Saazish

At some point, online emoticon technology will advance to the point where there is a little smiley face thing that perfectly expresses the sentiment of me shaking my fist toward the heavens and yelling, “Dharmendra!!!” And when that technology exists, I will insert it into this and several other reviews, because it seems like every time I pick some weird subgenre of exploitation film to find a Bollywood version of, when I find it, it stars Dharmendra and is sort of disappointing. Take, for example, my long quest to find a Bruce Lee exploitation film from Bollywood. Eventually it turned up in the form of Katilon Ke Kaatil, starring Dharmendra and well-known Bruce Lee impersonator Bruce Le. It also ended up being sort of disappointing, even though, in addition to a showdown with Bruce Le, it also featured Dharmendra fighting a sasquatch dressed as General Ursus from Planet of the Apes. I know, I know. I too thought there was no way a movie featuring those ingredients—not to mention Dharmendra in drag—could be disappointing, and while Katilon Ke Kaatil is  worth watching, it also managed to let me down a little. In the end, though, it was a decent enough movie, with lots of fist fights and guys getting punched through random piles of bricks.

Similarly, I’ve been on an even longer quest to find the movie Saazish, though for a long time I didn’t know the name of the movie for which I was searching. You see, way back when, or at least several years ago, there was a mini-explosion of interest in Bollywood music outside of the Indian community. This was happening mostly among club DJs from the UK and continental Europe, some with Indian backgrounds, others without, but all interested in mining the rich vein of breakbeats present in the ultra-funky, ultra-swanky Bollywood music of the 60s and 70s. The end result for those of us who weren’t European club DJs was a series of CD releases of dubious copyright legality from various labels documenting the music that had become suddenly so popular in modern dance halls and discotheques. We got some cool CDs out of it. One of the coolest was Bombay the Hard Way from Motel Records. It was a compilation of music from action films of the 1970s. Some were remixed. Others, like the theme from Don, the DJs knew better than to mess with and so are presented in their original, unaltered form. This CD was the reason I ever bothered to start exploring the world of Bollywood action films.

Not too long after, Motel Records came out with a second volume, called Bombay 2: Electric Vindaloo. On the cover of the CD were a number of screenshots, one of which featured a dude with a blue head and a Mandarin-collared jacket. He wasn’t doing anything special, other than just sitting there, but I guess if you are a guy with a blue head and a Blofeld jacket, you don’t have to do much on top of that to be special. I recognized him as Fantomas, or some Bollywood variant thereof, though it took a little longer for the reality of the matter so sink in: somewhere out there was a Bollywood Fantomas film.

In 1907, as the pulp era was getting into the swing of things, France was introduced to the character of Arsene Lupin. Lupin was the classic gentleman thief, a character archetype that would be reincarnated over and over. Into the mix, round about 1911 or so, came Fantomas, another French master thief and master of disguise. Like Lupin, Fantomas immediately caught on with the public, and a huge number of Fantomas stories were published throughout the early 20th century. It wasn’t long until such characters found themselves parading across the relatively new medium of the motion picture. In serials and shorts, most of the pulp heroes and villains started showing up on movie screens. So, let’s skip ahead. World War I. Weimar Republic. Jesse Owens. World War II. Comic books. Captain America punches Hitler. My grandpa Harley starts thinking Truman is a “yardbird.” That should bring us up to the 1960s, right? So after a period of hibernation, the pulp characters of the early half of the 20th century are suddenly resurrected in the form of Italian and French comic book characters and films based upon those characters. It was only natural that someone would revive Fantomas and translate him into the modern jet-set, Eurospy style of film. A series of French films were thus commissioned starring the mysterious master criminal behind an expressionless blue mask. As with other films of the era, Fantomas is nominally the “bad guy,” but it’s never in doubt that we are rooting for him rather than the police. This time, Fantomas had an awesome underground layer, expertly designed and decorated as all 1960s villain lairs were, and a cool car. It’s not surprising that such an iconic figure would be “borrowed” for productions in other countries. Thus, Fantomas appears in flagrant violation of copyright law in the 1969 Turkish film Iron Claw, The Pirate. He would show up again in 1975’s Saazish, matching wits with Dharmendra, and eventually winding up as a screencap on the cover of a CD.

