I'll say this: if Neetu Singh is going to be upstaged, I'm glad it's by my #1 favorite macho-yet-vulnerable swaggering badass from Hindi films of yore, ably assisted by #3 (#2 being Shatrughan Sinha).
Both Neetu (Roshni) and Feroz (Vijay) have a score to settle with dacoit Ajay (Danny Denzongpa), and the more description is added to their situations, the more evident it was that Roshni's arc would never drive this story.
In the time-honored way, Chunaoti's prologue before the opening credits narrates the historical connection of one of the protagonists to the villain. But in this case it's only the heroine whose life is long ago shattered by the the villain, with no trace of either Feroz or his extended family until after the credits roll and we jump to "now" (unless my DVD is missing a scene, which is entirely possible). In addition to Neetu's back story, we get Dharmendra "in dynamic special appearance" as reformed dacoit Shakti Singh turning himself into the police with a long-winded speech about how the evil practices of greedy landlords ruined his family and turned him from a gentleman into a bandit. Now, with the government recognizing this kind of situation and being lenient with dacoits, he will surrender to the police with the hopes of getting a small farm of his own some day so he can be an honest farmer and re-establish his connection to the motherland. Despite his significant presence in the introduction, Shakti appears only briefly in the rest of the film, though always at key moments.
I'm not sure I've seen a 70s masala film with a beginning like this, but I like how it sets up two contrasts that run throughout the rest of the film. First, it is the heroine, not the hero, who has the generation-spanning despair because of (and vengeance against) the villain, Second, it brings in a sort of mirror image of the truly bad villain, highlighting Ajay's badness by continually reminding us how good Shakti is not only through his current actions but by his difficult and self-sacrificing decision to abandon his life of crime. Shakti also becomes an angel on the shoulder of Vijay who repeatedly gives advice and swoops in to help at critical moments.
Back to that back story. When Roshni is just a child, Ajay kills her father when he tries to take a stand against the villains
and immediately thereafter her mother too. Roshni's mother has witnessed the murder and swears to avenge her husband's death.
"You're just a woman, "Ajay sneers. Cold as ice, she responds "When an Indian woman intends to seek revenge, she destroys everything that comes across her way." But she saw his face, so she has to die.
Note her jewelry dangling from the tiger's mouth, tossed there in the struggle between Maa and Ajay.
Ajay strangles her* and leaves her for dead. When poor Roshni spots her mother lying on the floor, Maa clutches her with a bloody hand and uses her dying breaths to regret her fate to have merely a daughter.
Interesting that a second ago she was claiming a woman could do anything and now she's full of regret for her female offspring. I do not know if this is because she weeps for the hard life ahead for her daughter, for the suffering of women generally, or because she wants someone to avenge her death and the villain's words that only men can do that have just been cruelly demonstrated. I don't know who this child artist is, but she's very poignant in her short time on screen, pure confusion and sadness.
Roshni grows up almost obsessed with revenge against Ajay. In her first scene as an adult, Roshni chases down and whips two would-be rapists in the forest.
This is not a woman to trifle with.
Vijay, on the other hand, has a loving Maa and sister; it's service to the children of an orphanage - as the future of the motherland - that drives him.
Later in the film, Ajay kidnaps Vijay's sister, Jyoti (Kumud Chuggani) and eventually his mother (Mumtaz Begum) too. But that's it: his conflict with the villian is very recent and initially exists only because of money, as Vijay's soi-disant job is catching criminals and turning them over to the police to collect the reward to donate to the orphanage.
But we know what kidnapping the hero's mother means. It means the big fight at the end focuses on Feroz. Apparently the emotional anguish of the hero over his still-alive kidnapped Maa trumps the heroine's trauma at having her mother die in her arms, her life (so, at least two decades) of suffering the loss of both her parents because of Ajay, and her repeated vows of revenge and determined, singular focus on that very goal. Okaaaaaaaay.
To my surprised, Roshni gets her chance at her stated goal, but it's only when Vijay is good and ready to hand it to her (literally!),
Her finaly decision about whether to carry it out is basically made by baddie-turned-good Shakti, who pops in with the kind of moralizing that I agree with in real life but find a little disappointing in its implications in the film.
