At some point, online emoticon technology will advance to the point where there is a little smiley face thing that perfectly expresses the sentiment of me shaking my fist toward the heavens and yelling, “Dharmendra!!!” And when that technology exists, I will insert it into this and several other reviews, because it seems like every time I pick some weird subgenre of exploitation film to find a Bollywood version of, when I find it, it ends up starring Dharmendra and being sort of disappointing. Take, for example, my long quest to find a Bruce Lee exploitation film from Bollywood. Eventually it turned up in the form of Katilon Ke Kaatil, starring Dharmendra and well-known Bruce Lee impersonator Bruce Le.
It also ended up being sort of disappointing, even though, in addition to a showdown with Bruce Le, it also featured Dharmendra fighting a sasquatch dressed as General Ursus from the Planet of the Apes movies. I know, I know. I too thought there was no way a movie featuring those ingredients — not to mention Dharmendra in drag — could be disappointing, and while Katilon Ke Kaatil is well worth watching, it also managed to let me down a little. This is probably unfair. I don’t know why I assumed a Bruce Lee exploitation film from Bollywood would somehow be awesome when almost every other Bruce Lee exploitation film was crappy. In the end, though, it was a decent enough movie, with lots of fist fights and guys getting punched through random piles of bricks.
Similarly, I’ve been on an even longer quest to find the movie Saazish, though for a long time I didn’t know the name of the movie for which I was searching. You see, way back when, or at least several years ago, there was a mini-explosion of interest in Bollywood music outside of the Indian community. This was happening mostly amongst club DJs from the UK and continental Europe, some with Indian backgrounds, others without, but all interested in mining the rich vein of breakbeats present in the ultra-funky, ultra-swanky Bollywood music of the 60s and 70s. The end result for those of us who weren’t European club DJs was a series of CD releases of dubious copyright legality from various labels documenting the music that had become suddenly so popular in modern dancehalls and discotheques.
This coincided with a curious surge of Hollywood stars claiming to love Bollywood and want to do a Bollywood picture. Most of that ended up being “jump on the bandwagon” bullshit, though. The closest anyone came to making good on the lip service was Will Smith, who at least showed up on whatever they call American Idol in India (my guess is Hindustan Idol) to sing and pal around with the judges. The flare-up of Bollywood awareness in American pop culture even seeped into such strange places as rap music, when several stars used Bollywood breaks for their songs (including the fine rump shaker “Shake Ya Bum Bum” — that’s right! I know Li’l Kim songs), and the inexplicable use of “Chaiyya Chaiiya” from Dil Se as the theme song to Spike Lee’s Inside Man. The whole thing only lasted about a year — a little longer in the club scene — but it was fun while it lasted.
And we got some cool CDs out of it. One of the coolest was Bombay the Hard Way from Motel Records. It was a compilation of music from masala action films of the 1970s. Some were remixed. Others, like the theme from Don, the DJs knew better than to mess with and so are presented in their original, unaltered form. This CD was the reason I ever bothered to start exploring the world of Bollywood action films. Around the same time, Pete Tombs’ Mondo Macabro book came out with chapters on Indian horror and fantasy films, and while that was also a major impetus as well, it was the bad-ass theme song from Don that really convinced me to set my sights on the sub-continent.
Not too long after, Motel Records came out with a second volume, called Bombay 2: Electric Vindaloo. On the cover of the CD were a number of screenshots, one of which featured a dude with a blue head and a Mandarin-collared jacket. He wasn’t doing anything special, other than just standing there, but I guess if you are a guy with a blue head and a Blofeld jacket, you don’t have to do much on top of that to be special. I recognized him instantly as Fantomas, or some Bollywood variant thereof, though it took a little longer for the reality of the matter so sink in: somewhere out there was a Bollywood Fantomas film.
