untastefully appointed mansion
societal pressure to have a male heir
villain who extracts outrageous payment in return for aid
mountaintop with mist song
awful choices by the wardrobe department*
tragic deaths of family members
revenge (spurred by one of the above)
gang of henchmen
dishoom dishoom in various locales, including a warehouse
religious pluralism used to fight villains
+ vampire, black magic, and an old ruin that's always dark
Once again, a ballyhooed "Ooooh, it's sooo bad! It's sooo ridiculous!" movie turned to be basically masala-ish with an unusual slant on one of the elements. Like Ajooba - in which the approach was to set the whole fandango in a fairy tale-ish fake-pretend world where magic and masked heroes are taken as commonplace - Bandh Darwaza had a lot in it that was totally familiar to me, only done with less talent and liveliness and more monsters. Its blend of masala-ish elements is heavily seasoned towards drama; (intentional) comedy is very limited (and thank heavens for that, given that the comic bits are provided by Johnny Lever doing his bug-eyed, unsophisticated servant thing), musical numbers are few and without consequence or emphasis (if you don't count the typically filmi horribly off-key rendition by principal cast members of "Happy Birthday" - why does no director ever want this song to sound good?), and the male romantic lead (Hashmat Khan) is an utterly dull dumb dud of a chest hair and acid-washed denim.
If you would like a plot summary, read this next paragraph. If not, you can skip ahead. The local thakur and his wife are unable to have a child. They live near "Black Mountain," a mysterious locale where evil happenings are rumored to occur. The monster who dwells there is a vampire, "The Master," with a cult following of handmaiden Mahua (Aruna Irani, in what might well be the most regrettable role in her career of 350 movies - she doesn't even get to dance!), a very mannish woman who always wears a tiger-print coat, a guy who should have been Bob Christo but was shorter and in worse shape and not actually bald, and a bunch of other priest and henchman types. Seeing the thakur's wife's desperation as an opportunity to serve the Master, Aruna Irani convinces her to go to Black Mountain and visit the monster there, who will give (in the biblical sense) her a child. The deal is that if the child is a boy, he can stay with the thakur's family, but if it is a girl, she will "belong to the mountain." When the baby is a born a girl, Ma refuses to give up the child (Kaamya), so Aruna poisons her, but not before Ma can spill her secret to her husband. The thakur goes on a rampage of revenge, bursting into the depths of the lair on Black Mountain and plunging a knife into the Master. This all happens before the credits. Jump ahead 18 years to present day, as servant Johnny Lever leers at grown-up Kaamya while she works out in a shiny 80s leotard. (Kunika Lal, who plays Kaamya, looks closer to 40 than to 18, though that could be because of her troweled-on makeup.) Whether this sequence is to designed to prove that Kaamya is sex on wheels, and therefore dangerous and likely up to no good, or to use the presence of Mr. Lever as a barometer of the grip of evil in the thakur's household, I do not know. When she's not aerobicizing, Kaamya is in love with her best friend Kumar, but Kumar is in love with his best friend's sister, Sapna. Kumar spurns Kaamya repeatedly, so she turns to the black magic of the mountain to get her man. In exchange for this power, she has to find the Master more victims. The body count rises as Kumar, Sapna, Sapna's brother and sister-in-law, and the thakur try to figure out what's going on and stop the monster.
Swap out vampire for corrupt landlord, and black magic for money, and this movie becomes utterly unremarkable. The Master just as easily could have been any number of seedy, corrupt, and wealthy or powerful men in various movies, like Ranjeet in his rapist role from Suhaag or the leering grain merchants in Roti Kapada aur Makhan. Or Rumplestiltskin. If he'd been something more ordinary than a vampire, and the means for his control over other characters just simple extortion, this film surely would have sunk without a trace from public consciousness and no one would have bothered to release it on DVD barring the assemblage of a Johnny Lever retrospective collection. This movie just is not interesting without its monster and magic components.
Black Mountain and its rituals and inhabitants are definitely the more noteworthy aspects of the movie. The temple-like entrance to the lair creates lots of good shadows and nooks and crannies, and the Master himself is nowhere near the lamest-looking vampire I've ever seen. His eyes glow red and he has these weird lightnight bolt-shaped ridges over his eyebrows. He's often filmed from below, making him look taller than everyone else, and he does the typical movie monster soulless stomp...stomp...stomp. As mentioned, his crew looks very rag-tag, though in a funny way. There's also an interesting eeeeevil artifact at play, a notebook of Black Mountain rites kept by one of the cult members (the woman in the tiger print). Not only is this notebook Kaamya's route in to the world of black magic, it's also a visual treat for us: its cover is red velvet bedazzled with a skull and multi-colored feathers, and inside are copies of random astrological and medieval European-ish drawings complete with Latin text. (It reminds me of Anil Kapoor's mistress's notebook in Salaam-e-Ishq.) That's the only thing that could possibly tempt me to go back and get screen captures of this movie - the notebook is a hoot and completely incongruous with the set design of the lair and its accoutrements.
