That some of Bollywood’s worst sins have been committed in the name of nepotism is a fact which anyone who has borne witness to Karisma Kapoor’s early career can sadly attest to. For the Hindi film industry’s directors, stars and producers, dynasty building seems to be a top order of business, right alongside the practice of their chosen craft. For a fearsome reminder of this, one need look no further than director Raj Kumar Kohli’s 2002 film Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani, as terrible a monument to a father’s love for his son as has ever been erected.
Kohli made his initial mark on Bollywood with a pair of supernaturally-themed blockbusters during the seventies. The first of these was 1976’s Nagin, just one in a long line of Bollywood movies concerning the dark escapades of snake spirits who are capable of taking human form. Under Kohli’s guidance, the film came to exemplify two prominent strains in 1970s Bollywood cinema, both of which the director seemed to have taken very closely to heart. One is the trend for “multi-starrers”, which was in full force at the time. Second is that Nagin seemed to take 1970s Bollywood’s tendency toward fanciful design and blinding displays of color to a retina-rending extreme, adopting the look of a lurid cinematic comic book, complete with dreamily artificial-looking sets cast in florescent primary hues and woozily melding pastels.
For his next big hit, 1979’s Jaani Dushman, Kohli followed much the same pattern, stuffing the cast with as many big names as it could take and adopting a similarly narcotic palette. This time, the film focused on a werewolf-like creature who murders brides on their wedding day. While not quite as much fun as Nagin, Jaani Dushman was not without its moments of effectively creepy atmospherics, and boasted the added attraction of featuring a young Amrish Puri as its monster.
The hits kept coming for Kohli throughout the eighties, but the dawn of the following decade would see the director take on a project that, in retrospect, seems to have sent his career careening irreparably off the rails. That project started with 1992’s Virodhi, and had as its goal the elevation to stardom of actor Arman Kohli, who also happened to be Raj Kumar Kohli’s son. Virodhi, unfortunately, was an utter failure, both in terms of box office receipts and as a vehicle for Arman. Two successive attempts at the same prize, 1993’s Auland Ke Dushman and 1997’s Qahar, didn’t fare any better. Kohli, however, remained committed to furthering his son’s career — to the extent of limiting his directing output exclusively to films starring Arman. By 2002, he seemed to have come to the conclusion that the key to success lay in forging an association between his son’s name and those beloved hits that had cemented his reputation as a director. To this end, the story of Nagin was updated, but then, in a curious touch, fitted with the title of Kohli’s other big seventies hit. The result, Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani (Beloved Enemy: A Strange Tale), turned out to be not only a resounding box office dud, but also a film that would come to be widely considered one of the worst ever produced by Bollywood.
I recently found myself trying to defend Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani against this particular judgment, arguing that, while the film was indeed searingly bad, it was also very entertaining, a fact which I felt should place it above other Bollywood films that were comparably bad but also boring. On second thought, though, I had to reconsider that opinion, because the truth is that there is not one element of Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani that is not misjudged — a pretty impressive feat that makes an extreme distinction like “worst ever” well earned. This is not the only thing that makes the movie special, however. For one, it accomplishes the seemingly impossible by achieving a sort of surplus of deficit. It abounds with so much evidence of poverty of imagination on the part of its makers that its very unoriginality comes to take on a kind of uniqueness, and its insubstantiality a kind of heft.
Kohli’s approach to making JD:EAK seems to have been to simply make the same movie he would have made back in the seventies, complete with cartoon color scheme and outrageously phony-looking, stage-bound sets, and then update it for a young audience by awkwardly grafting onto it elements taken of a piece from every major Hollywood action blockbuster of the last ten years, regardless of how those elements did or didn’t fit in with the story that he was trying to tell. What saves the film is how Kohli so often spectacularly stumbles in duplicating those elements. After all, if executed competently, Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani would have ended up being just one of many bloated, special effects-driven blockbusters with a cast of blandly attractive but ultimately unlikeable young stars. As is, it works as a brilliant parody, lampooning all of those Hollywood excesses that it seeks to carbon copy. In fact, I firmly believe that, if every producer in Hollywood were forced to watch Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani, many would be shamed away from ever using any of the tropes that it so clunkily borrows again.
Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani boldly puts its worst foot forward with an opening scene containing computer effects of astonishing ineptitude. To be fair, not all of the film’s effects will be as bad as what you’ll see here — and at times they even approach mediocrity — but it’s so difficult to wash the taste of these particular effects out of your mouth that those later scenes that rise above the bar they set end up coming across as the exceptions rather than the rule. The scene takes place after the wedding of Rajesh (Rajat Bedi), one of the many depressingly interchangeable young people that make up the film’s cast of characters, and we join Rajesh in the honeymoon suite just as he is about to lift the veil from his bride’s lovely face.
Only hers is not a lovely face at all, it turns out, but rather a giant skeleton head animated with all the precision and detail you’d expect to find in a handheld video game from the eighties. As Rajesh recoils in horror, his bride morphs completely into a cartoon skeleton so lacking in any illusion of physical depth that it could have been lifted from an episode of South Park and proceeds to beat him up, all the while cackling crazily like a drunken old prospector. Interestingly, those in charge of rendering the skeleton appear to have felt that the idea of a skeleton that was actually, you know, skeletal beating up the beefy Rajat Bedi placed too much of a tax on credibility, and so made the ill-advised decision to provide that skeleton with something akin to muscle mass. The resulting creature is nothing if not otherworldly, boasting exaggerated, Popeye-like bulges in the bones of its legs and upper arms. Then again, it could just be that no one involved knew how to draw a skeleton.
After sending Rajesh’s broken body flying out the window of his suite and crashing, much to the consternation of his gathered friends, onto the floor of the ballroom where his reception is still in progress, the terrifying, one dimensional cartoon skeleton makes its way jerkily to the shadowy ruin of an old fortress. Here it assumes the spectral form of Divya, a young woman played by the talented Manisha Koirala (here doing penance for god knows what karmic infraction). Divya was not always a spook with the ability to turn into a bulked-up cartoon skeleton, however, and a flashback handily appears to show us how she came to be in such a state. It seems that, not all that long ago, she was just a normal college student with a large assortment of depressingly interchangeable yet uncommonly scrubbed and blandly attractive looking friends. Two of those friends, however, specifically the aforementioned Rajesh and another fellow named Madan (Siddharth), were also rapists. And, as we see, they almost succeeded at raping Divya in her aspirational poster-laden dorm room, but for the fist-y intervention of Divya’s beau, Karan, who is played by Sunny Deol.
Now, like the earlier Raj Kumar Kohli hits that it’s modeled on, JD:EAK is a movie in the old multi-starrer tradition and, as such, boasts a large cast that features some of the most big-ish Bollywood stars of its day, not the least of whom is Sunny Deol. No stranger to the benefits of nepotism himself, Sunny is the son of Dharmendra, one of the industry’s biggest stars of the sixties and seventies. Like his dad, Sunny got a lot of mileage out of puffing out his chest, pointing a finger, and booming out defiant proclamations at people before punching them. His brief introduction here — before summarily jetting off to London for some business that, we’re told, will take him several months — clues us in right away that, whatever the conflict in JD:EAK is going to be, its resolution is going to involve Sunny Deol coming back to town to shout and punch it into submission.
Before jetting off, though, Sunny/Karan takes Divya’s would-be rapists to the dean of the school, Joseph (Raj Babbar), who tells the now penitent young men that, before he can decide on a course of action, they must ask Divya for forgiveness. Divya’s large assortment of depressingly interchangeable friends prove to be a big help in this matter, as they unanimously and as a group browbeat her into accepting Rajesh and Madan’s apology, saying, among other things, that to do otherwise would make people think that she is “too proud of her beauty”. After all, says her friend Atul (Akshay Kumar), the two are healthy young men and she’s a hottie, so what could she expect them to do other than get rapey with her? It’s all pretty heart warming, really. Little would anyone suspect that Divya’s well-meaning friends were advising her to make what would turn out to be a pretty bad decision.
