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.
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.
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?
In 1948, French artist Jean Dubuffet coined the term art brut, a phrase which became “outsider art” in 1972 when critic Roger Cardinal imported it into the English language. It referred to works of art created outside the boundaries of general culture. Specifically, it was art created by someone like an inmate in an insane asylum. Over time, the term was applied to a broader audience, but the key element remains that the art is a reflection of a mental state beyond that of even the average crazy guy. This is not the same as an established art movement that is consciously seeking to do something “outside the mainstream.” An artist can’t rationally decide to make art brut. As Dubuffet himself describes it, art brut can’t be created by anyone who functions as part of regular society, even regular art society, and so this form of fierce and feverish creativity remains the sole purview of madmen and terrifying backwoods hillbillies who make sculpture out of cat skins, metal drums, and human skulls.