Until the mid eighties, the costumed superhero as we know him in the West was a figure largely absent from Indian cinema. The primary exceptions were those intermittent attempts to appropriate the Superman character that seem to dot the history of modern South Asian film, such as the competing attempts by directors Mohammed Hussain and Manmohan Sabir, Superman and Return of Mr. Superman, which were both released in 1960 and , curiously, starred the same actor, Jairaj, in the title role.
Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan and ramshackle low budget superhero spectacle are both subjects that will get a lot of play here at Teleport City, and when a film brings the two of them together we’re pretty much fated to cover it, no matter how underwhelming that film may be. Fortunately the 1989 movie Toofan comes to us wrapped in some particularly interesting context. It’s mildly depressing context, mind you, but interesting nonetheless.
A storied writer, or possibly a drunk (oh, who am I kidding — there’s no difference), once said of a particular piece of writing that it was a mirror: when a monkey looked in, no philosopher looked out. While I’m sure Dr. Zaius would take umbrage at this gross generalization, the adage stands, at least for me, when it comes to the films of director Albert Pyun. I cannot hate them (well, except for Abelar: Tales of an Ancient Empire) no matter how bad they are, because when I look into them I see myself (a gibbering monkey). Albert Pyun has a magnificent, sprawling vision in his head. He has the drive to express this vision artistically — in his case, through the medium of film. And nearly every attempt at expressing this vision winds up a boring, biting reminder that sometimes the gap between our ability to envision something and our ability to execute that vision is insurmountably vast. Albert Pyun’s sundry failures are me — if I set out to recreate in film the lavish visions I have, they would wind up, I suspect, looking a lot like the films of Albert Pyun, except probably much worse.
The final days of the 20th century ushered in many things, and ushered out quite a few as well. After years of dedicated service, the beefed-up action stars of the 80s and 90s were quietly shown the door. This was a horrible turn of events for Olivier Gruner, a man who had made a living throughout the 90s as the direct-to-video version of Jean-Claude Van Damme. Now that Jean-Claude Van Damme was the direct-to-video version of Jean-Claude Van Damme, what was poor Olivier Gruner to do? As for Van Damme, his DTV output would eventually lead the former muscles from Brussels to make JCVD, a self-deprecating (and to a degree, self-flagellating) arthouse hit that afforded Van Damme the chance to skewer and wax poetic about his crumbling career while at the same time actually rebuilding it to some degree. With the exception of Expendables 2, Van Damme wasn’t going to find his way back onto the big screen, but the quality of his direct to video output enjoyed a substantial leap forward in terms of quality.
Ramesh Lakhani is a director I know very little about, and I’m not entirely certain I need to know much more than that. Judging from his typically incomplete online filmography, his specialty, if indeed he can be described as having one, is making cheap, crappy movies with the same title as a better made, more beloved, more famous film. Thus he is the director of Shiva Ka Insaaf, but not the one starring Jackie Schroff, and Kabrastan, but not the one directed by Mohan Bhakri. Now when you are trying to cash in on a director as disreputable as Mohan Bhakri, that’s really operating at an advanced level. However, despite what that knock-off resume implies, it seems that Lakhani has at least some degree of competency as a film maker. Or at least, he has more than is usually evident in this goofy world of Indian horror films.
Since my initial foray into the world of modern no-budget Indian horror, I’ve applied myself enthusiastically to watching more and more movies of the same type. And while I am indeed assembling an impressive — some might say terrifying, others might say unfortunate — collection of such movies, information on them and the people making them remains elusive. But I’ve bellyached about that in the past, and at some point we’re all going to have to simply suck it up, deal with the fact that we’re going to be watching these movies half in the dark, and then get on with things. So it is that I decided if I can’t glean from the world a whole lot of information about Harinam Singh (though I live, still, in anticipation of the day he Googles his own name, finds my site, and gets in touch — hey, it worked with Bobby Suarez!), then I might as well just get to know the man better through his films. Stabbing blindly into the man’s filmography, the next delicacy I came up with was a little something called Gumnam Qatil.
Seeing Diabolik was — well, to call it life-altering is to be a bit overly dramatic, I think. But it was something like that, and the movie did have a curious influence on me. For years, there had been this certain look and style of movie playing in my head. I knew it existed, but I had no clue where to start looking for it. Keep in mind that this is some years before the widespread adoption of the World Wide Web, DVD, and the rise of digitally remastered two-disc special collectors’ editions of Porno Holocaust. I knew these movies I wanted were very much like James Bond without being James Bond movies — sometimes a little cheaper, often more fanciful and outlandish. But just as in those disconnected days with a dearth of information I was unable to find a manufacturer or store where I could purchase a black, slim-cut three-button suit (I’m quite particular about such things), so too was I at a lost as to where I might find these mythical movies I’d invented in my mind and filled with go-go dancing Eurobabes and dudes in fezzes and sunglasses throwing stiletto daggers at each others’ backs.
Attempts to revive and revise the Japanese karate movie started in 2007, with this tale set in the early 1900s of guys kicking each other in the face really hard. Japanese films are mostly terrible these days, and Japanese martial arts films have almost ceased to exist, with there being little more to the genre anymore than CGI movies or no-budget T&A stinkers starring busty AV idols as ninjas. So a bunch of karate guys woke up one day and thought to themselves, “you know, maybe we should be the guys making karate movies.” While their efforts remain small scale enough so that we can’t trumpet them as a revolution or the rebirth of the Japan Action Club, the results are still promising. Not always good, but promising.
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.
Man, what is it with the directors of z-grade Indian horror films sharing names with yoga masters who have lots of information about themselves on the web? Don’t these yogis know that their online self-promotion makes it harder to find information about the director Harinam Singh, or in this case, Kishan Shah? And what is a yogi doing with a web presence anyway? Shouldn’t he be balancing on one leg in a cave somewhere in Rajasthan?