But before that startling revelation, Divya awakes one evening to the sound of an eerie call that summons her to a Banyan tree in a park that lies just outside her dorm. A CGI explosion heralds the arrival of a poorly animated cobra that morphs into Raj Kumar Kohli’s son, Arman, in the role of Kapil, a centuries-old snake spirit. Kapil tells Divya that she, too, was once a cobra — his cobra girlfriend, in fact — and that they are destined to be together once more. To quell any of Divya’s doubts, Kapil transports her back in time, where we see the two of them in happier days, dancing against a rapidly shifting backdrop of flat-looking computer generated fantasy vistas. The end effect is kind of like those tourist videos you used to be able to get where it looked like you were sitting on a flying carpet.
This aforementioned scene, along with providing yet another example of JD:EAK‘s woefully behind-the-curve computer effects capabilities, puts in stark relief yet another of the film’s glaring shortcomings. And it’s not Anan Raj Anand’s songs, either, which are merely generic and forgettable, but rather Ganesh Acharya’s choreography, which is truly awful. This is even more apparent in the film’s many party scenes, where the hypnotic repetition of head shaking and methodical shuffling from foot to foot on the part of the young cast comes across like a kind of hoochified Hokey Pokey. Whether this is in part due to the dancing abilities of the cast is another issue. But I think it’s telling that, even in the case of Manisha Koirala, who has shown herself to be an able dancer in other films, you feel like you can actually see the actors counting in their heads while performing these numbers.
Divya and Kapil end their happy dance by stomping up and down on top of a cave which happens to contain Amrish Puri as a dirt-encrusted old shaman type. Amrish is royally pissed at being woken from his long meditation, and places a curse on the two snake people that causes olden-times Divya to die pretty much immediately. Kapil begs the sage to reverse the spell, but the old guy tells him that it’s too late for that. However, Amrish is moved enough by Kapil’s anguish to append his curse with a provision that will allow Divya to be reincarnated as a human many years hence. All Kapil must do is live inside that Banyan tree for however many centuries it will take for that to happen, at which time he will be freed to reunite with her. The plus side is that, when released, he will be invincible to all but those with divine powers.
Back in the 21st century, Divya, her snake memories restored, takes all of this in stride for the most part and quickly gets back to the routine of college life which, of course, means parties. Unfortunately, the predatory Rajesh seizes the opportunity of a party thrown by Atul at the old ruined fortress to lay a trap for Divya, impersonating his other friends in the course of doing so. At his direction, Divya unwittingly shows up for the party an hour early, only to find just Rajesh and Madan waiting for her. This time the men’s rape attempt is successful, and it’s just about as nasty as Bollywood standards would allow — not graphic, but still shocking in its brutality, and leaving no doubt as to exactly what’s going on. In keeping with the film’s Jurassic sexual politics, Divya is now given no choice but to commit suicide, and so impales herself on a convenient tree branch. The rest of the distressingly indistinguishable crew then shows up and, though someone makes noise about calling an ambulance, quickly find themselves content to bicker with the rapidly dying Divya over who exactly was responsible for her getting into this predicament. Finally, the centuries-old snake spirit Kapil happens to casually stroll by just in time for his long awaited lady love to die in his arms.
And it is at this point that something strange and wonderful happens to Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani, something that will leave those who found the movie’s first hour incomprehensible pining for the relative coherence that it provided. Because nothing that will happen in the film from this point on will make one lick of sense.
In time honored fashion, Kapil throws his arms out and cries in anguish to the heavens, at which point lots of CGI lightning thunders down upon him, and the brief, Egyptian-style garb that he is wearing morphs into a sculpted, form-fitting, head-to-toe leather ensemble very closely based on that worn my Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix. Then, with the aid of more CGI, his mouth opens unnaturally wide and he emits forth a raging sandstorm, just like the mummy in The Mummy. Finally, with all of Divya’s other former friends apparently blown out the door, Kapil, in a manner somewhat more appropriate for a centuries-old snake spirit, turns into a snake and bites Madan to death.
With their first act of revenge out of the way, Kapil and the now spectral Divya hold a powwow, during which Kapil informs Divya that it should be he who carries out the lion’s share of payback against that amorphous mass of humanity that is her circle of friends. This is because Divya, being just a spook, can only act by possessing the bodies of others, while Kapil, being invincible and able to transform into anything he wishes to, is limited only by the imaginations of the filmmakers, which, as we’ll see, are actually pretty limited. Nonetheless, he sets about the task of picking off Divya’s crew with enthusiasm. Of course, each must die in reverse order of his or her star power, and so it is Victor, played by Sharad S. Kapoor, who is next to go.
