been is the main character. Often, they show up for one or two scenes to lend their name to the credits and collect a paycheck. With up-and-comers, it affords the producers a chance to eventually re-release the film with new artwork refocused on the now-famous performer, regardless of whether they were the main character or just some chump in the background.The book Reel Shame is a wonderful look at the less-than-stellar early genre films of people better known for better things later in life.
In the case of Pyasa Shaitan, we get Tamil megastar Kamal Hassan. Teleport City first got acquainted with Kamal Hassan via the batshit insane action film, Abhay. To call him a star, a superstar, or even a megastar may indeed be understating his popularity in India in general, and in South India particularly. Hassan is a star of near demigod-like proportion, a position of power and admiration that has allowed him to indulge in a series of self-produced films of incredibly varied skill, ambition, and success. Hassan himself remains one of the most respected actors in Indian cinema, amassing a list of awards and nominations that any actor would die for. Rather than playing it safe, though, Hassan has never been afraid of taking on unconventional films, many of which ended up being commercial failures (even while being critical darlings, both in India and elsewhere throughout the world). He’s sort of like Anthony Wong times fifty, and with a better mustache.
Along with Superstar Rajnikanth (who as of this review has yet to be represented on Teleport City — an oversight we need to rectify sometime very soon), Hassan is the biggest star in South India. South India, it should be noted, is a film industry unto itself, not to be confused with the higher profile Bollywood industry that dominates the international definition of Indian film. Of course, South Indian films often are lumped in with Bollywood, and I guess ultimately that’s no more or less harmful than calling films shot and produced in New York “Hollywood films.” But South Indian films have their own set of stars (though there is frequent cross-over between the two regional film industries), are filmed in a different language (Tamil or Telugu rather than Hindi), and play to different moral standards. Although both Bollywood and Tamil films need to appeal to large, rural populations, the Tamil films in particular seem to focus on these audiences, resulting in films that are often rougher around the edges than their Bollywood counterparts, with less of the glamor and cosmopolitan polish that defines so much of what comes out of Bollywood. Plus, there are more heroes with beer guts and mustaches.
Exactly what Kamal Hassan is doing in Pyasa Shaitan is a mystery unless you consider him to be, like Michael Caine, a working actor who just takes a job. It’s also possible that Pyasa Shaitan was a much higher profile film than I’m assuming it to be. I initially hoped that there would be a little more information available for this film than there was for Shaitani Dracula or some of the other films that don’t feature one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Sadly, this didn’t prove to be the case, and despite Kamal Hassan occupying a prominent role in the film — which was released (again, provided 1984 is the correct date), in the middle of him winning assorted best actor awards for films like Sagara Sangamam and Sagar — there is almost no information at all about this movie. You can assume that it’s low budget, but in India, especially in the 1980s, even big budget productions often looked low budget when held up to the standards set by American and European films. So for all I can tell, Pyasa Shaitan was the biggest hit ever in 1984, with a huge budget and well-respected megastar in the cast, before it disappeared almost entirely from the consciousness of Indian movie fans. But somehow, I don’t think that was the case.
So we have an early release date that is probably correct, or just as probably incorrect. We have one of the biggest stars in Indian film history. These are the two main things that set this film apart from other low-budget Indian horror films I’ve been watching lately. Oh that and it’s an actual movie instead of some weird art project constructed by escaped inmates from an insane asylum. Not that this movie isn’t insane — it’s got more loopy, unbelievable weirdness than most movies — but it’s insane in a way that is actually contained within a format recognizable as a movie, made by people with actual experience in such things. If Shaitani Dracula was completely beyond the boundaries of human comprehension, and Bhoot Ke Pechhe Bhoot was a step toward cohesive filmmaking while still being astoundingly cheap and shoddily made, Pyasa Shaitan represents yet another step forward into the realm of actual movie making, albeit movie making within the relative universe of batshit loony Indian horror films.
Point is, even though it’s full of weirdness, there is a detectably talented and conscientious cast and crew behind this film. Camera angles, lightning, solid acting — the crudity of the plentiful special effects should not be mistaken for crudity in filmmaking in general. This is an honest effort to make a creepy monster movie, and I think for the most part, it’s a success.
However, Pyasa Shaitan also shares a lot with these other films, the most noticeable common trait being a steadfast unwillingness to recognize a complete lack of ability to realize its special effects ambitions. As is often the case with any Indian film that relies heavily on special effects, at the end of the day, you just have to lie back and roll with what the filmmaker “intended” rather than what they were able to deliver. They are representations of what is being attempted, as opposed to being an attempt to recreate a fantastic situation as realistically as possible. As such, nothing is out of bounds, including guys in ratty store-bought gorilla suits being passed off as werewolves, even when the rubber mask falls off mid-fight. The make-up in Pyasa Shaitan is pretty effective and certainly light years away from buying a rubber mask and passing that off as a special effect.