It's not that I want my heroines to be killers. It's just that I want them to get to fulfill the desires or follow through on the driving forces that the films give them. In the scene above, my own code of ethics is the same as Shakti's, but he's just so patronizing about it. With Chunaoti, Khoon Bhari Maang, and Nagin recently under my belt, I've been trying to think through women-as-avengers as a plot element and what it says about how writers (and audiences?) were willing to conceive of female characters. In the case of the latter two, it seems like blood lust after being heinously wronged by either criminals or simpletons is one way that writers know how to structure honest-to-goodness thorough characters. If you take a look at Overthinking It's female character flowchart, recently posted Indie Quill, both KBM's Aarti and Nagin's...er, nagin sail right through the basic hurdles of carrying their own stories (note it doesn't say carrying the story), being three-dimensional (complete with flaws and complexities) and not merely representing a concept, and managing the basic feat of existing throughout most of the work. Crazy, right? To quote my friend Ellie's reaction to this series of questions, "It's brilliant. It highlights how NOT HARD it is to have a real female character.... You could go in a straight line, or you could GO ALL OVER THE F*&!ING PLACE - and everybody chooses the 'all over the place' option."
Chunaoti's Roshni almost teeters off the path at the very first step: she probably could carry her own story, but writer Akhtar Romani (who also did the excellent Mera Gaon Mera Desh) doesn't give her a chance and instead has Vijay commandeer some of it and Shakti boss her around in her own longed-for finale. Of course, a structure with just one character carrying a significant portion of the total story might run pretty contrary to some versions of the masala style of storytelling overall, with its love of interconnections, coincidence, and reuniting of long-lost elements. I'm beginning to wonder if the attractive thing about revenge is that it gives a character, female or male, something very specific to do as well as a lens through which they process and decide all other action and ideas - so maybe it's an easier way to write.
Fortunately Roshni isn't just a love interest. She's more of a colleague, though at a slightly junior level. Roshni and Vijay are an interesting pair. They operate by a similar methods and sense of justice (once Vijay's has been spurred into action, at least) and obviously have some hobbies and a major goal in common. Both are warned by elders about the risks of their obsessions. Roshni's family servant (Satyendra Kapoor), who has been with her since childhood, tells her the flame of her compulsion to take revenge could burn out of control.
Vijay's warning is at a more personal level. His mother moans that Jyoti's wedding might be called off because of the Sita-like stigma of having been abducted and held prisoner and threatens to kill herself if anything bad happens. (Don't you love these suicide-threatening Maas? Cataloging them would be quite a project!) Vijay assures her this won't be necessary but she harasses him further, insisting Jyoti's peril is all because of his obsession to capture the dacoits to get reward money for his orphanage. "It's due to your children that my daughter's life is in danger!" You can imagine the look of pain on Feroz Khan's face: his saintly mother has insulted his saintly love of children. Conflict!
Her diminished role notwithstanding, Neetu is awesome, sparkling, despairing, and angry in turns. I haven't previously noticed her being a performer who particularly pulls lots of faces, but she does in Chunaoti, possibly because she gets to do so many different things.
As Roshni the avenger, she simmers and hisses; as Roshni the lovey-dove, she smiles and flirts and teases; as Roshni the captive, she fights back;
and as Roshni the undercover agent in the villain lair, she hams and seduces.
She didn't have quite the role I was expecting, but it's still a great role and, as usual, she nails it with range and her trademark energy.
There's another female character in Chunaoti with her own kind of revenge. Jwala (Padma Khanna) is Ajay's right-hand woman throughout most of the film, at a level of involvement and action I'm not sure I've seen a woman get to be, since most female baddies are entertainers, bait, or arm-candy.
Jwala is definitely on the ball. In this last picture, she leans against the bar, ready to spring into action if Vijay should figure out that the old man he's talking to is really Ajay in disguise.
At least three times I spotted Jwala lurking in the background of Ajay's scenes, keeping an eye on him and ready to fight whoever threatens him. One day, however, she suddenly finds him with someone else draped around his shoulders. I had a hard time getting a good look at the actress who plays Jwala's rival. I think this is her in the green but I'm not sure.
Jwala's method for rectifying things is not to storm off in tears or to threaten drama or instability. Wisely, she opts for "living well is the best revenge," showing that she is a far better choice than her replacement for actually getting the villainy accomplished.
I think she's also there so Neetu has someone important to fight who isn't the chief baddie, since Feroz gets to handle him.
I'm surprised at how much I liked both this character and the weight she was given in the story. Her mini-arc reminded me of Helen's character in Teesri Manzil and I was happy to see someone who's usually a non-speaking dancer do so much more.