The problem when I got the CD was that I knew immediately I wanted to see the film, but nowhere in the CD packaging did they credit the movie from which the shot was taken. Since most of these CDs were released by one-off labels who disappeared shortly after issuing the album, Motel Records was gone by the time I contacted them to see if they could shed any light on the topic. I turned then to the Internet, but after a few years of asking about “that blue headed guy on the cover of Bombay 2: Electric Vindaloo,” I’d received nothing but suggestions that turned out to be dead ends. I decided that the screencap was a mistake, that it was just a still from one of the French Fantomas films of the 1960s that was erroneously placed on the cover of a Bollywood music remix CD. I didn’t really believe it in my heart of hearts, but it was all I could tell myself so that I could stop thrashing fitfully about in my sleep, only to wake up in a cold sweat and screaming “Bollywood Fantomas!!!!” On a whim, and because I have an addictive personality, I did one last Google search for “bollywood fantomas.” Nothing on the first page. Why do I even bother? Well, I thought, might as well look at the second page of results.

And there it was. A link that said “Saazish: I think the boss is based on Fantomas.” Could it be? So I followed the link, which happened to be a review from the site Memsaab Story. And scrolling down I saw…let’s see. Helen’s giant eye. Dharmendra in what looks like a helmet from an Italian science fiction film, a fake Chinese guy, and…my God! There he was, staring back at me in all his expressionless blue-gray glory. I felt like Louis de Funes, the cop forever in pursuit of Fantomas in the movies and always one step behind the master criminal. “Bollywood Fantomas!” I cried triumphantly. “This time I have caught you!” My debt to Memsaab Story is beyond measure, though I feel it has shrunk a little since actually watching the film. Because after watching the film, all I could do was shake my fist at the heavens and angrily yell, “Dharmendra!!!” And, like Fantomas, all I could hear was his laughter, echoing in the distance as he escaped through some clever means and left me standing there, feeling a bit cheated on this, the eve of my victory.

Which is a long way of saying that Saazish isn’t very good. To be fair, there was probably no way it could live up to a build-up that spanned years. At the very least though, it could have had the decency to be decent. And I guess parts of it are good, but there is so much crap to wade through to get to the good stuff that it’s not really worth it. Granted, there’s a lot of crap to wade through in many films, but usually it’s crap with which I can deal. In the case of Saazish, however, the crap is mostly a performance by Saira Banu in the female lead that just might be the single most insipid, annoying, and grating performance I’ve ever seen in a Bollywood film. I would rather watch ten Johnny Levers than ever have to sit through Banu’s performance in Saazish again.

My first experience with Dharmendra was the slick little espionage caper Aankhen, which among other things paired him with a woman who pursues him in the beginning of the film to the point of seeming insane. Saazish features the same basic set-up, as Banu’s Sunita picks Dharmendra’s Jai more or less at random and decides to mercilessly stalk and sing to him until he falls in love with her. The difference is that Aankhen starred Mala Sinha, and her character wasn’t just insane for love; she was also a bad-ass spy who knew her way around a Tommy gun, took an active part in blowing up various villain lairs, and owned a gigantic floppy green sombrero. By contrast, Sunita frequently shrieks, overacts with the fierce hunger of Richard Burton at his very worst, and tends to cry in the way you expect to hear from a ten-year-old, actually wailing “boo hoo hoo!” By the halfway point, I was ready to throw my lot in with Fantomas, who was doing his best (which, to be fair, was pretty bad) to have her killed.

So here’s the plot, such as it is. Sunita has just won the Miss Cosmos beauty competition, a fact that she tells pretty much anyone and everyone she meets. You might think that this is an attempt at characterization, that we are supposed to find her constant mentioning of her beauty to be a comedic character quirk. Her first task as the world queen of beauty is to go to Hong Kong and award the trophy for what is supposed to be the most prestigious auto race in Asia. Said race is realized by cobbling together stock footage of what looks to be a Le Mans race with footage from what looks to be someone’s home movie of a dirt track race, then you edit in some head shots of a listless Dharmendra wearing a helmet that looks like it was on loan from an Alfonso Brescia sci-fi film. When Dharmendra wins the race, Sunita decides she is madly in love with him, even though the only thing she knows about him is that he won a car race. I don’t even know what that is. I mean, if she thought he was hot, then at least she would be shallow. But she hasn’t even seen him as anything other than a speck on a race track wearing a dumb helmet. So that doesn’t even qualify as shallow. That’s just plum crazy, son.