The sequence in which Kapil chases down and kills Victor turns out to be yet another dizzying mosaic of clumsy visual quotes from 1990s action movies, starting with a fight in the woods during which Kapil’s sudden and inexplicable transformation into some kind of killer robot/mummy/virtual reality guy is completed by the sudden accompaniment of Robocop-like electronic buzzing and whirring sounds effects. Much wire-assisted flying and kicking follows, which manages to vividly evoke memories of particular scenes in The Matrix while at the same time falling drastically short of them in terms of execution. Finally, Kapil chases after Victor’s car while mimicking the stiff-limbed high-speed gait of Terminator 2‘s T-1000, eventually somehow producing a motorcycle from his lower torso to complete the pursuit on wheels. Victor’s end comes at the conclusion of a stunningly phony, digitally-assisted motorcycle jump by Kapil that plants the front tire squarely on his victim’s collarbone.
Now having assumed the form of Victor, Kapil goes about his next order of business, which is to, as if in response to popular request on the part of the audience, eliminate the gang’s resident comic relief guy, Abdul (Arshad Warsi). This is accomplished by Kapil throwing Abdul into a swimming pool and then summoning the awesome force of computer-generated lighting bolts to electrocute him. This scene is gratifying on many levels, but is most memorable for how, Abdul, despite having zillions of volts of electricity pulsing through his body, is somehow still able to deliver a moving farewell speech to his friends gathered poolside before giving up the ghost. Sadly, this does not leave us viewers in the clear, because the filmmakers, seeing a comic relief vacuum left in Abdul’s absence, decide to fill the gap with the subsequent introduction into the cast of migraine-conjuring Bollywood yuk-meister Johnny Lever.
Eventually the gang gets the notion that they must somehow defend themselves against Kapil, and so turn to Joseph, the school’s dean. Joseph is something of an all-purpose adult , serving not only as dean, but also science teacher and, as we’ll see in a later scene, boxing referee. Providentially, he also happens to be some kind of master of the supernatural arts, which leads to one of the film’s most indelible set pieces. Convinced that the gang are innocent of the crimes for which Kapil and Divya are punishing them, Joseph sets about conjuring forth the spirit of Divya so that they may plead their case to her. When Divya makes her appearance, it is for all intents and purposes in the person of the miniature, holographically-projected Princess Leia from Star Wars. While initially awed by this otherworldly phenomenon made manifest before them, the kids are quick to devolve into bickering with the intransigent mini-Divya as if they were so many Real World contestants arguing over the allotment of refrigerator space. That is until Akshay Kumar, having had enough of Divya’s ectoplasmic lip, empties a handgun into her spectral visage.
So now, naturally, it’s time for Atul/Akshay to feel the bitter sting of Kapil’s pixilated sword of vengeance. This takes place during a sequence that is obviously intended to be JD:EAK‘s version of an action tour de force, featuring motorcycles, speedboats, massive explosions, jet skis, and Kapil running across water like some black leather-clad, Michael Bay version of Jesus. Plagiarism-wise, the scene is a mash-up of equal parts T2 and The Matrix, with Kapil going from dodging rounds in bullet time to simply letting those rounds pass through him to leave chrome-dripping, perfectly round holes in his body which rapidly seal themselves. This peaks with a replay of the bit from T2 where an explosion reduces the T-1000 to puddles of liquid metal, from which he reassembles himself into silvery humanoid form, although in this case, the result is so sad looking that you kind of wish that you could just give the movie a hug.