It’s when the movie reaches beyond that, that the threadbare nature of the budget begins to shine through, but in the end, we are assaulted with such an utterly bizarre and plentiful parade of psychotronic oddity that questions of realism seem pointless and, ultimately, misguided. Pyasa Shaitan is an assault on logic, hitting the viewer with rapid-fire imagery and non sequiter strangeness in much the same way as one might experience in a nightmare. When you wake up from a nightmare, you rarely complain about it having been unrealistic or how the effects weren’t up to the standards of other, bigger budget nightmares. In this sense, one could compare Pyasa Shaitan to the imagery-heavy horror films of Europe during the 1970s, though where they strove for something eerie, dreamlike, and even ethereal, Pyasa Shaitan is far more aggressive, visceral, and fast-paced.
In other words, Pyasa Shaitan never met a scene that couldn’t be made better by filling it with half-second long subliminal shots of a bearded tree demon making “monster face” while being shot with a fisheye lens.
And as with other Indian horror films, Pyasa Shaitan wallows in sleaze, including uncomfortably unappealing crotch-shot close-ups and, at one point, even a flash of nudity, although the nudity looks like a slip that no one bothered to edit out since it’s on the screen for a second and lost amid a writhing giant demon and lots of flashing lights. Then there’s the usual close-ups of people licking their lips and rubbing their feet together. During the film’s most explicit love scene, they even go so far as to loop the exact same sequence of images three or four times. That means if you have ever lusted after grainy footage of a flabby woman’s midriff, complete with scars and stretch marks, then Pyasa Shaitan has you covered. Frankly, I kind of like that aspect of it. These people at least look like real people, for better or for worse.
And there’s the violence. Most of it comes in the form of hacked off limbs and bitten throats. As with most horror films, it’s more the promise or suggestion of violence than actual gore, but what is present on screen, as well as what is implied, is pretty effective. This movie promises a lot of monsters during the opening credits, though it really only delivers on one. For some reason, there’s a shot of a Cyclops during the credits, though no Cyclops actually appears in the movie. I think he must have wandered in from a peplum film, or perhaps something starring Santo and Blue Demon.
If we’re really to find peers for a film like Pyasa Shaitan, we need only adjust our sights slightly to the north. Anyone familiar with the sort of “anything goes” weirdness of Hong Kong horror films from the 1980s won’t be totally unfamiliar with the look and feel of Pyasa Shaitan, which would fit comfortably alongside Witch From Nepal, Seeding of a Ghost, or The Seventh Curse, among others. It could also be comfortably placed alongside any of those “we went to Thailand and pissed off a jungle wizard” movies with which Hong Kong seemed so enamored in the 1990s. All of these films rely heavily on the collision of modern ideals and ancient terrors, on the conceit that these backwood folk tales can’t possibly have any effect on us in our modern world. The Indians in Pyasa Shaitan are more prone to believing in the supernatural than the average Hong Kong city slicker, but it’s still the same basic atmosphere.
Finally, one can’t get through even the first scene of Pyasa Shaitan without acknowledging the influence of cult film legend The Evil Dead on this and many other Indian horror films. That’s because the first scene from this movie, with some particularly Indian embellishments, is a scene stolen wholesale from The Evil Dead, but it’s also because Sam Raimi’s modest independent horror film that became a cultural phenomenon contains much that appeals to the Indian psyche, especially in terms of what is considered to be scary. The rural setting, the demon that haunts the woods, human possession — these same themes resonate with Indian audiences, just as the DIY no-budget ethic behind the making of the movie appeals to Indian filmmakers not blessed with a bushel basket full of rupees.
Our mad tale of horror begins with an amorous couple driving through the countryside. One assumes that the beefy, mustachioed beau is a bit drunk, and while drunkenness in a moving vehicle is an undesirable trait even when you are not driving, one has to admire his commitment to coolness in that he refuses to drink from a bottle or a sippy cup, and is instead imbibing his libations from a glass. I don’t think I’ve seen someone that committed since Matt Helm had the pop-up wet bar in his car. When not drinking, the couple seems to be indulging in a bit of mutual masturbation, which is communicated to the audience via lingering close-ups of leathery feet and wet tongues licking lips. You know, close-ups of guys with mustaches smacking and/or licking their lips are rarely as erotic as I think the filmmakers think they are.
