Shashi Week 2010 on Beth Loves Bollywood has seen Shashi in front of the camera as an actor and interview subject and behind the scenes, as it were, as a producer. It's only fair, then, to take a look at his one turn behind the camera. That's right, folks! I'm taking another crack at Ajooba! Released in 1991, this film seems to get a bad rap for its very unrealistic special effects and models. When I originally saw it, I was surprised at how not bad it was. I didn't exactly think it was great - Amitabh with a lightsaber not withstanding - but what amazed me was that it was a very solid 70s-style masala film that happened to be dressed in Mughalstan outfits sprinkled with magic spells. But now that I've seen more 70s masala, most notably Dharam Veer, my opinions of both the Prayag Raj-authored story at the core and its treatment have risen to genuine affection. I know, I know, I'm biased, but I really enjoyed Ajooba! Let me tell you why.
For starters, it is packed with good people. The presence of Amitabh (Ali/Ajooba - doing his typical goofball thing as everyday persona Ali and his somewhat bloated baritone thing as superheroic Ajooba), Rishi (his friend Hassan), Dimple (Rukhsana, Ali's love interest), Amrish Puri (the evil Vizier), Shammi (the usurped king of Bahrestan), Sushma Seth, Dalip Tahil (the Vizier's right-hand man), and Dara Singh alone does not guarantee quality, but it does mean that you can have fun trying to spot everyone. If you blink, you'll miss Mac Mohan, Sudhir, and two of the Nath brothers, and I still cannot find Tinu Anand even though the credits have him in a named role!
Laxmikant-Pyarelal contributed six good songs, Suresh Bhatt choreographed, and Feroz Khan was a co-producer - I would love to know more about where (if) his influence was felt, because the idea of Shashi + Feroz is just too to wonderful not to entertain. The credits even list “the Kapoor Kendal Family” - how cute is that!
A small point, but it gets the film off on a good foot: the title in all three languages incorporates a drawing of a sword. The sword continues across the titles as a lower-case t in some names. It's a relevant detail for the designer to have chosen because swords appear frequently and one in particular becomes a key detail in the plot.
And a little heart for the masala dil, perhaps?
The characters and ways of thought in Ajooba have a connection with the animal world unlike any other film I've seen. Not only is there a great variety of animals throughout the film - I counted at least thirteen different species - but they are also noble ani-pals who make a real difference to the story. They provide clues,
fight off villains, assist in childbirth, remove obstacles,
share in emotional moments,
and wear snazzy outfits. The hero's horse even has a mask to match his owner!
Some of Ajooba's animals are dressed to the nines; others are team players in item numbers.
Our orphaned hero finds a maternal bond with a dolphin (whom my subtitles insisted on calling a fish).
The dolphin also appears on the flag of our home country of Bahrestan. Amitabh fights this tiger into a namaste of submission.
How many films does Amitabh fight a tiger in? I know of this and Khoon Pasina.
Some of them even have spiritual affiliations!
From what I have been able to research online and the Kapoor family biography by Madhu Jain, the film was shot in part in Kyrgyzstan, which apparently is a really beautiful place.
I haven't been able to find out if most of the outdoor architecture is in Kyrgyzstan or India, but I'm pretty sure some of it is real stone.
Some of the interiors are equally real-looking - and smashing!
The set designers should get a lot of credit for packing the rooms full of interesting and relevant details.
Similarly, the street scenes of Bahrestan don't seem nearly as movie-like as we sometimes see. There are layers of buildings with multiple stories, and in most scenes there are lots of people and small props around to make the place feel lived-in. Shops and stalls are full of wares
Also check out this creepy skull-shaped rock where the Vizier chains up Ali's crew - complete with a chained skeleton adding ominous hints of what could happen if they don't escape.
Ajooba is filled with amazing science...or magic, if you want to be technical about it. The film is introduced with astronomers/fortune-tellers/magicians hovering on a flying carpet in outer space who send a spark to earth
to protect and assure the gender of the currently-being-born baby of the sultan of Bahrestan. Mom is in labor and the sex is determined. Nice! Later, Sushma Seth, who cannot possibly be under 40, is pregnant, and a metal statue comes to life! Maybe this last one is a herald of the current kalyug? The magic itself is a treat to behold. It mostly consists of little squiggles of light, and I highly recommend pausing your DVD on these scenes to admire the hand-drawn effects.