I have much more to say about Chunaoti but it's taken me a month to sort through my thoughts to write on even these few points with Editor Self firmly tied up and unable to tidy up my rambling. This film is a fine addition to the stack of curry westerns and handily meets the standard benchmarks of masala, and with two interesting female characters, it's wormed its way into a special place in my heart that is mostly filled by Parvarish. If I didn't know better, you could easily convince me that Feroz Khan directed this, with its principled men, interesting frames, galloping horses, paisa vasool, and messages of honest living for the sake of the country; what it lacks in his frequent razzle-dazzle and bared flesh can be explained away by the rural setting. It's also a fun experiment in how film conventions interact with each other and play out when they are reshuffled: a heroine who gets the treatment of the hero yet cannot really be one, the ordering and trumping of wrongs that must be righted, and the solitary father figure who has turned from crime to protection.
Phew! You've been reading for ages and I haven't even shown you any of the really fun things yet. Let's move on to those, shall we?
Shakti may be kind of eye-roll-inducing, but I will never scoff at bromance between Dharmendra and Feroz Khan. That is a fiiiiine bromance.
Shakti's Mother India, love-of-the land rigmarole was tiresome but amusing, I think because to me it didn't fit very well with everything else. Vijay's brand of "I believe the children are the future" patriotism was more subtle - relatively - and made more sense - relatively - than Shakti's "I was a poor but honest farmer, but then I was forced into a life of crime, but then I realized that it was better to be a farmer, because the land is our mother, and it is only a very bad person indeed who doesn't love his mother" daku-drama. All of that could have been omitted and Shakti written as simply an old friend of Vijay. It felt very tacked-on, like someone realized at the last minute that they forgot to angle for for the character-building tax break, resulting in dialogue like these humdingers:
Your reward for getting that message clobbered into you is a romp through Chunaoti's wardrobe department. The more Dharmendra films I watch, the more often I find myself saying "For the love of god, Dharmendra!" even though what he's wearing on screen may seldom be his fault. Who did this to one of India's most handsome men? Looks like we can blame Maneek Rao, who worked on Don, Jaani Dushman, and (giggle) International Crook.
Click on that to enlarge it. Go on, I dare you.
I didn't notice it in the shot above, but in this next one she looks for all the world like a poncho-toting Mountie.
Side note: Neetu only gets to do songs in traditional clothes and not her vengeance/cowgirl outfits. Hmm.... Neckerchiefs!
Feroz Khan lazily and arrogantly leaning on stuff...
and being a tough guy.
A few cool shots.
My favorites were in this pretty song in a stepwell!
"Main Rok Loongi"
Greasy bad guys!
And to end, the villain lair! It's not the swankest one we've seen, but for being in a cave out in the countryside, it's nicely outfitted with chandeliers, armor, random statuary, and a bar.
Bonus post section: language corner!
Transliterations like "chunaoti" simultaneously make me want hit myself over the head with Snell until I pass out and seriously buckle down and learn some Hindi properly.
I spent about ten minutes trying to figure out what this word could be in Devanagari before I remembered that I usually take screen captures of the credits for the precise purpose of looking the words up in my Oxford Hindi-English dictionary and trying to learn them.
Without this picture, I'm not sure I would ever have found it. Does that "ch" mean च or छ? Does "ao" mean two vowels in a row or just one expressed in a way that I personally would not use to write it out in the Latin alphabet? Is the "-i" ending sound like इ or ई? With the inconsistencies of English spelling and all the different ways to pronounce English around the world, let alone all the other sounds the Latin alphabet is used for in other languages, it's hard to know whether this transliterator's "-i" would mean what mine does anyway. Which is why life would be so much easier if there were one standard transliteration system. Of course, life would also be much easier if I would just pony up and study the language. Though with the Latin alphabet used on so many DVD covers and title sequences, it remains an interesting puzzle to us language dorks even if we know perfectly well what the word is in Devanagari. Anyway. Now I know that चुनौती means "challenge; incitement, instigation, encouragement."
* After watching this scene several times, I think he also rapes her. He rips off her jewelry and scenes of her husband's corpse with closed eyes and one of Ajay's thugs plundering the family safe are intercut with their struggle; they eventually sink downward out of frame as we hear her sobs and "nahiiins." He stands up into the frame and says she's seen him too closely to be allowed to live. The next time we see her she's on her back on the floor with her shoes off. It's really creepy, the action of plundering the safe superimposed with this other violation. I could be wrong, though - there is nothing actually shown.