When the movie's focus shifts to Sapna and Kumar and their attempts to figure out the mystery of Kaamya's weird behavior, it's less interesting, and their crappy acting doesn't have the excuse of that of the cult members, who are at least under some sort of evil spell or entangled in creepy rites. Khan and Lal are awful. The woman who plays Sapna is a little better, but her character is also more sympathetic. She also gets to do a bit of ass-kicking in some of fights against the monter's minions.
A word on my Bandh Darwaza viewing event, which really influenced how much fun I had watching it and helped me think thorugh it. My wonderful, wacky workplace has begun a sporadic tradition of watching bad movies on days when it feels acceptable to indulge in the desire to be together as colleagues but not actually do any work. We also have an auditorium with a blingin' new projection system, so we were ready for "Turkey Movie Tuesday" this Thanksgiving week (when campus feels semi-closed because there are no classes). Somehow Bandh Darwaza did not make our initial cull of choices on Tuesday - "Bollywood vampire!" turned out to be a harder sell than I thought - so we ended up having two turkey movie days, with more people turning out for Tuesday's double bill of Monsters Crash the Pajama Party and Dollman and just four of us brave enough to try the Ramsay Brothers on Wednesday. Our IT director, who is the owner of the other films, was really intrigued by the idea of a Bollywood vampire, and about 15 minutes into the movie he leaned over and said "So, is this movie the way it is because it's Bollywood, or because it's a horror film, or because it's just plain and simple a low-budget, junky film?" A very astute question! As soon as he asked it, I realized that I had been assuming this would be mainly a scary movie with a few Bollywood-ish elements, like a song or two and some odious comic relief. But as I explained to him how many filmi elements I had already observed in the film, I began to realize that what I was watching seemed to be simply an extremely unengaging Bollywood movie with a red-eyed vampire in it. Then again, I can count the number of horror, or even scary, movies I've seen on two hands, so maybe I don't know enough about those types to recognize their trademarks. (Bandh Darwaza does have a trope even I know about: the most sexually forward woman is killed.)
But you know what? My tummy is full of homemade rolls and sweet potatoes and cranberry nut pie, so I can be charitable. There seem to be quite a few people out there who really enjoyed Bandh Darwaza in some way or other, and you should go read them (and look at their screen captures). For example, Cinema Strikes Back also offers a much more positive review (with pictures!); The Horror!? had a lot more fun with this movie than I did, and his writeup is a lot more fun to read than this one. His list of all the silly elements in the movie is definitely accurate and makes a good checklist for how to approach this movie with a positive mindset. I giggled a lot while watching the movie, but that's the beauty of having good-humored people with you when you undertake something like this, especially when they're brand new to Hindi films and you could share in their shock at the heroine writhing around in a rain song or their confusion as to why an om symbol, a Koran, and a crucifix might all suddenly show up in the same location in the climax of the action. Anyway, both of these sources have tons more experience with pulp and horror movies than I do, so they probably knew how to have fun with things that didn't particularly impress - or interest - me. But will this experience stop me from watching Purana Mandir tomorrow? Heck no! I learn things the hard way!
Note: Just before we were scheduled to start watching the movie Wednesday, I noticed my friend Rajan in Mumbai's chat status was "gang war in Mumbai; I am safe." Frantic googling and talking with Filmiholic, who was online with friends witnessing the events. A Bollywood horror film seemed especially stupid in the light of actual horror in Bombay; on the other hand, escapism felt really good too.
* When I first wrote about planning to dive into the Ramsay pool, alert reader Thalia left me this comment: "I can't remember whether it's Purana Mandir or Bandh Darwaza (I got them on the same disc) where the costume designer obviously got a great deal on bolts of this very early-'90s sparkly, tufty, kind of chenillish fabric. The heroines of the movie in question have at least two different complete ensembles made of this stuff, in both white and fire-engine red." Dead on! The sister-in-law has a white nightie ensemble made of this stuff, and Sapna has a red party dress of the same fabric. Neither purpose seems to be well-served by this material - I think this is the kind of stuff you'd want far, far away from your skin. We had a hard time deciding if the fuzzy edges were because of bad DVD quality or were actually in the fabric. Fortunately Thalia's comment set me straight! There are also some 90s filmi atrocities in costuming here, some because they are from fads that feel so long gone (like big hair or pants with tapered legs) and some because they are garish and unflattering. But again, nothing you probably can't find poor Karisma Kapoor wearing somewhere.