Sometimes a spell being cast looks like a good old-fashioned paper-and-ink drawing
and at others combines lines and light.
My actual favorite piece of magical equipment is magician Aamir Khan (yes, that's occasionally confusing) (Saeed Jaffrey)'s ring that can show what his wife (Sushma Seth) is doing in far-away Hind.
Please note that Hind is filled with south Indian temple architecture.
Speaking of magic, Hassan steals a shrinking potion that he and Ali use to infiltrate the Vizier's palace. They spend several scenes as tiny versions of themselves, and I have to say I think these effects are very well done. I have no idea how they were done, but they usually look really good. There's a little problem with consistent scale at least once, but I'm willing to overlook that for the sake of Amitabh splashing around in a wine goblet.
If you are nine years old and looking for something naughty to sneak when your parents aren't looking, Shashi has provided. Ajooba has a little bit of raunch. There are extras of both genders not wearing very much, actual kissing between the secondary leads (Rishi and Sonam as princess Henna), and innuendos. Hassan introduces Rukhsana to Ali's father by saying he "has found a scabbard for his sword." One of the bad princes has an extended dialogue comparing women to fruit: newbie Rukhsana is juicy, whereas the members of his existing harem are already-squeezed grapes. I think Shashi must have a bit of a thing for the top half of women: there are two instances of bare female breasts and when Hassan is in his mini form, he hides in the front of Henna's top and jiggles all around. Claaaaaassy. Possibly related, both of our heroines are sexually forward. Princess Henna, in her bath, exposes her fully naked self to Hassan during their second meeting (we only see it in mirrors). And in a move I've never seen before, Rukhsana clanks her bangles not against her own wrist but against Ali's metal wrist cuff. Rawr!
As a joint Indian-Soviet production, perhaps we can read Ajooba as an unusual example of diplomacy via films. Soviet actors play a few of the villain (Amrish Puri as the Vizier who usurps the throne of Bahrestan)'s henchmen and family members, but most notably the most significant, motivating role in any masala film - the hero's Maa! - is played by Soviet actor Ariadna Shengelaya! Whoa. If that doesn't speak to successful international relations, I don't know what does. An Indian hero's mother isn't Indian! It'd love to know where else that happens. Her nationality seems to have affected the writing; before they realize who the other is (classic!), Ali tells her about his bond with his dolphin-mother, and she says "You miss your mother, don't you?" Ariadna, honey: you never need to ask an Indian hero if he misses his mother. Don't let those dialogue-writers saddle you with such fantastic lines. The audience will never believe your performance after that! Within the world of the story, there is lovely international cooperation between the Mughal-ish Bahrestan and the neighboring nation of Hind, ruled by friendly Maharaj Karan Singh (Dara Singh). Singh is such a friend of Bahrestan that he kills his own son when he threatens its rightful ruler! Bahrestan and Hind are models of diversity and tolerance; the palace has accepted into its staff an open satan-worshipper as Vizier who constantly spouts "Shaitan zindaabaad!" while bugging out his eyes, and the beloved magician from Hind, Aamir Khan, is a big fan of the "uparwali," his own magical gizmos, and talisman given to him by an ascetic.
I've saved the best for last. What I love most about Ajooba is its hearty serving of R(ecommended) M(asala) A(llowance). The more 70s and early 80s masala you watch, the more sense this film makes. For example:
- Villains interfere with the primary family. The father loses a deadly fight (on a flying carpet, too!), the mother is blinded and left impoverished, begging for a living, and the baby is rescued by a friendly animal and adopted by a humble blacksmith.
- Said adoptive parent teaches the adopted child all sorts of useful, heroic skills.
- Tokens and talismans are rampant: communicating jewelry, protective necklaces, magical toys, and a sword laden with prophesy. A gift given to one character later turns up in the possession of another, leading to the discovery of true identity (well, one layer of true identity, anyway - let's not rush things).