Dharmendra seems to think so, too, but after she wears him down with her endearing antics—which include following him around, shrieking like a banshee, and pretending to commit suicide (to be fair, Dharmendra deserves that one, as he pulled the same thing in Katilon Ke Kaatil)—he finally gives in and takes her on the least scenic musical travelogue tour of Hong Kong imaginable, including as it does a highway junction, some dreary gray cinder block housing projects, and a walk down the middle of a busy highway!!! Lady, could his signals be any clearer??? Their mediocre day out together culminates in a cruise during which Sunita happens upon a murder in progress. A dying man riddled with bullet holes staggers toward her, mutters something about gold, a ship, and reporting to Interpol, then drops dead, leaving Sunita face-to-face with a bunch of gunmen who, though they are standing in the middle of the dining room waving their guns about, fail to attract the attention of anyone else on the boat.

Sunita, rather than rushing to Jai’s side (he was busy getting coffee) or rushing to the nearest cop, hops off the boat, hails a cab, and badgers him until he takes her to the Interpol office, which looks to be a quaintly appointed residential living room with fancy space-age phones. Somehow, Sunita is allowed to walk right into the building and straight up to the director’s office without being questioned by anyone. I guess being the world queen of beauty has its perks. As soon as Sunita arrives in the office, the phone rings. The director, who was hiding behind his desk for absolutely no discernible reason other than shits and giggles, hands it to her, as the call is for her. It seems the gang responsible for the murder has captured Jai, and if Sunita talks, they will kill him. No one stops to wonder how they knew where to call her, just as no one thinks that possibly calling someone on the phone line belonging to the head of Interpol so you can tell that person not to talk to the head of Interpol might not be an entirely secure way of doing covert business.

The Interpol guy then allows her to leave without asking her any questions or following up with the whole death threat phone call, which he listened in on using a pair of glasses with flashing lights on the rims. Sure, they have other ways to listen in on phone calls, like picking up the other receiver, but I reckon some slick traveling salesmen sold Interpol on the stupid glasses, and they feel like they should get their money’s worth. It was probably the same guy who sold the Japanese military all those Maser cannons to fight giant monsters, but neglected to mention that they only work against gargantuas. Still, Japan has a lot of the things, so every time Godzilla shows up, they dutifully roll them out in hopes that he’ll trash a few of them, allowing the Japanese Self Defense Force, if nothing else, to free up some much needed garage space.

If idiocy like this comprised the entire running length of the picture, I’d be in perfectly comfortable territory. Alas, it only lasts for about five more minutes, as Jai meets the mysterious Fantomas—or Mr. Han, as he’s called here (let’s call him Hantomas)—and convinces the master criminal that he should be allowed to kill Sunita, since he was only with her to get at her wealth. Remarkably, Hantomas agrees to this without so much as a single question. Damn. Apparently, working for Hong Kong’s most infamous masked criminal is easier than getting a job at…well, Interpol.

One of the key components of any swingin’ Bond style super-villain is his secret lair. Fantomas had a pretty swanky underground pad full or works of art and candelabras, something in between Diabolik and Doctor No. Hantomas got the cave part down, but he didn’t add much other than a few swishing doors, some random blinking lights, and for some reason, a hidden radio. I guess that shows initiative. It’s not every super villain who would go that extra mile to install a hidden radio inside a lair that was already hidden. That’s like buying a safe and putting a little safe inside it that contains your Zune (because you didn’t want to buy an iPod) even though the big safe is already full of jewels and bundles of cash and nude photos. It’s probably one of those flourishes that seemed cool at the time but got to be a real hassle after a while. Every time someone wants to use the radio, they have to go through the ritual of turning the statue and opening the rock wall. Since the guys in the secret lair would already also know about the secret radio, it probably got to the point where Hantomas’ right hand man, Mr. Wong, just told the guys to leave it open. That, of course, leads to Hantomas furtively going over and closing it all the time, until the two criminals descend into a petty bickering argument not unlike roommates fighting over the proper setting for the air conditioner.

