Rest assured that I’m going to attempt a formal review of Hunterwali in the paragraphs below, though I have to admit I’m tempted just to leave you with the blunt summation I gave my wife after watching it, which went as follows: “Amazing. It was like two and a half hours of people yelling at each other and fat ladies dancing, and then, at the end, a dog rode a horse.”
The whip-wielding female avenger Hunterwali is a frequently recurring character in South Asian film, going back at least as far as Fearless Nadia’s initial turn in the role back in 1935. This 1988 version is a Pakistani take on the legend, fronted by one of the day’s biggest stars of Pakistan’s rough and tumble Punjabi language cinema, the generously proportioned Anjuman. Also on hand are the two other biggest stars of Pakistan’s Punjabi language cinema, Sultan Rahi and Mustafa Qureshi, who, along with Anjuman, were teamed together with such numbing frequency that it sounds like it was near impossible to see a movie in which the three didn’t appear. The insanely popular Rahi alone was like a one man industry, starring in over 500 films between his debut in the mid 50s and his assassination in 1996.
It probably goes without saying by this time that the version of Hunterwali I had access to had no English subtitles. Subtitles, however, are for the weak — or so I have come to believe. Of course, it’s easy for me to take that stance when I can avail myself of the detailed summary provided by Omar Khan over at The Hotspot Online. Given the insane contortions of Hunterwali’s plot, I am indeed in his debt.
Still, summary aside, the most important thing that I need to communicate to you about Hunterwali is that, for the uninitiated, it will likely come across as the most yelling-est movie ever. During its first act it seems as if not a moment passes without someone pointing a finger and bellowing defiantly at someone else, usually with that someone else in turn pointing their finger and bellowing back. I have since learned that these screaming verbal sparring matches -– known colloquially as barrak –- are a standard feature of these Punjabi action films. It’s as if every man and woman in the film were played by 1970s era Dharmendra, but a version of 1970s era Dharmendra who has somehow been fused with the great and powerful OZ, so that every one of his full-throated utterances comes equipped with its own cavernous reverb. In keeping with this, Hunterwali as a whole, while not as sleazy, shows much the same commitment to subtlety seen in Pashto efforts like the notorious Haseena Atom Bomb, complete with an absurdly profligate use of shock zooms and frequent thunderclap sound effects to denote important plot points.
The film does calm down a bit after the first act, settling into a middle bit rich with masala melodrama. At this point it might seem like the movie was less concerned with Hunterwali’s exploits than it is with the question of whether she will settle down and become a dutiful wife and daughter. To underscore this, Hunterwali is provided with a twin sister, Bano, who, by contrast, is every bit as demure and devout as Hunterwali is aggressive and hoochified. (Needless to say, Bano always keeps her head covered and her body hidden underneath loose fitting garments.) Those used to Western portrayals of these type of fantasies of female vigilantism might be forgiven for thinking at first that Hunterwali intends to celebrate its heroine’s flaunting of gender norms. However, the deep conservatism of the film soon becomes apparent, demonstrating that, while the makers may not be above using Hunterwali’s scandalous behavior to titillate their male viewers, they also clearly intend to show that a heavy price must be paid for it.
This price comes in the form of a handsome young fellow whom Hunterwali falls for after he helps her fend off a gang of would-be rapists. In defiance of her father, who has already arranged for her to marry a family friend, she runs off with the man, only to find that he is far from the honorable gentlemen that he initially seemed. In communicating the depths of this guy’s depravity, the movie uses an interesting moral shorthand. Of course, we already know that things aren’t going well once he takes Hunterwali home to reveal that he lives in a cave lair. But, once he is revealed to be in cahoots with the gang of would-be rapists, we notice only too late that that cave is lined with magazine pinups of Madonna, Brooke Shields, Jennifer Beals and — hey, is that Phoebe Cates?
Hunterwali manages to escape from the rape gang, but, because she has disgraced her family, feels she has no recourse but to commit suicide. However, her father then shows up on the scene and prevents her from doing so, preferring to handle the job himself by putting a bullet in her head. Bano then also makes the scene and throws herself between Hunterwali and her father, taking the bullet meant for her sister. Dad then turns the gun on himself and blows his own head off. This jaw dropping sequence comes to a close with Hunterwali promising the dying Bano that she will take her place, which will entail playing wife to Bano’s new husband, a righteous police inspector played by Mustafa Qureshi.
As might be expected, the combination of married life and the business of being Bano quickly starts to chafe on Hunterwali, and she is soon back to her vigilante antics in full force. This happily leads to a final act chock-a-block with violence, gore and absurd animal stunts, as she hunts down the members of the rape gang one-by-one and shoots out their eyes before hanging them from the rafters of their Rape Cave.
The final set piece sees Hunterwali closing in on the leader of the gang — her former paramour — with the assistance of her two ani-pals, a horse named Moti and an adult German Sheppard named Puppy. The gang is momentarily able to subdue the two critters and get the drop on our heroine, but only until the resourceful Puppy is able to free Moti from his bonds and go riding to the rescue.
As well as another fine addition to the South Asian Animal Stars Hall of Fame and some truly amazing — and shiny! — outfits worn by Anjuman, Hunterwali boasts an ear-hectoring, Bappi Lahiri-esque disco score that will keep you tapping your toe right up to the very moment you shoot yourself to make it stop. What can I say, this movie really is the whole package… of what, though, I have to confess I’m at a loss to say.