It’s a cause for celebration when a B movie delivers on its concepts as spectacularly as Wahan Ke Log does. Especially given Wahan Ke Log is an Indian B movie and must shoehorn in its disparate genre element alongside all of the requisite singing, dancing and romancing. For this, all it asks in return is that you suspend — or completely abandon — your disbelief and fill in the inevitable gaps left by budgetary shortfall with your imagination. Like the best Indian popular films, it exhibits an expansive generosity in its sincere desire to entertain.
At the time of Wahan Ke Log’s release, science fiction was an unexplored genre in mainstream Indian cinema and was, to the extent that it was seen at all, solely the purview of the country’s B movie industry. This has only changed in recent years, when, as in Hollywood, science fiction became inextricably wed to the action genre with costly tent-pole pictures like Ra.one. Of course, one fanciful type of film that was far more prevalent in the low budget “stunt films” of the day was the spy movie.
1967’s entry in the James Bond series, You Only Live Twice had a marked impact on the film industries of Asia, perhaps because it was the first Bond film to feature a largely Asian cast, many of them familiar Japanese supporting players. That it had that impact is evidenced by the many Asian films that either imitated it or borrowed wholesale it’s footage and soundtrack cues. Alongside Hong Kong, India was a prolific producer of small scale spy films that, like the Bond films, trafficked in suave superspies, scheming femme fatales, crafty gadgets and fiendish supervillains in high tech island lairs. The thing that sets Wahan Ke Log apart is that it combines these tropes with those of a 1950s Martian invasion film, which it makes it that much more fun. It also places Wahan Ke Log in the vanguard of a mini-wave of flying saucer-themed spy capers that included the Matt Helm entry The Ambushers and 1968’s The Bamboo Saucer.
As Wahan Ke Log opens, India is in the throes of UFO fever. A wealthy man sits in his penthouse, chortling at headlines about invaders from Mars. That is, until a flying transmitter sails in through his window, affixes itself to his wall, and begins broadcasting orders from the Martians. He is to deliver his entire cache of diamonds to the Martians at midnight that night of suffer the consequence. The Martians also tell him not to alert the authorities, which he of course does. This results in him being paid a visit by a comely female emissary of the Martians who disintegrates him with a ray gun.
There have apparently been a wave of such crimes in recent days, but the head of the CID gives no weight to the whole Martian invasion angle, thinking instead that it is a hoax pulled off by some kind of criminal syndicate. His chief suspect is Professor Chakravorty (played by the film’s director, N.A. Ansari), who is known to have invented a laser weapon much like the one used in the crimes. He has no choice but to assign his top man, Agent Vinod, to the case. Vinod, meanwhile, has seduced an alleged Martian woman into revealing the name of the syndicates’ leader: it is Anil (Ansari again), the dissolute son of the righteous Professor Chakravarty, who is listening to everything they are saying via a transmitter Anita is wearing. Both of them are summarily executed by Anil’s gunsels, leaving the task at hand in the hands of Agent Rakesh, who we are forced to assume is the CID’s second most competent agent.
We are introduced to Rakesh as he spectates a nightclub number so rich in camp that it’s almost as if someone anticipated that this film would someday be watched ironically by hipsters. Its featured dancer is Laxmi Chaiyya, a frenetic performer whom many Western viewers will recognize as the star of the first Indian dance number they ever saw: “Jaan Pehechaan Ho” from Gumnaam, which played under the opening credits of Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World. In this number, Chaiyya twists with spasmodic abandon as, behind her, two sets of dancers, one in form-fitting silver space suits cavorting around a stylized alien planet set, and the other a more Earthbound troupe of go-go-girls, gyrate through a Hindi rock and roll version of interplanetary contact. And while many films of the era — Gumnaam, for instance — show all their cards with their opening number, this one is a mere harbinger of the cornucopia of fulsome craziness that is to come.
Rakesh is played by Pradeep Kumar, a Bengali actor whose regal bearing and patrician looks led to him playing royals in numerous films throughout the forties and fifties. By the time of Wahan Ke Log, he was starting to age out of leading man roles, yet still imbues Rakesh with enough panache and vigor to not distract from the film’s Bondian vibe (Sean Connery, after all, was past forty at the time.) After enjoying the show, he is dispatched to Bombay under the alias of “Prince Ranbir” to track down Professor Chakravarty. Meanwhile his superiors determine that the putative Martians are not only stealing all of the diamonds, but also kidnapping many of India’s top scientists.
In classic spy movie tradition, Anil orders Rakesh killed as soon as he learns he is on the case, thus setting in motion the series of failed murder attempts that will lead Rakesh straight to his door. The first of these takes place at the Bombay Airport, when a group of thugs disguised as police attempt to get the better of Rakesh, only to be thwarted by a mysterious woman who speeds by at a crucial moment. This woman is Sarita (Tanuja) who afterwards proves to be something of a spectral presence for Rakesh, popping up at odd moments to sing a haunting song from a tantalizingly prohibitive physical distance (prancing along a mountain ridge, for instance) and driving him mad with desire. This business adds a Wuthering Heights aspect to Wahan Ke Log’s already roiling stew of genre elements that might prove trying to those who have not yet been hectored into acceptance of Bollywood’s loose approach to narrative.