Oh yeah, Mr. Wong. If you ever rolled your eyes at Caucasian guys donning fake eyelids and accents and passing themselves off as Asians in movies, rest assured that this is hardly confined to the West. Madan Puri, who portrays Mr. Wong, is about as Chinese as Bela Lugosi. Turnabout’s fair play, though, because it’s not as if there was never a Chinese actor who put on “brown face” and played an Indian. The thugs in Hantomas’ gang don’t really inspire much more confidence than their boss. Even though their order is to kill Jai as soon as he leaves, all they do is point their guns and run toward him one at a time so he can kick them in the face. At one point, they even stand around with their guns pointed at him and wait until he fishes a yo-yo out of his pocket and uses it to hit them in the face. Dudes, Hantomas bought you guns! As professional heavies, it was your obligation to learn when and how to use them. Like when the guy you are supposed to shoot is standing right in front of you, that’s generally a good time to shoot him, not wait for him to fish a yo-yo out of his pocket (it takes him a few tries) and throw it at you. And seriously—why the hell has Jai been walking around with a yo-yo in his pocket this whole time?

Actually, I have to retract my criticism of their failure of three men armed with machine guns and pistols to defeat a guy with a yo-yo in his pocket, because in the ensuing car chase, we see them right behind him, but the dude firing the machine gun out the window is holding it straight out to the side of the car, meaning that he’s not even firing in the right direction.

Somehow, the whole mess ends up with Jai throwing grenades at people. So he went on a date and filled his pockets with yo-yos and hand grenades? So up to this point, Saazish has been pretty great. Savor it. From here, the movie settles in for what seems like a full hour of Saira Banu turning in a performance that would embarrass a marginally talented actor in a sixth grade school play. Every facial expression, every movement, every line is delivered with the subtlety of a petulant child playing charades. And when she cries! Oh my God, when she cries! No professional actress should actually use the words “Oh boo hoo hoo!” to communicate crying. But you better get used to it, because for the next hour, it’s “Oh boo hoo hoo!” and “Oh Jai, I’m so scared!” and “Why, I’m Sunita, the winner of the Miss Cosmos beauty contest. Don’t you know?” It’s a nightmarish slog through the middle ninety minutes of this film. Even the rare musical number offers no respite from the tedium, as these scenes offer nothing in the way of creativity or fun, unless you think it’s fun to watch Dharmendra standing on some concrete steps while wearing a sweater.

Eventually everyone winds up on board a cruise ship that also happens to be full of smuggler’s gold, reminding you that you’ve gone for most of the movie without even knowing what the hell Hantomas and his gang are even trying to do. I guess they were trying to smuggle gold, or possibly steal it, but their entire scheme seems to have no point at all. Nothing they do seems to have any connection to anything else they do. It’s completely baffling to the point that I started to think this was less a criminal gang and more a dada-ist performance art troupe. Every time you ask them a question, they respond by miming a tennis match. What are you trying to tell me, Hantomas! I don’t understand!!!

I guess we’re supposed to be on the edge of our seats as Dharmendra attempts to outfox Hantomas by pretending to be on the side of evil, but it’s hard to get into the spirit of things when it’s so obvious Dharmendra will end up being a secret Interpol guy. Seriously, after about the third time he’s foiled a Hantomas hit attempt, you’d think the master criminal would stop believing the guy. At least Helen is aboard the ship. Her appearance is almost as nonsensical as everything else in the film, but I’ve never needed much logical reason for Helen to appear. At least we can look forward to one good dance number. Or can we? Because they mostly have her hanging around in her room, half-heartedly romancing whichever guy happens to walk through the door. All Helen really does is remind you how much happier you’d be if the entire move had featured her instead of Saira Banu. She eventually gets a dance number, but she has to share it with Banu, which is not welcome. Being in a number with Helen does Saira Banu no favors, as Helen makes Sairu’s dancing look like Dharmendra’s.

At least Dharmendra strips down to his little Elvis Presley swimming trunks for the final showdown with Hantomas and the goons, at which time it is revealed that practically everyone on board the ship is either an undercover criminal or undercover Interpol guy. The last thirty minutes or so is nothing but Dharmendra beating the tar out of chumps while wearing tiny little shorts. The entire ship erupts in a finale of kungfu fighting, machine gun waving, gratuitous backflipping, and grenade tossing. If only the whole movie had been like that! Instead…so much shrieking Saira Banu.