I should probably save a full history of Fantomas for a review of an an actual Fantomas film (like this one!), but as fate would have it, I’m getting to this movie before any of those, so some introductions is in order. To do that, we have to travel back in time a little bit to the golden age of pulp fiction, when the pages of fantastically lurid adventure magazines were filled with the exploits of men like The Shadow, The Spider, Doc Savage, and Fantomas. Tracing the origins of modern pulp fiction can be tricky, and most claims one makes are instantly debatable. But for a lazy man like me who likes to make wild shit up off the top of his head and pass it off as research, it goes something like this: in the beginning, or at least in 1844, there was The Count of Monte Cristo. You could argue that The Odyssey was the first true work of pulp fiction, but then, you can argue pretty much everything.
So for the sake of brevity let’s start this particular timeline with Dumas’ thrilling tale of a guy who learns to be the most super-duper cool guy in the universe, then uses his newfound skills to mess with people who pissed him off. Dantes becomes a master of disguise, a master fencer, master boxer, and thanks to a fortuitous turn of events while unjustly imprisoned, has a veritably inexhaustible amount of wealth to finance his many exploits. It’s a pretty good book, and if you haven’t read it, you really should. Or at least pick up the “Illustrated Classics” mini-version or something. In the character of Edmond Dantes, it’s easy to find a number of traits that would find their way into the many pulp and comic book characters of the early 20th century. Heck, Batman‘s Bruce Wayne is basically just Dantes without an accent mark in his name.
In 1907, as the pulp era was getting into the swing of things, France was introduced to the character of Arsene Lupin. Lupin was the classic gentleman thief, a character archetype that would be reincarnated over and over again in such varied forms as The Saint, that movie where Cary Grant steals stuff, the guys from both generations of Oceans 11, and of course, that delightful Hans Gruber. Like many film fans, I delight in the stereotype of the gentleman thief, though in my darker hours I wonder how many gentleman thieves there have actually been through the ages. I think the era of gentlemanly thievery may have passed when thieves stopped stealing precious jewels and works of art and started stealing credit cards and social security numbers and the iPhones off of guys in wheelchairs. I mean, you can’t steal someone’s credit card number, then rakishly hop up onto a window sill, shout “Tallyho!” as you give them a jaunty little salute, and swing out the window on your grappling hook. Things were just more fun when “identity theft” meant the thief donned a fake handlebar mustache, adopted a phony German accent, and sold himself in high society circles as Baron Ascot Von Fancypants, heir to the Fancypants fortune.
The pulps were full of similar outlandish characters. Some were heroes, some were lovable rascals. A few were actual villains. Pretty much all of them had skills beyond those of us average chumps. Into the mix, round about 1911 or so, came Fantomas, another French master thief and master of disguise. Like Lupin, Fantomas immediately caught on with the public, and a huge number of Fantomas stories were published throughout the early 20th century. It wasn’t long until such characters found themselves parading across the relatively new medium of the motion picture. In serials and shorts, most of the pulp heroes and villains started showing up on movie screens. The ruler of the roost at the time was Dr. Mabuse, the sinister villain who came from the pulps and found international stardom in a series of films by German director Fritz Lang. The inspiration behind that character seemed to be the question, “What if a guy had all that awesome cunning and intellect of the heroes of Dumas and the pulps, but he was a total dick?”
I have yet to see the silent era Fantomas films, but I’m working on it. So until then, let’s skip ahead. World War I. Weimar Republic. Jesse Owens. World War II. Comic books. Captain America punches Hitler. My grandpa Harley starts thinking Truman is a jackass. That should bring us up to the 1960s, right? So after a period of hibernation, the pulp characters of the early half of the 20th century are suddenly resurrected in the form of Italian and French comic book characters and films based upon those characters. In the interim, the United states had been the stewards of the pulp characters, sustaining them largely through radio dramas and comic books. In American comic books however, the bad guy was usually the bad guy, and the good guy was the good guy. There were very few anti-heroes, and even Batman was smiley and joking around while fighting guys like that cat who put pennies in people’s ears (or something like that — I swear I saw that on a cover at some point).
