With a driving funk theme and blood-dripping title graphic, Khoon Khoon‘s opening credits clearly announce that the film’s director, Bollywood B movie maestro Mohammed Hussain, has changed with the times, moving on from the gee-whiz swashbuckling thrills of sixties efforts like Faulad, Aaya Toofan and Shikari to lurid subject matter much more in tune with the tenor of the seventies’ less restrained Indian cinema. What’s still intact, however, is Hussain’s tendency to hew very closely to Hollywood models in the crafting of his films. This is the man, after all, who helmed one of Bollywood’s earliest adaptations of Superman, and who based his successful Dara Singh vehicle, the aforementioned Aaya Toofan, on Nathan Juran’s “Harryhausen” pastiche, Jack the Giant Killer.
In the case of Khoon Khoon, Hussain’s model is Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry, a film that had been a major hit in the U.S. just a couple of years earlier, and which had provided a career-defining role for Clint Eastwood in the process. While he certainly takes his liberties, Hussain here sticks close enough to the original that I was able to easily follow the story without English subtitles. All of the major set pieces are recreated, often with pains taken to duplicate certain shots. As a result, the film – while being a scrappy little entertainer in its own right – is especially fascinating for how it melds the lean economy and uncompromising grittiness of its inspiration with the more colorful and excessive conventions of 1970s Bollywood. And I have to say that, for the most part, it does a pretty good job, though the end product doesn’t carry nearly the same weight as Siegel’s film.
Seeing release in 1973, Khoon Khoon was made during a time when Amitabh Bachchan was still yet to popularize the image of the angry young antihero in Indian cinema, and, as a result, Indian movie audiences may not have been considered ready for a protagonist of such deep moral ambiguity as Eastwood’s Harry Callahan. It is perhaps for this reason that Khoon Khoon makes its biggest departure from its source, casting its version of Harry (played by Mahinder Sandhu) as a typical Bollywood policeman hero of the day: an upright and honorable caretaker of the public will who enjoys both the respect of his peers and the support of his superiors, and who comes home each night to a loving family comprised of his beautiful wife (a very young Rekha) and doting parents. As a result, Khoon Khoon strips away almost all of Dirty Harry’s elements of character study, reducing the story to its police procedural bones, and instead gives the narrative flesh by way of the usual musical numbers, candy colored art direction, and episodes of comic relief provided by Jagdeep in the role of Harry’s partner. (Note: Since I was unable to make out the actual name of the lead character, I’m simply going to refer to him here as Harry, which may in fact have been his name anyway.)
Fortunately, Danny Dezongpa is on hand to restore some of the resulting lack of grit with his portrayal of the film’s psychotic killer, a character portrayed in the original film by Andrew Robinson. Despite perennial bad guy Prem Chopra’s close physical resemblance to Robinson, I can’t think of a Bollywood actor of the era more suited for this part than Dezongpa. The handsome young actor gives a performance that is as compelling as it is lacking in vanity, swinging unpredictably from grandiosity, to sniveling cowardice, to impotent rage without ever losing the character’s air of unhinged menace. Hussain and screenwriter Vrajendra Gaur seem to have realized that Dezongpa’s serial sniper was the real star of the show, providing a prologue in which we get a glimpse of the character as a child, an obvious bad seed who, after being caught trying to stab baby brother with a kitchen knife, escapes from the mental institution to which he’s been remanded.
One of the many reasons that the original Dirty Harry resonates with me – aside from the simple fact that it’s a great motion picture (and don’t talk to me about the sequels; it was definitely a movie that was meant to stand alone) – is how it draws upon the details of San Francisco’s Zodiac killings for its plot. I lived in the Bay Area at the time of those killings, and am old enough to remember the very real grip of terror that the region was held in as a result. The Zodiac, a faceless maniac who not only struck without warning or apparent motive, but who had also made specific threats against school children, was like a real life boogeyman to my classmates and me, and as a result he has staked out a place in my imagination from which I doubt I’ll ever shake him.
Given this, it was especially interesting for me to see the familiar aspects of the Zodiac’s crimes fictionalized even further and placed in an Indian milieu. While India has obviously never been a stranger to terror and violence, I have to wonder if the film’s original audience had a real life reference point of their own to the very specific, very modern, and, to my mind, very American type of killer Dezongpa plays here — i.e. the psychotic, habitual lone killer of strangers. After all, we in the States were only just beginning to get our heads around the prevalence of such killers ourselves during the sixties and early seventies. Some may not realize, for instance, that the term “serial killer” is only used retroactively with regard to the Zodiac, and that, if the phrase existed at all in those days, it was purely academic and not part of the popular lexicon.