Now, a lot of other stuff happens in Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani. It is, after all, a long movie, and brim-full of visual wonders and momentous events, most of which involve shudderingly terrible CGI effects emulating scenes from bloated Hollywood blockbusters of the nineties. I’m sure, once this review has been posted, I’ll hear from some of you who have seen the movie, asking why I failed to mention some favorite scene. For instance, you might ask, “What about Sunil Shetty’s interminable green screen fall down the face of a not-all-that-tall building, complete with gratuitous air swimming and Mr. Bill facial expressions?” Or: “What about the big explosion where the devices used to catapult the cars into the air are clearly visible?” Or: “What about the scene where Divya possesses Akshay Kumar’s girlfriend and tries to kill him by making him dance off a cliff during an upbeat musical number?” The fact is that, as much enjoyment as I got out of this movie, to take the time to describe all of those events in detail would be giving it far much more time than it deserves. Besides, if you are, like me, the type of idiot who would watch a movie like this, it had you at the Popeye-armed, ColecoVision skeleton.
Let’s just suffice it to say that eventually the character Vivek, played by Sonu Nigam, calls his big brother in London and tells him of his fear that he’ll be the next in line on Kapil’s hit list. Vivek’s big brother, I should mention, is Sunny Deol, so you know where this is going. Sunny really loses his shit big time at this news and starts shouting and pointing at everything, then slams the phone down and hops on the next plane back to India. Soon Sunny and Kapil are in a foundry beating the stink out of one another in exactly the manner decreed by the mere fact of Sunny Deol’s presence in Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani. Finally, just when you think that he’s about to bite it, Dean Joseph says an incantation that fills Sunny Deol with magic, enabling him to fatally impale Kapil on a girder, even though earlier scenes have demonstrated that Kapil is made of liquid metal exactly like the T-1000 in T2. In a last, conciliatory nod to that film to which JD:EAK owes so much, Kapil is thrown into a vat of white hot something-or-other and sinks Arnold-like into nothingness, at which point we fade to Divya and Kapil, now reunited, dancing happily in a garish and shoddily computer animated version of an idyllic afterlife.
An interesting and/or perhaps sad thing about Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani is that, in casting his son as basically the locus for a lot of bad CGI effects, Raj Kumar Kohli wasn’t exactly providing him with the best showcase for whatever acting talents or star quality he might have possessed. The only way that I can think that this might have seemed like a good idea would be if Kohli was actually trying to convince people that his son could really do the things he was shown doing in the film. (I can hear the producer now: “Get Arman Kohli. He can turn into a motorcycle!”) As is, those scenes in which Arman is required to do anything beyond glare robotically and assume stylized Matrix poses — mainly those in the first hour of the film in which he is required to interact with Manisha Koirala and do some tortured emoting — don’t leave much of an impression. The sense you do get is not so much of a bad actor, but simply of one not obviously possessed of those ingredients necessary to Bollywood superstardom.
Whether this finally dawned upon Kohli is unclear, but the fact remains that he has not returned to the directing game since helming JD:EAK. Of course, it is just as likely that he has simply opted for retirement, seeing as he was in his late seventies. It also could be that he has faced difficulties in obtaining funding to make another film. After all, despite all of its flaws, JD:EAK was clearly a very expensive film to make, and no doubt left in its wake a good number of investors who were not eager to make the same mistake again. This last fact makes it hard not to wince a little bit as your laughing at Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani‘s excesses.
There’s a stink of naked desperation to all of its overkill. Clearly, people had a lot riding on this movie, and at some juncture it was decided that the best way to recoup was to create a product that was not only spectacular in itself, but also derivative on a spectacular scale. As such, the pursuit of unoriginality in JD:EAK is striking in its aggressiveness, evidencing an unyielding determination on the part of its makers to make sure that absolutely nothing contained within it would be untested or challenging to expectations. It is by virtue of this that the movie ultimately serves to reveal with tragicomic accuracy the mindset behind the blockbusters that it seeks to duplicate, as if it were some kind of hideously mocking picture of Dorian Gray to be locked away in Hollywood’s attic.
The shame here, or at least one of the many shames, is that, with films like Nagin and the original Jaani Dushman, Raj Kumar Kohli demonstrated a genuinely quirky sensibility, while at the same time proving that he could draw in a popular audience. Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani, on the other hand, demonstrates the culmination of a gradual grinding down of that sensibility. All in all, it’s a pretty sad portrait of compromise. But if one were looking for some kind of redemptive tidbit within it, it might be found in the fact that Kohli was apparently motivated by a love of family, rather than any desire for mere material gain, in making it. Love really is a bitch, isn’t it?