In the 1960s, Italy took over with a splashy, much more adult-oriented blending of old pulps with the wildly popular James Bond books and movies. The results were fumetti, and guys like Diabolik and Kriminal ran wild. The big difference this time around was that while the old pulps had been split pretty evenly between heroes and villains, and American comic books from the era always sided with the good guys, this new breed — nourished as it was on the growing counter-culture distrust of authority figures — saw the villain as hero. Diabolik, for example, would murder and steal to get what he wanted, but we still rooted for him because he was just so much cooler than the square authority figures around him — and that includes squares on both sides of the law.
It was only natural that someone would revive Fantomas and translate him into the modern jet-set, Eurospy style of film. A series of French films were thus commissioned starring the mysterious master criminal behind an expressionless blue mask. As with other films of the era, Fantomas is nominally the “bad guy,” but it’s never in doubt that we are rooting for him rather than the police. This time, Fantomas had an awesome underground layer, expertly designed and decorated as all 1960s villain lairs were, and a cool car. It’s not surprising that such an iconic figure would be “borrowed” for productions in other countries. Thus, Fantomas appears in flagrant violation of copyright law in the 1969 Turkish film Iron Claw, The Pirate. He would show up again in 1975′s Saazish, matching wits with Dharmendra, and eventually winding up as a screencap on the cover of a CD.
The problem when I got the CD was that I knew immediately I wanted to see the film, but nowhere in the CD packaging did they credit the movie from which the shot was taken. Since most of these CDs were released by one-off labels who disappeared shortly after issuing the album, Motel Records was gone by the time I contacted them to see if they could shed any light on the topic. I turned then to the Internet, but after a few years of asking about “that blue headed guy on the cover of Bombay 2: Electric Vindaloo,” I’d received nothing but suggestions that turned out to be dead ends. At the time, the coverage of these types of films was considerably thinner than it is today. Well-written resources on Bollywood film were hard to find, and those that did exist concentrated almost entirely on new films or old dramas and romantic comedies.
A few years ago though, a number of sites began cropping up that were more willing to explore the battier side of Bollywood, thanks in large part to such films becoming more readily available on DVD. This meant a whole new generation could rediscover films that, even if they’d been wildly popular at one point, had lapsed into obscurity since then on account of there being no medium other than the theater in which to see them. It also helped that coverage of Bollywood films was expanding outside the boundaries of India. This is not meant as a slight on India or on Indian film historians. But when you are in the thick of something, you tend to tire of things much faster than people who are coming to the game with new eyes. Academics concentrate on the “important” films. Working film writers within India were there to write about current films and scandals. Neither population has much vested interest in dusting off memories of a movie where Dharmendra jumps a horse over a castle wall.
Things have changed a lot since then. While the state of writing about old Bollywood genre films is still young, it has advanced in leaps and bounds in the past few years. It’s even advanced considerably since last I complained about this very topic — which must have been round about the last time I reviewed a Dharmendra film. This has happened for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the growth of the Indian middle class, the rise of DVD and VCD, and the introduction of the Internet as a cheap alternative for publishing that removed the cost and organizational overhead of producing a fanzine, newsletter, or film club. It also has a lot to do with the spread of Indian culture and art throughout the rest of the world as Indians continue to immigrate or come of age in other countries.
There’s a whole batch of writers now who are ethnically Indian but have grown up in places like the United States and England. They’re able to indulge to a much greater degree in exploring the history of a big chunk of Bollywood that was all but ignored by the academic press. For some, it’s a whole new experience. For others, it’s reawakening memories of loving these films as a child. Their enthusiasm draws in people from outside Indian culture, people who might be fans of crazy fantasy films or spy films but not necessarily fans of Bollywood. And they, in turn, draw in other people. And somewhere along the line, someone’s dad finds out you’re writing about Shammi Kapoor’s pencil-thin mustache, and it brings back a whole slew of memories for him as well. And slowly but surely, Bollywood cult cinema has a network just like the one that exists for, say, Hong Kong action films or European horror movies. For the first time in a long time, you know other people who are watching and writing about Ramsay Brothers horror movies.