Given such dark subject matter, Khoon Khoon is to be commended for succeeding to even the slightest degree in its task of “Bollywood-izing” Dirty Harry. In one respect it accomplishes this by employing a considerable amount of cleverness in how it integrates the requisite song and dance numbers into the narrative, at times segregating them from the main action by placing them within flashbacks or nightclub numbers, but at others being somewhat more adventurous. (Those songs, by the way, are credited to Vijay Singh, though the movie’s instrumental score is largely comprised of needle drops from Lalo Schifrin’s original Dirty Harry score.)
One of the more daring song stagings takes place in the scene — lifted of a piece from the original film — in which Dezongpa’s killer, having hijacked a school bus full of children, attempts to engage his young captives in a sing-along to stave off panic. In contrast to the tense rendition of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” seen in Dirty Harry, Khoon Khoon uses this circumstance as the opportunity for a full-fledged musical number, with Dezongpa and the kids joining together in a chipper little ditty to full instrumental accompaniment. As awful as that sounds, it’s actually kind of effective, introducing an element of the nightmarishly surreal into the sequence that is all the more jarring once a violent outburst from Dezongpa abruptly snaps us back into the ugly reality of the situation.
Similarly, the way in which Khoon Khoon combines its director’s mimicry of Segal’s more harshly realist style — used especially in the location shot sequences — with the more typically Bollywood flamboyance and artificiality of many of its set-bound scenes often clashes in just the right way. The opening murder in particular, which sees its victim falls back upon her blinding green bedspread with a flower of fire-engine-red blood blooming on her dress front, looks like it could be playing out in some kind of psychotic candyland. Now, I’m not kidding myself that the disorienting effect of these juxtapositions is a calculated one on the part of the filmmakers, but it nonetheless sets Khoon Khoon apart as being something very unique from its source material, while at the same time having that “funhouse mirror” effect that so often makes these Bollywood reimaginings of iconic American films so damn compelling.
Lastly, because the comic relief character is something of a necessary evil in Indian popular cinema, I have to address the issue of Jagdeep. Those of you who are regular readers might fairly assume that I’d like to see the heads of every comic actor of Jagdeep’s ilk mounted on my wall – be they Johnnys Walker or Lever, Master Baghwan or what-have-you. But I’m going to surprise you this time by giving Jagdeep a bit of a break. In all truthfulness, he is relatively — and I emphasize relatively — low-key in Khoon Khoon. In terms of general goofiness, he keeps things only a couple of notches above what you’d typically expect from the goofy partner character in a 70s cop movie. Yes, all the food jokes are there, as is the oafishly obvious ogling of women, but these are all classics of the genre, after all. What really keeps Jagdeep from sending Khoon Khoon off the rails here is that his comedy — unlike in so many other, similar Bollywood films — is not based in him being incompetent at his job, but simply arises from the fact that he is just kind of a goofball. None of it is funny, mind you, but at least Jagdeep is allowed to perform unobtrusively in his role as a police officer when the action requires it, without him having to constantly provide an obstacle to the action by stumbling all over himself and cocking things up in improbably dimwitted ways. His character is also given further credibility by the fact that his girlfriend is played by Helen, which means that there just has to be something right going on with the guy.
While, admittedly, some of my enjoyment of Khoon Khoon arose from the novelty of it being a Bollywood adaptation of one of my favorite films — just as it was with Inkaar, Raj N. Sippy’s reworking of Kurosawa’s High and Low — I also found it irresistibly watchable on its own terms. It is a taughtly-paced, rough-edged and deliciously trashy little thriller with all the garish accouterments I’ve come to love from 1970s Indian cinema. That it also turns that freaky, funky Bollywood funhouse mirror on an American classic is just the day-glo frosting on the cake. Okay, granted, the overwhelming feeling I brought away from it was a desire to watch Dirty Harry again. But since when is that a bad thing?
Release Year: 1973 | Country: India | Starring: Mahinder Sandhu, Danny Dezongpa, Jagdeep, Rekha, Helen, Agha (Agha Jan) Baig, Asit Sen, Madan Puri, Manmohan Krishna, Murad, Padma Khanna, Shyama | Writer: Umesh Mehra, Vrajendra Gaur, Brajendra Gaur | Director: Mohammed Hussain | Cinematographer: S.M Anwar | Music: Vijay Singh | Producer: F.C Mehra