To be fair, Banu is still less annoying than the creepy comic relief guy who shows up on the boat and keeps breaking into people’s cabins in order to find Helen, with whom he seems obsessed to the point of being a potential rapist-murderer. What the hell was his deal anyway? When Mr. Wong threatens to kill the asshole, I can’t help but wonder, once again, who’s really the bad guy here? This whole ship was full of creepy guys—like the dude who spends all day hanging upside down and pouncing on people like a cat. Seriously, Saazish, what…the…hell? At some point, I thought I might have accidentally stopped watching a spy movie and started watching something like Mansion of Madness. All this ship lacked was a madman in ragged Victorian garb, carrying a scepter made out of garbage and leading an equally ragged band of crazies like they were in a marching band.

Under normal circumstances, espionage films such as these are more than enough fun to make it easy to gloss over the rough edges that are present in so many of the films: the daft plotting, the crude editing, the overall cheapness. But when a movie’s virtues are as thinly spread as they are here, the foibles are impossible to wave off. Instead, every idiotic line, every bad edit, every time the shadow of the boom mic, the camera, and the entire goddamn crew shows up on the wall behind the actors, it’s hard not to notice. The plot seems to have been made up as they went, and even then they weren’t putting much work into it. Even by the less-than-rigorous continuity standards of Bollywood action cinema, it’s an incoherent mess. The film’s production was stretched over a long period, and Dharmendra’s hair changes radically, sometimes in the same scene. Or maybe his ability to have sideburns appear and disappear in the same scene was part of his character’s spy training. For a while I thought they got a doughy, unflattering stunt double for Dharmendra in certain scenes, until I realized that it actually was Dharmendra, just years later and heavier than he’d been in the previous scene. And sometimes I could swear they just up and replaced Dharmendra with Feroz Khan, so striking is the difference in sideburn lushness. Like his hair, Dharmendra’s level of fitness varies pretty wildly from one scene to the next. Luckily, he’s in pretty good shape for his ass-kicking romp in the only booty shorts smaller than the ones being worn by Sunita.

Director Kalidas had very few film credits before this film, and even fewer after, which means at least soemthing good came of this movie. Ranjan Bose is credited for the story, and Ramesh Pant for the screenplay, but I refuse to believe this film was actually written by anyone. Pant also wrote An Evening in Paris, which is a fine film. And hell! Bose wrote The Great Gambler, which starred Amitabh and Zeenat and was all sorts of awesome. I can only assume that  no one gave a damn about Saazish while they were working on it. Even the music and dancing is bad. Why the hell put Helen in your movie than have her do only half a dance? Although, to the film’s credit, her outfit is the only one skimpier than Dharmendra’s action man-panties.

I went in to this movie predisposed to liking it. It was an espionage/fumetti flavored Bollywood film. It starred Dharmendra. It featured Fantomas, calling himself Mr. Han (someone must have just watched Enter the Dragon). And I spent years trying to track it down. Plus, I watch films with the intent of enjoying them. As such, it was going to take a whole hell of a lot of badness for me to not like Saazish. Sadly, a whole hell of a lot of badness is exactly what I got. It seems rather a cold payoff for all those years of searching. I put more work into finding and watching this movie than the cast and crew put into making it. I guess if you are walking home one night and someone hits you over the head and forces a copy of this movie into your hands, then you can take it home and watch the very beginning and final thirty minutes or so and have a pretty good time of it. Just beware the ninety minutes in between, for there is a black pit from which your soul will never again emerge, and you will be forced to spend eternity in that black pit next to Dharmendra, who will shrug like he doesn’t give a damn, and for the rest of your miserable existence, all you will hear is a voice whining, “Oh, Jai! Boo hoo hoo!”

Release Year: 1975 | Country: India | Starring: Dharmendra, Saira Banu, Brahm Bhardwaj, Helen, Iftekhar, Dev Kumar, Murad, Rajendra Nath, Paintal, Madan Puri, Jagdish Raj, David Abraham | Screenplay: Ranjan Bose, Ramesh Pant | Director: Kalidas | Music: Jaikishan Dayabhai Pankal, Shankarsinh Raghuwanshi | Producer: Kalidas