Which is to say that, after years in the wilderness, a group of people were starting to emerge that might bring me closer to figuring out what movie that goddamned screencap had come from. And it finally happened one day several months ago. I had decided that the screencap was a mistake, that it was just a still from one of the French Fantomas films of the 1960s that was erroneously placed on the cover of a Bollywood music remix CD. I didn’t really believe it in my heart of hearts, but it was all I could tell myself so that I could stop thrashing fitfully about in my sleep, only to wake up in a cold sweat and screaming “Bollywood Fantomas!!!!” On a whim, and because I have an addictive personality, I did one last Google search for “bollywood fantomas.” Nothing on the first page. Why do I even bother? Well, I thought, might as well look at the second page of results.
And there it was. A link that said “Saazish: I think the boss is based on Fantomas.” Could it be? So I followed the link, which happened to be a review from the site Memsaab Story. And scrolling down I saw…let’s see. Helen’s giant eye. Dharmendra in what looks like a helmet from an Italian science fiction film, a fake Chinese guy, and…my God! It’s beautiful! There he was, staring back at me in all his expressionless blue-gray glory. I felt like Louis de Funes, the cop forever in pursuit of Fantomas in the movies and always one step behind the master criminal. “Bollywood Fantomas!” I cried triumphantly. “This time I have caught you!” One quick trip to IndiaWeekly, and a few days later I owned my own copy of the movie whose name had eluded me for so many years. My debt to Memsaab Story is beyond measure, though I feel it has shrunk a little since actually watching the film. Because after watching the film, all I could do was shake my fist at the heavens and angrily yell, “Dharmendra!!!” And, like Fantomas, all I could hear was his laughter, echoing in the distance as he escaped through some clever means and left me standing there, feeling a bit cheated on this, the eve of my victory.
Which is a really, really long way of saying that Saazish isn’t very good. It’s even more disappointing than Katilon Ke Kaatil, because Katilon Ke Kaatil was goofy and fun on top of being incompetent, where as Saazish is simply boring and poorly made. To be fair, there was probably no way it could live up to a build-up that spanned years. At the very least though, it could have had the decency to be decent. And I guess maybe little parts of it are good, but there is so much crap to wade through to get to the good stuff that it’s not really worth it. Granted, there’s a lot of crap to wade through in many films, especially many Indian films. But usually it’s crap with which I can deal. In the case of Saazish, however, the crap is mostly a performance by Saira Banu in the female lead that just might be the single most insipid, annoying, and grating performance I’ve ever seen in a Bollywood film. I would rather watch ten Johnny Levers than ever have to sit through Banu’s performance in Saazish again.
My first experience with Dharmendra was the slick little espionage caper Aankhen, which among other things paired him with a woman who pursues him in the beginning of the film to the point of seeming insane. Saazish features the same basic set-up, as Banu’s Sunita picks Dharmendra’s Jai more or less at random and decides to mercilessly stalk and sing to him until he falls in love with her. The difference is that Aankhen starred Mala Sinha, and her character wasn’t just insane for love; she was also a bad-ass spy who knew her way around a Tommy gun, took an active part in blowing up various villain lairs, and owned a gigantic floppy sombrero. By contrast, Sunita…well, she frequently shrieks, overacts with the fierce hunger of Richard Burton at his very worst, and tends to cry in the way you expect to hear from a ten-year-old, actually mouthing “boo hoo hoo!” at various points. By the halfway point, I was ready to throw my lot in with Fantomas, who was doing his best (which, to be fair, was pretty bad) to have her killed.
So here’s the plot, such as it is. Sunita has just won the Miss Cosmos beauty competition, a fact that she tells pretty much anyone and everyone she meets. You might think that this is an attempt at characterization, that we are supposed to find her constant mentioning of her beauty to be a comedic character quirk. I assure you, it is not. We are supposed to find her engaging and charming. I did not. Her first task as the world queen of beauty is to go to Hong Kong and award the trophy for what is supposed to be the most prestigious auto race in Asia. Said race is realized by cobbling together stock footage of what looks to be a Le Mans race with footage from what looks to be someone’s home movie of a dirt track race, then you edit in some head shots of a listless Dharmendra wearing a dorky helmet that looks like it was on loan from an Alfonso Brescia sci-fi film. When Dharmendra wins the race, Sunita decides she is madly in love with him, even though the only thing she knows about him is that he won a car race. I don’t even know what that is. I mean, if she thought he was hot, then at least she would be shallow. But she hasn’t even seen him as anything other than a speck on a race track wearing a dumb helmet. So that doesn’t even qualify as shallow. That’s just plum crazy, son.
