Khopdi: The Skull

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.

Lakhani’s Khopdi: The Skull isn’t, as far as I know, a rip-off of some already established, better regarded skull-based horror film, but that’s not to imply that it is in any way original. Khopdi, while surprisingly competent (relatively speaking), is also one of the most generic, by-the-numbers Indian horror films I’ve ever seen. You could take the negative of this film and place it on top of any of dozens of other z-grade horror films, and they would match up almost frame for frame. The only thing that even remotely sets Khopdi apart from the rest of the pack is the girth of most of the male stars. And I’m not talking “a few extra pounds” like Kamal Hassan or “pleasantly plump” like Superstar Rajnikanth. I’m talking morbidly obese, like they each just finished eating a “diaper and private island” era Marlon Brando and still had enough room to down a couple Val Kilmers.

Khopdi — starring familiar Z-grade Indian horror staples That Fat Guy, That One Fat Guy, That Other Fat Guy, and That Guy Who Is Sort of In Shape But Still Pretty Fat — begins with the one thing just about all no-budget Indian horror films do right: an awesome credit sequence full of lightning and ghoulies. This one delivers the skulls promised by the film’s title right away, as we are taken on an impressive tour of just about every animatronic skeleton toy you can buy in a drugstore’s seasonal aisle during October. Plus red and blue and green lighting and fog because, you know, scary! And a sweet blood dripping typeface, so I guess this movie knows what it’s doing.

From there, the film settles down into the plot that has been used in roughly 90% of the horror films produced in India. A gang made up of one cute woman and four shockingly obese men waddle awkwardly into a well-appointed villa. Though they are ostensibly there to do a bit of robbing, that doesn’t stop the greasy, leering doughboy brigade from raping the woman who is unlucky enough to be at home. She dies as a result of her injuries, and so the gang dumps her in a shallow grave and heads off to a pool party.

And what a pool party it is. It starts of normally enough, with the female gang member doing a slinky dance with a whisky bottle (she’s no Helen, but then, who is?) which inevitably results in the girl dancing in the pool, splashing and whipping her hair about. But then, this movie is nothing if not egalitarian, so the four sweating, huffing fat guys also flop into the pool and start writhing about, the camera frequently focusing tight on their faces as they gulp whiskey and lovingly lick their moist, fleshy lips while making sexytime eyes at you, the viewer, and rubbing pool water all down their great and sagging chests. I know Indian tastes, and especially South Indian tastes, tend toward the slightly more Rubenesque build, and I fully support that, but these guys…well, I guess you can’t fault them for their body positive image. And since there are four guys and only two women (no idea where the second one came from), this means that two of the guys have to giggle and splash each other.

While they’re busy befouling the pool, the inevitable is happening in the graveyard: the wronged woman is returning from beyond as a vengeful spirit in a cheap fright mask. I have to say, though, that this is one of the more ornate masks I’ve seen in these films, which are replete with rubber mask ghouls. It’s not any more realistic, mind you. It just looks like they got it from the $9.99 shelf instead of the $5.99 wire bin. The one main problem with this mask is that it’s not a skeleton mask. From this point on, it’s pretty much business as usual, with lots of scenes of the fat guys reclining in their living rooms and bedrooms until such time as the ghoul drifts in to choke them to death or just sort of, I don’t know, menace them to death in a pretty subdued manner. This ghoul doesn’t even holler and cause lightning storms the way a good Joginder demon does.

One of the guys is actually some kind of horror film producer/fan with lost of posters for other z-grade Indian horror films adorning his office — a tip of the hand that many of these filmmakers, like their American counterparts, are well aware of the fact that they are making slapdash crap in the hopes of turning a quick buck. There’s a sort of smug colonial complex that Western filmmakers make shitty horror films with tongue in cheek while browner filmmakers do it simply because they are crappy filmmakers. Obviously, this isn’t the case, and if nothing else, Ramesh Lakhani seems to have no delusions about the quality of his film.

Anyway, trying to solve the murders is your requisite kungfu kicking cop with an assortment of jauntily colored blazers and acid washed jeans. His primary function, like all cops in these movies, is to show up after a murder has happened, then declare that a murder has happened. He also has a couple song and dance numbers with his girlfriend, but they have some pretty bad luck. Every time she starts to dance, it begins to rain. What are the odds? They even dance in that same pool the fat guys were squirming around in earlier. So I guess the production got their money’s worth out of that pool, but I wonder if the cop and his girl would have been so enthusiastic about dancing in it fully clothed if they knew what had happened in there just a few short scenes ago.

The music numbers are sparse in this movie, as they tend to be in these kinds of films, and are especially lame. I mean, yeah, there’s the one with the fat guys making kissy faces and splashing each other, so it’s not a total wash. On their own, the women are all right with their dancing, but as soon as one of them is saddled with a male dance partner, the best the choreographer can muster is that move where they sort of bend forward toward each other, face to face, and kind of rock back and forth. Heck, one number is almost nothing but the cop and his girl lightly jogging in place for most of the song. Khopdi refuses to acknowledge the difference between dancing and calisthenics.

Things sort of lumber on in this fashion for a spell. The highlights of the affair are the scene where one of the female gang members is accosted by the zombie apparitions of dead fat guys, which are replaced by her being menaced by a little wind-up Grim Reaper toy with light up spooky eye action; and a scene where one of the fat guys is reclining in a kiddie pool — which is floating in a regular size pool. Why have I never done that??? It’s genius! The finale has the cops slowly closing in while the sole remaining fat guy — this one notable because not only is he the fattest, but he also has the worst hair — has a freakout full of pink mist, strobe lights, and more wind-up skeleton toys, on one of which you can actually see the little plastic feet and wind-up mechanism. Then there’s the predictable Scooby-Doo twist, and the even more predictable “the twist was wrong!” twist.