- Elaborate costumes abound. The commitment by the wardrobe department to the look and details of fake-pretend Mughal-ish Bahrestan is impressive. Also impressive is Ajooba's hero outfit: neck to toe black leather with a sparkly black cape and silver mask (with matching mask for trusted equine companion as seen above).
- Maa is so good that she does not want someone who has done wrong to her to be punished excessively.
- The classical verbal magic of the word "beta." Even though the Maa and son do not know who the other is, they are moved by this simple word and a strong bond is instantly forged. They feel its power and potential even though they cannot explain it! "Mother, you have called me your son. Will a son ever leave his mother to beg on the streets?" "I am not begging for myself. There are so may around me who are hungry." At which point they stride off together, presumably to feed the masses.
- It appears that Ali's everyday identity is, ironically, a cook, which parallels perfectly Ajooba's quest to give the citizens of Bahrestan their due and necessary resources.
- Two sassy heroines. Not to Parvarish levels of development or action, but they speak their minds, they don't take crap, and they - gasp! - know what they like in a man and go for it.
- The long-lost beta cries when speaking of his mother (the dolphin stand-in).
- Wackadoodle comedy elements are courtesy of Hassan, including a sped-up action sequence as he runs away from palace guards after trying to kiss the princess. One of the rambling fight scenes also contains Three Stooges-esque slapstick punches set to cartoon sound effects.
- There is a henchman with a very evil weapon: a giant pinching armored metal claw!
- More irony. In one instance, Hassan talks endlessly about how he plans to sneak up on the princess, put his hand over her mouth, and drag her away; while he is yammering on and not paying attention to his duty to guard Rukhsana, some bandits sneak up behind her, throw a blanket over her, and drag her away without him noticing. In another, the Vizier instructs his guards to shoot at an approaching rider: "The man on that horse had better be dead before he gets off the saddle." As the horse slows, the rider falls off and is revealed to be someone quite different than the intended target, meaning the Vizier has inadvertently sacrificed one of his allies in his evil plot!
- Several very good "Nahiiiiiiiiiiiiin"s.
- Patriotism curiously centered on Hind even though most of the action is in Bahrestan. The most outwardly patriotic person is Rukhsana, who was born in raised in Hind; she insists she though love could not blossom anywhere but Hind and spits out to her captors that where she comes from women are respected (so that's why you put naked boobs in your movie, right Shashi?). And the leader of Hind makes the biggest sacrifice of anyone in the film, just like a good filmi dad with evil offspring should.
It's a little thin, but at least the color is close. Shashi must have called in sick that day; he would certainly know that masala khoon is rosy-pink poster paint.
As I've said previously, I have no earthly idea why Shashi made this film when he did. If this had come out at the time of Dharam Veer or Amar Shakti - or even Shaan or Namak Halaal - I think he could have had a successful film. Maybe not a smash hit but at least not the flop that this turned out to be. Heck, in 1980, he could have had most of the same people in it! My theory is that when he actually had time to make his own film, the style he was most familiar with, and probably most comfortable in, was no longer what audiences wanted. It's a pity, because in my opinion Ajooba is as silly, fun, and exciting as most of the movies I've referred to throughout this post. We know from recent examples that people are still interested in experimenting with full-tilt masala set in non-current eras, and it hasn't always worked very well, even with contemporary technical advancements and more years of experience of hits and flops to draw from. I'd love to know from those of you who have seen both whether you think Ajooba is a better film overall than Veer - and which one you felt is more truly masala-y. One of Ajooba's problems is that it just isn't very strong in the all-important emotion department. It's my hope that this post (and my earlier review that discusses the film as a whole) has convinced you that its shortcomings in the critical component of dil-squish are at least partially compensated for by other offerings: evocative locations, sets, and costumes; tons of interesting animals; solid songs and dances; strong chemistry between Amitabh and Rishi; and a classic masala story by the master of the art - and all topped off with neon sprinkles of magic and Arabian-Soviet fantasy at that!
For hard-core fans: watch the very dissimilar and strange opening of the Russian dub of the film!
None of this is in the Hindi version. I need my teddy bear!