Dharmendra seems to think so, too, but after she wears him down with her endearing antics that include following him around, shrieking like a banshee, and pretending to commit suicide, he finally gives in and takes her on the least scenic musical travelogue tour of Hong Kong imaginable, including as it does a highway junction, some dreary gray cinderblock housing projects, and a walk down the middle of a fucking busy highway!!! Lady, could his signals be any clearer??? Their mediocre day out together culminates in a cruise during which Sunita happens upon a murder in progress. As a dying man riddled with bullet holes staggers toward her, notice that the many extras seated around her remain as still as statues, staring directly ahead as if absolutely nothing is happening. The dying man mutters something about gold, a ship, and reporting to Interpol, then drops dead, leaving Sunita face to face with a bunch of gunmen who, though they are standing in the middle of the dining room waving their guns about, also fail to attract the attention of anyone else on the boat.
Sunita, rather than rushing to Jai’s side (he was busy getting coffee, which must be the most delicious coffee in the world, as it causes him and everyone else on the boat to miss a murder by machine gun as well as a blood-soaked dude staggering up and down the stairs), or rushing to the nearest cop, hops off the boat, hails a cab, and badgers him until he takes her to the Interpol office, which looks to be a quaintly appointed residential living room with fancy space-age phones. Somehow, Sunita is allowed to walk right into the building and straight up to the director’s office without being questioned by anyone. I guess being the world queen of beauty has its perks. No wonder Interpol got shifted from fighting criminal masterminds to shutting down bootleg DVD retailers. As soon as Sunita arrives in the office, the phone rings. The director, who was hiding behind his desk for absolutely no discernible reason other than shits and giggles, hands it to her, as the call is for her. It seems the gang responsible for the murder has captured Jai, and if Sunita talks, they will kill him. No one stops to wonder how they knew where to call her, just as no one thinks that possibly calling someone on the phone line belonging to the head of Interpol so you can tell that person not to talk to the head of Interpol might not be an entirely secure way of doing covert business.
The Interpol guy then allows her to leave without asking her any questions or following up with the whole death threat phone call — which he listened in on using a pair of glasses with flashing lights on the rims. Sure, they have other ways to listen in on phone calls, like picking up the other receiver, but I reckon some slick traveling salesmen sold Interpol on the stupid glasses, and they feel like they should get their money’s worth no matter how stupid it is. It was probably the same guy who sold the Japanese military all those Maser cannons to fight giant monsters, but neglected to mention that they only work against gargantuas. Still, Japan has a lot of the things, so every time Godzilla shows up, they dutifully roll them out in hopes that he’ll trash a few of them, allowing the Japanese Self Defense Force, if nothing else, to free up some much needed garage space.
If idiocy like this comprised the entire running length of the picture, I’d be in perfectly comfortable territory. Alas, it only lasts for about five more minutes — as Jai meets the mysterious Fantomas — or Mr. Han, as he’s called here (let’s call him Hantomas) — and convinces the master criminal that he should be allowed to kill Sunita, since he was only with her to get at her considerable wealth. Remarkably, Mr. Hantomas agrees to this without so much as a single question. Damn. Apparently, working for Hong Kong’s most infamous masked criminal is easier than getting a job at Best Buy. Back in 1992, I worked a warehouse job at Toys-R-Us, and even for that I had to take a long test and watch a bunch of videos about how stealing is wrong. Surely Hantomas can make Jai watch some videos about how stealing kicks ass, or do a background check, or something. I thought that Interpol was incompetent, but if this is the sort of master criminal they’re up against, I guess it’s a pretty level playing field.