Somehow, even though she spends most of the time with her head thrown back and eyes closed in the throes of “just below the bottom of the screen” ecstasy, the woman manages not to wreck the car. She eventually wanders off into the middle of the woods, where she is promptly attacked first by a point-of-view camera rushing through the forest, then by the vines and branches of the trees around her. If you’ve seen The Evil Dead, then you will recognize the “homage.” If you haven’t seen The Evil Dead, then just trust those of us who have. The only difference is that this attack by tree branches goes on for twice as long as in The Evil Dead, and during the infamous “vine up the crotch” finale, Pyasa Shaitan has to add an extra bit of class by having magic red animated laser beams shoot out from between the woman’s legs. She’s then pursued — because rape by tree branch isn’t nearly enough — through the forest by a demon which, unlike The Evil Dead where the demon is never shown and always remain a point-of-view camera, is shown to be a tall, hairy, flying madman with red claws and a penchant for constantly screaming out proclamations of doom and damnation. He has to yell, mind you, because every time he’s on screen, he has to compete with claps of thunder and those gusts of wind that blow with hurricane force through all Indian horror films at all hours of the day and night — even if you’re in a room with no windows or outside-facing doors.
It turns out that the forest demon is in league with a local hot shot (Kamal Hassan, who I think might be the accursed son of the woman attacked by the trees, but I was lost in the translation — usually the untranslated nature of most Indian horror and action films is of little consequence, but this is one case where I really wish I had some subtitles or handiness with the language beyond knowing what pyasa and shaitan mean) who regularly sacrifices pretty young things to a statue of the demon in exchange for eternal youth. Much of this movie’s running time is comprised of watching Kamal seduce unsuspecting women so he can throw them before the feet of the demon statue, at which time the demon will appear and make “graspy claw” hands at them while they spin out of their saris en route to having their blood sucked. From time to time, Hassan makes an effort to do other things, like beat people up or turn sticks into cobras he can throw at others. His murderous ways do not go unnoticed, but even though he draws the ire of a well-off family, they are powerless to stop him, especially when he changes identities so often. Eventually, he meets a woman he actually seems to love, which irritates the demon to no end. When the demon steals Kamals’ youth, his wife is terrified of the revelation of supernatural horrors in her household and flees. Years later, the daughter she eventually has encounters the estranged demon-feeding father, and we can all pretty much see where this is going.
What’s important isn’t the destination, but the insanely weird style in which we arrive there. Pyasa Shaitan is a constant barrage of weirdness. The hairy demon guy is spliced in to almost every scene, usually with various surreal lighting effects flashing on and off, as well as the occasional random animated lasers and lightning shooting out of his eyes or fingertips. And then from time to time, he winks at the camera and giant animated fangs sprout from his mouth. And then there will be a multi-colored, dancing animated skeleton that flits across the screen. Oh, and is now a good time to mention the occasional machine-gun style assembly of random images, which includes lightning, a marmoset, still photos of demons and cyclopses, cats, one of those aliens from They Live, and…whuhhh? Oh for the love of…was that…was that…Max Headroom???
Yes. Yes it was. So you really shouldn’t be surprised when Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera shows up as well. But I guess that helps us date the movie, since Max Headroom didn’t come out until 1987. So I guess the 1984 production date is wrong, which leaves us with ’94 or ’95.
And then there’s the finale, in which Kamal’s sanctum sanctorum is invaded by vengeful do-gooders who finally confront the vampiric nobleman and his demon cohort. It’s a literal religious royal rumble, as the combined powers of Shiva, Kali, Jesus Christ, and Smith & Wesson are summoned to combat the demon, who flitters about the room like a moth on LSD while he breathes fire and shoots eye lasers and finger lightning. He’s pursued by, among other things, a glowing cross and trishul. This is the second time than an Indian horror film has shown me that the true power of the Christian cross lies not in its being a symbol of the suffering and sacrifice of Christ nor as a symbol of defiance in taking the instrument of his torture and turning it into a totem of his faith. No, what this and Shaitani Dracula have taught me is that the true power of the cross lies in using it to beat the shit out of someone. My only regret is that Kali didn’t summon her servant Mola Rum, because frankly, the only thing that could make this movie even more awesome than it already is would have been that demon being chased around by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom era Amrish Puri screaming “Kali ma!!!”
There is such a steady assault of disconnected strange shit in this movie that it flirts with becoming a surrealist masterpiece. Even when they’re having a lovey dovey musical number, they’ll splice in second-long shots of the hairy demon waggling his head and tongue and dancing around with galaxies spinning behind him and red and green lights flashing everywhere. And then they’ll show you a picture of a marmoset, and there will be some lightning, and that demon will wiggle his fingers and yell at you for a few minutes. The entire thing is pretty mind-blowingly awesome.