Khopdi is profoundly generic and repetitive, sticking to the “vengeful rape victim ghost” plotline without any desire to stray from the obligatory points such a movie is supposed to hit along the way. That said, the movie manages to be surprisingly…well, not interesting. Let’s just say unboring. Lakhani moves the film along at a better pace than some of his contemporaries ever seem to manage. The quartet of haunted fat guys put a lot of effort into mugging for the camera and doing that thing where they are really exaggerated scared and fall down while running away, only they’re walking, and instead of falling, they just sort of sit down. The gang girls are pretty terrible actresses, the kind who express fear by staring blankly at the camera. Indian horror film mainstay Sapna (Bhoot ke Pecche Bhoot) has a role that unfortunately amounts to little more than a cameo, which is a shame, because she’s actually a decent, energetic performer.

The special effects are what we’ve come to expect from these movies, though maybe slightly above the average (remembering, though, how phenomenally low that average is). At least the actors manage to keep their rubber masks on. I could have used more skull mask action, but the wind-up toys make up for it. The goopy make-up they slop onto our vengeful spirit is sometimes effective, thanks mostly to the crazy, over-saturated colored lighting and muddy quality of the film print. Even the Halloween toys passed off as monsters are effective in a goofy sort of way, thanks again to smoke and lights. I mean, if you were sitting in a car and all of a sudden a novelty Grim Reaper was fluttering around your head, with flashing green eyes and a tinny laugh — I mean, that’s kind of scary, right? Right?

The wind-up skeleton toys provide the movie with two of what I find to be a very common kind of scene in these movies: the “Huh, that was weird” scene. So imagine your the moll in a murderous gang of fat guys, and you are luxuriating in your bubble bath that has the magic bubbles that always artfully conceal your goods. And all of a sudden, a Grim Reaper walks into the bathroom. Do you freak the hell out, or do you stare at it and think to yourself, “Huh, that’s weird”? And when that Grim Reaper vanishes into thin air, do you then decide something is profoundly spooky, or do you just short of shrug it off? Similarly, let’s say you’re driving down a dark and deserted road when all of a sudden, your car is attacked by leering, lip-licking fat guy zombies. Do you roll up the windows and speed away, shrieking? Or do you just sort of sit there? And when those zombies once again vanish into thin air, do you just relax and think to yourself, “Huh, that’s weird.”

Because that’s the sort of non-reaction people in this movie and countless other shoddy Indian horror films have. The most insane nonsense can happen, but as long as the ghouls and kissyface fat guys blink abruptly out of existence, people just sort of sigh like nothing strange just happened. I mean, even if you convinced yourself you were hallucinating, isn’t the fact that you’re constantly imagining wind-up Grim Reapers and zombie fat guys cause enough for alarm on its own? I guess you better learn to accept that sort of thing though, just as you have accepted the fact that everyone in India sleeps fully clothed in the same outfit they wore that day, lying perfectly straight on their back on top of the covers.

Khopdi’s biggest strength and weakness is the same thing: it’s more or less competent. A few scenes are even pulled off with some degree of flare. The de rigueur rape scene, which is often played up for sleazy tantalization in these films, actually feels grubby and uncomfortable and nasty while being one of the least explicit examples of such a scene. It’s simply a series of shots of the procession of bleary-eyed, grinning fat guys zipping up their pants. It’s a simple approach, still scummy, but weirdly effective in making you feel like something horrible and disgusting is taking place, rather than going the more common route of using the rape as little more than a platform on which to showcase a little female flesh.

Lakhani also doesn’t have the problem with boom mics and focus that plague so many other directors of cheap horror films. The plot, while cookie cutter, is delivered in a more or less decipherable style. So while that keeps the film from sinking into the depths of muddled tedium that defines so many Indian horror films, it also prevents it from attaining the rarefied airs of batshit insane occupied by films like Pyasa Shaitan or the mightiest of all, Shaitani Dracula. Those tepid thusly doled out, there were a certain number of things I was expecting — chief among them a skull with long hair being dangled from a wire and bounced around — that the film didn’t deliver. I don’t know how you can make a film called The Skull and not have one of those guys in it.

Khopdi, as a result of its flirtation with competent filmmaking, can never rise above being a middling affair. At this point, I still go into these films hoping for sheer lunacy, even though I know boring half-assedness is far more likely. If you are new to the genre and are looking for something that will truly blow your mind, Khopdi is in no way a substitute for the films of Harinam Singh or Joginder, the undisputed gods of utter madness in the form of horror films. Khopdi isn’t quite boring. If you are hardened toward Indian horror films of this level, I suppose Khopdi is one of the “better” examples of a terrible bunch of movies. It’s familiar discomfort food in a way, like a ratty old blanket that smells of mildew but is never the less still festering in the attic when it should have been thrown out years ago. But you just can’t do it, can you? Because who knows? Under that blanket there might be a chattering plastic skull.

Release Year: 1999 | Country: India | Starring: Vijay Solanki, Sapna, Sahiba, Priya Rao, Usha Singh, Rashmi Verma, Usha Pendnekar, Bashir Babbar, Kirti Rawal, Rajesh Bakshi, Ashok Soni, Gabbar Singh, Anil Nagrath | Screenplay: Bashir Babbar | Director: Ramesh Lakhani | Cinematography: Anil Dhanda | Music: Ghulam Ali | Producer: Bhagat Singh