Of course, one of the key components of any swingin’ Bond style super-villain is his secret lair. Fantomas had a pretty swanky underground pad full or works of art and candelabras, something in between Diabolik and Doctor No. Hantomas got the cave part down, but he didn’t add much other than installing a few swishing doors, some random blinking lights, and for some reason, a hidden radio. I guess that shows initiative. It’s not every super villain who would go that extra mile to install a hidden radio inside a lair that was already hidden. That’s like buying a safe and putting a little safe inside it that contains your Zune (because you didn’t want to buy an iPod) even though the big safe is already full of jewels and bundles of cash and nude photos of Priyanka Chopra. It’s probably one of those flourishes that seemed cool at the time but got to be a real hassle after a while. Every time someone wants to use the radio, they have to go through the ritual of turning the statue and opening the rock wall. Since the guys in the secret lair would already also know about the secret radio, it probably got to the point where Hantomas’ right hand man, Mr. Wong, just told the guys to leave it open. That, of course, leads to Hantomas furtively going over and closing it all the time, until the two criminals descend into a petty bickering argument not unlike roommates fighting over the proper setting for the air conditioner.
Oh yeah, Mr. Wong. If you ever rolled your eyes at Caucasian guys donning fake eyelids and accents and passing themselves off as Asians in movies, rest assured that this is hardly confined to the West. Madan Puri, who portrays Mr. Wong, is about as Chinese as Bela Lugosi, the last non-Chinese guy to play an evil Mr. Wong. Turnabout’s fair play, though, because it’s not as if there was never a Chinese actor who put on “brown face” and played an Indian.
The thugs in Hantomas’ gang don’t really inspire much more confidence than their boss. Even though their order is to kill Jai as soon as he leaves, all they do is point their guns and run toward him one at a time so he can kick them in the face. At one point, they even stand around with their guns pointed at him and wait until he fishes a yo-yo out of his pocket and uses it to hit them in the face. Dudes, Hantomas bought you guns! As professional heavies, it was your obligation to learn when and how to use them. Like when the guy you are supposed to shoot is standing right in front of you, that’s generally a good time to shoot him, not wait for him to fish a yo-yo out of his pocket (it takes him a few tries) and throw it at you. And seriously — why the hell has Jai been walking around with a yo-yo in his pocket while he was on his date with Sunita?
Actually, I have to retract my criticism of their failure of three men armed with machine guns and pistols to defeat a guy with a yo-yo in his pocket, because in the ensuing car chase, we see them right behind him, but the dude firing the machine gun out the window is holding it straight out to the side of the car, meaning that he’s not even firing in the right direction. This is what Hantomas gets for hiring his goons from the line outside a “Three Stooges” casting call. Somehow, that whole mess ends up with Jai throwing grenades at people. So he went on a date and filled his pockets with yo-yos and hand grenades? Dharmendra sure knows how to operate!
So up to this point, Saazish has been pretty great. Savor it. From here, the movie settles in for what seems like a full hour of Saira Banu turning in a performance that would embarrass a marginally talented actor in a sixth grade school play. Every facial expression, every movement, every line is delivered with the subtlety of a petulant child playing charades. And when she cries! Oh my God, when she cries! No professional actress should actually use the words “Oh boo hoo hoo!” to communicate crying. But you better get used to it, because for the next hour, it’s “Oh boo hoo hoo!” and “Oh Jai, I’m so scared!” and “Why, I’m Sunita, the winner of the Miss Cosmos beauty contest. Don’t you know?” It’s a nightmarish slog through the middle ninety minutes of this film, and if I wasn’t watching it with the intention of reviewing it, I would have given up and watched it on fast forward. Even the rare musical number offers no respite from the tedium, as these scenes offer absolutely nothing in the way of creativity or fun, unless you think it’s fun to watch Dharmendra standing on some concrete steps while wearing a sweater.