Having failed to kill Rakesh, Anil determines to prevent Rakesh from meeting his father at all costs, dispatching the slinky femme fatale Sophia to handle the task. Sophia is played by Bela Bose, one of Bollywood’s greatest dancing girls alongside Laxmi Chaiyya and the ubiquitous Helen. She featured in over a hundred films over the course of her career, eight of them in 1967, the year of Wahan Ke Log’s release. She also married that year, to actor Ashish Kumar, but, despite giving birth to two children, over the next few years, barely slowed her output.
Sophia accosts Rakesh in his hotel room and tells him to meet her later that night. She is, of course, a nightclub entertainer, so that meeting consists in large part of Rakesh watching her perform another of the film’s jaw unhinging musical numbers, one in which she is backed by a phalanx of stoned-looking white women pretend-strumming acoustic guitars. It was a common practice in Indian cinema at the time to recruit American tourists as extras—and from the looks of them, a lot of them weren’t there for the biryani. Look, for instance, at the woman who is robotically opening and closing her mouth in time with the guitar, or the one who just looks like she’s trying to figure out where she is. Another white lady, who’s really good at looking horrified, turns up in two of the movie’s scenes making the same expression.
Like Bose, actor and director N.A. Nasari was one of those tireless workhorses who kept the engine of India’s B movie industry chugging along throughout the 1960s and beyond. Fans of 1970s Bollywood might recognize him from villain roles in films like Maha Baadmash and Dharam Kanta, but it’s likely his work throughout the 50s and 60s that gave him the appreciation for genre and over-the-top melodrama that serves Wahan Ke Log so well. It is indeed an unabashedly silly film, but is also an earnestly silly film, in which lines like “ours is not a gang of looters and shooters” are said with a completely straight face. Such broad strokes guarantee that Wahan Ke Log can be accurately described as “a comic book come to life.” Which is different from the current term “comic book movie”: current comic book movies capitalize on comic books’ large cast of marketable characters, while films like Wahan Ke Log, Inframan, and Danger: Diabolik seize upon their reckless spirit and graphic visual style.
The cumbersome Sarita subplot of Wahan Ke Log is finally resolved when she is revealed to be Rakesh’s fiancé from an arranged marriage, and that she was just posing as another woman to test his loyalty. This same device was later used in the popular film Bombay to Goa with Amitabh Bachchan and I imagine was used elsewhere, too, indicating that no one saw it as too stupid to rehash. Anyway, it is unfortunate for Sarita that she has arrived in Bombay with her father, Dwarka Prasad (Hari Shukla), a wealthy diamond merchant who immediately catches the attention of Anil and his Martian cronies.
Now, up to this point, Wahan Ke Log has been careful to leave open the possibility that the alleged flying saucers are indeed a hoax. But it is with the hatching of Anil’s plan against Sarita’s dad that the film’s effects team are wakened from their slumber to produce a host of flying saucer effects that could credibly claim Plan 9 From Outer Space as their influence — with the major difference being that Wahan Ke Log’s UFOs conceivably might not even function as hub caps. The one expense that wasn’t spared was that of building a life-sized flying saucer for the space-suited Martians to step in and out of, which looks pretty good.
We are first dazzled by these effects when Prasad meets with the aliens in a remote area and presents them with a case full of diamonds. These are recognized as fakes, whereupon Prasad and Sarita are hustled into a UFO to be sent back to Mars. Anil then dispatches his assistant, Miss Margaret (played by Nilofar, and actress who looks like she’s struggling not to laugh in every scene she’s in) to Bombay to badly impersonate Sarita. Meanwhile, Anil has perfected his father’s death ray and is preparing to turn it over to the Martians to use as they may in their paradoxical plot to “destroy and conquer” the Earth. Sophia, once confronted with the genocidal scale of the Martian’s plan, has a crisis of conscience and subsequently goes over to Rakesh’s side, revealing to him the location of Anil’s island. She, Rakesh, his partner Neelkanth (a bumbling detective played by omnipresent comedic actor Johnny Walker), and Professor Chakravarty head to the island, only to find there a cavernous weapons plant staffed by a combination of kidnapped scientists and a suspicious number of Chinese.
And it is during its final act that Wahan Ke Log makes up for what detours it has thrown in our path with a driving conclusion in which our heroes engage in a pitched battle with Anil’s uniformed security force while, overhead, the Indian Air Force engages a fleet of UFO’s in a fiery dogfight. This last is achieved by some dodgy optical effects in which flying saucers dangling from wires are poorly superimposed over stock footage of military jets with a lot of “pew pew pew” sound effects. But, as is with much of Wahan Ke Log that is delightful, it is the idea of the sequence, rather than its execution, that is totally exhilarating.
In keeping with Wahan Ke Log’s breathless approach to narrative, I think it’s fitting to end this review on a cliffhanger. Will Mother India defeat the Martian invaders? And, once defeated, will those Martian invaders reveal themselves to be agents of a nefarious “neighboring country” of India’s? And is that country China or Pakistan (hint: it’s not Burma)? Will Rakesh find romantic bliss with Sarita, a woman literally forced upon him by his mother? Are there spoilers contained within each of these question? Who can say, really? All I know is that Wahan Ke Log is a must see as an example of classic Indian B cinema at its most fanciful, scrappily resourceful and energetic.