What is perhaps most amazing about this warped slice of sleazy horror cinema is that, as I said earlier, despite all the weirdness, it also manages to be a coherent, fairly well-made if rough around the edges, complete movie. Hassan, again, is a great actor, and he takes his role here as seriously as he would any other role. Similarly, there is an actual supporting cast, rather than a collection of the director’s friends. Madhu Malhotra appeared in other Indian horror films, including the exceptionally enjoyable Khooni Mahal, and Rashmi would go on to star in another, slightmy more respectable (though hardly more enjoyable) Kamal Hassan movie, Hey Ram.
And although the opening shock is lifted from The Evil Dead, the rest of the movie is its own creature. It’s unique among Indian horror films in that this isn’t a movie about the vengeful ghost/zombie of a murdered woman. Buried beneath is a script that, while hardly original, is pretty good, and really, a good but unoriginal script delivered in a completely psychotic way makes for a pretty satisfying horror film.
There’s even a little animated bat that makes himself known from time time, tearing down a lonely looking country road like he’s late for a Helloween concert. My only regret about this movie is that every time they show the cartoon bat/skull thing, they should have dubbed in Judas Priest’s “Heading Out to the Highway.”
Adding to the weirdness is the soundtrack by the awesomely named Sonik Omi. He weaves a bizarre tapestry of ambient sound effects, generic shock stings, and weird electronica. It ends up sounding something like Neu or Einstuerzende Neubauten. It’s pretty radically different from what you’re used to hearing in an Indian film, to say nothing of the incredibly generic music that low-budget films usually employ. The musical numbers themselves are pretty good, and get even better when demons and cartoon skeletons and Max Headroom start dancing across the screen. The songs in these numbers are pretty spooky sounding as well, even though I’m sure they’re singing about love and butterflies. I’m going to pretend that the lyris are less in line with typical Bollywood song lyrics, and are instead more in tune with old novelty horror songs, which means they are all about janglin’ bones, dancin’ skeletons, and Frankenstein cruisin’ around in a hot rod.
As if all this madness wasn’t enough to make this movie amazing, they also throw in some fair kungfu and sword fights, a couple of which include the demon blowing magic dust and throwing guys like fifty feet up into trees. And in one scene, did I see a little gymkata? Why yes, I think I did. Also in classic horror film fashion, there’s a torch wielding mob and, later, a rifle-toting mob. Then the movie goes and shatters everything you expect about Indian films be slipping in a flash of naked boobs — which leads one to wonder if you were being attacked by a hideous bearded forest goblin and your ample boobs accidentally popped out of your top, would you really take the time to tuck them back in mid-attack?
One of the other things this movie has in common with the works of Harinam Singh and Kishan Shah is that it is a whirlwind example of the auteur theory. Joginder Shelly wrote, produced, and starred in the film, and lord knows how many other roles he fulfilled that didn’t get translated during the credits. What that means is that this film truly is his vision (I can’t imagine any “studio tinkering” went on with a film this crazy). He’s left free to indulge his every insane whim, and the end result is almost too fantastic for words. I don’t know, as I said, how this film was marketed or what the success or failure of it looked like.
I had pretty high expectations going into this film — not that it would be good, but that it would hilariously, confoundingly weird. And I was not disappointed. But I discovered that it was also actually pretty good. Sure, it’s crude. Yes, the special effects are more surreal than they are real. Certainly it’s schizophrenic. But realism seems to be the least of this film’s concerns. What it is, instead, is an incredibly energetic, offbeat, thriller that has one foot in The Evil Dead, the second foot in Hong Kong horror/action films, and a third foot in films like Alejandro Jodorowski’s Holy Mountain. Although it’s fun to watch it alongside previously mentioned piece of crap horror films, it’s nowhere near that level of incompetence. It makes sense, in it’s own batty way. But that’s the same way that vampires, demons, animated little skull bats, and demon tree rape make sense. Without a doubt, the best Indian horror/supernatural film I’ve seen so far. You may not go into this movie thinking marmosets are scary, but you’ll sure as hell be creeped out by them afterward. Just imagine. You’re lying in bed, minding your own business, then you casually glance across the room, and there one is, just sitting there…staring at you…staring at you…staring at you…
Release Year: 1984 or 1995 | Country: India | Starring: Kamal Hassan, Joginder Shelly, Madhu Malhotra, Shobhalata, Beena Banerjee, Pappu, Kumar, Rashmi | Director: Joginder Shelly | Screenplay: Joginder Shelly, Iqbal Durrani | Cinematographer: Deepak Duggal | Music: Om Prakash Sharma, Master Sonik | Producer: J.P. Choudhary, Suman Mehra | Alternate Title: Thirsty Devil