I guess we’re supposed to be on the edge of our seats as Dharmendra attempts to outfox Hantomas by pretending to be on the side of evil, but it’s hard to get into the spirit of things when it’s so obvious Dharmendra will end up being a secret Interpol guy. Seriously, after about the third time he’s foiled a Hantomas hit attempt, you’d think the master criminal would stop believing the guy. Eventually everyone winds up on board a cruise ship that also happens to be full of smuggler’s gold, reminding you that you’ve gone for most of the movie without even knowing what the hell Hantomas and his gang are even trying to do. I guess they were trying to smuggle gold, or possibly steal it, but their entire scheme seems to have absolutely no point at all. Nothing they do seems to have any connection to anything else they do. It’s completely baffling to the point that I started to think this was less a criminal gang and more a dada-ist performance art troupe. Every time you ask them a question, they respond with a dance or by miming a tennis match. What are you trying to tell me, Hantomas! I don’t understand!!!
At least Helen is aboard the ship. Did that woman age at all? She’s as wild, flexible, and beautiful in 1975 as she was in 1965, which is more than can be said for Dharmendra. Her appearance is almost as nonsensical as everything else in the film, but I’ve never needed much logical reason for Helen to appear. At least we can look forward to one good dance number. Or can we? Because they mostly have her hanging around in her room, half-heartedly romancing whichever guy happens to walk through the door. All Helen really does is remind you how much happier you’d be if the entire move had featured her instead of Saira Banu. Helen eventually gets a dance number, but she has to share it with Banu, which is not welcome. Being in a number with Helen does Saira Banu no favors either, as Helen makes Sairu’s dancing look like Sonny Deol’s. At least Dharmendra strips down to his little Elvis Presley swimming trunks for the final showdown with Hantomas and the goons, at which time it is revealed that practically everyone on board the ship is either an undercover criminal or undercover Interpol guy.
So here’s what you do to make this a good movie. Watch up until Jai meets Hantomas, then fast forward to the hour-forty mark, right when the Sunita/Helen dance number starts, and finish the movie from there. Because the last thirty minutes or so is nothing but Dharmendra beating the tar out of chumps while wearing tiny little shorts. Oh yes, there will be Dharmendra buffalo shots. The entire ship erupts in a finale of kungfu fighting, machine gun waving, gratuitous backflipping, and grenade tossing. If the whole movie had been like that, it would have been the most awesome film ever made. Instead, it was about thirty minutes of cool stuff smothered by ninety minutes of stuff that, at its best, is tedious, and at its worst actually made me wish I could reach into the television Videodrome style and make Saira Banu shut the hell up. You remember how much we all hated Kate Capshaw in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Well, now I have fond memories of her. Thanks, Saira. You were that bad.
To be fair, though, Banu is still less annoying than the insanely creepy comic relief guy who shows up on the boat and keeps breaking into people’s cabins in order to find Helen, with whom he seems obsessed to the point of being a potential rapist-murderer. What the hell was his deal anyway? I don’t even care anymore. When Mr. Wong threatens to kill the asshole, I can’t help but wonder, once again, who’s really the bad guy here? This whole ship was full of creepy guys — like the dude who spends all day hanging upside down and pouncing on people like a cat. Seriously, Saazish — what the hell? At some point, I thought I might have accidentally stopped watching a spy movie and started watching something like Mansion of Madness. All this ship lacked was a madman in ragged Victorian garb, carrying a scepter made out of garbage and leading an equally ragged band of crazies like they were in a marching band.
Under normal circumstances, espionage films such as these are more than enough fun to make it easy to gloss over the rough edges that are present in so many of the films: the daft plotting, the crude editing, the overall cheapness. But when a movie’s virtues are as thinly spread as they are here, the foibles are impossible to wave off. Instead, every idiotic line, every bad edit, every time the shadow of the boom mic, the camera, and the entire goddamn crew shows up on the wall behind the actors, it’s hard not to notice. The plot seems to have been made up as they went, and even then they weren’t putting much work into it. Even by the less-than-rigorous continuity standards of Bollywood action cinema, it’s an incoherent, bloody mess full of the most glaring inanities. It seems like the film’s production might have been stretched over a long period, as Dharmendra’s hair changes radically, sometimes in the same scene. Or maybe his ability to have sideburns appear and disappear in the same scene was part of his character’s spy training. For a while I thought they got a really doughy, unflattering stunt double for Dharmendra in certain scenes, until I realized that it actually was Dharmendra. And sometimes I could swear they just up and replaced Dharmendra with Feroz Khan, so striking is the difference in sideburn lushness. Like his hair, Dharmendra’s level of fitness varies pretty wildly from one scene to the next. Luckily, he’s in pretty good shape for his ass-kicking romp in the only booty shorts smaller than the ones being worn by Sunita.
Director Kalidas had very few film credits before this film, and even fewer after, which means at least soemthing good came of this movie. Ranjan Bose is credited for the story, and Ramesh Pant for the screenplay, but I refuse to believe this film was actually written by anyone. Pant also wrote An Evening in Paris, which is a fine film. And hell! Bose wrote The Great Gambler, which starred Amitabh and Zeenat and was all sorts of awesome. I can only assume that absolutely no one gave a damn about Saazish while they were working on it. Even the music and dancing is lame. Why the hell put Helen in your movie than have her do only half a dance? Although, to the film’s credit, her outfit is the only one skimpier than Dharmendra’s action man-panties.
Speaking of not giving a damn, that seems to be Dharmendra’s main mode here, though from time to time he does seem to liven up a bit. By 1975, I guess Dharmendra’s star was starting to fade a bit, and the new king of the scene was Amitabh Bachchan. That might go a long way in explaining why these mid-70s Dharmendra films are as bad as Amitabh’s mid-80s film, when his star was in about the same place as Dharmendra’s was in 1975. Just a year earlier, Dharmendra starred with Saira Banu in the film International Crook, which I have not seen. Usually, finding out that Dharmendra was in a movie called International Crook, and that Feroz Khan was in it as well, would be enough to put that film on my “must see” list. After enduring Banu’s wretched histrionics in Saazish, though, I don’t think I ever want to see anything with her in it again. Maybe if her character was supposed to be a spoiled brat who learns the error of her ways or is at least played for comedy, but no. This wasn’t comedy or clever satire, or even stupid satire. It was just phenomenally terrible acting. I know, I know, she was in the original Bluff Master, and that’s a pretty good movie, but I don’t care. In all my journeys through Bollywood so far, I’ve never encountered an actress whose portrayal of a character filled me with such irritation.
I went in to this movie predisposed to liking it. It was an espionage/fumetti flavored Bollywood film. It starred Dharmendra. It featured Fantomas, calling himself Mr. Han (someone must have just watched Enter the Dragon). And I spent years trying to track it down. Plus, I watch films with the intent of enjoying them. As I’ve written before, one of the principles behind Teleport City is that we aren’t a site that exists purely to rip apart movies and complain about them. We’re here to celebrate the things we enjoy, and usually the ribbing we do is good-natured and done out of affection. Although it sounds unbelievable, I really do have better things to do with my life than watch movies I don’t like. As such, it was going to take a whole hell of a lot of badness for me to not like Saazish.
Sadly, a whole hell of a lot of badness is exactly what I got. It seems rather a cold payoff for all those years of searching. I put more work into finding and watching this movie than the cast and crew put into making it. Even measured against the bottom of the espionage film barrel, this is pretty bad stuff. And for once, I’m not going to spend an entire review poking fun at a film, then tell you to go see it. You can feel perfectly at ease skipping this one entirely. I guess if you are walking home one night and someone hits you over the head and forces a copy of this movie into your hands, then you can take it home and watch the very beginning and final thirty minutes or so and have a pretty good time of it. Just beware the ninety minutes in between, for there is a black pit from which your soul will never again emerge, and you will be forced to spend eternity in that black pit next to Dharmendra, who will shrug like he doesn’t give a damn, and for the rest of your miserable existence, all you will hear is a shrill female voice whining, “Oh, Jai! Boo hoo hoo!”
Release Year: 1975 | Country: India | Starring: Dharmendra, Saira Banu, Brahm Bhardwaj, Helen, Iftekhar, Dev Kumar, Murad, Rajendra Nath, Paintal, Madan Puri, Jagdish Raj, David Abraham | Screenplay: Ranjan Bose, Ramesh Pant | Director: Kalidas | Music: Jaikishan Dayabhai Pankal, Shankarsinh Raghuwanshi | Producer: Kalidas