Also a note on the title, before we get started: the subtitles translate the word "charas" as opium; a friend in Delhi told me it means heroin; and the Oxford Hindi-English dictionary says it's a kind of resin-based preparation of cannabis. I'll just say "drugs" and be done with it.
Charas is fantastic. It's glorious, giddy, jam-packed but streamlined 70s masala. I am simultaneously incredibly grateful to have seen it and saddened by the knowledge that for each movie like this I see there is one fewer remaining to discover. Overall, Charas comes off as an action- and comedy-leaning masala with well-implemented touches of James Bond. Moralizing is all but absent; the movie is loosely about drugs, but here drugs are simply an illegal thing that smugglers export to Europe for cash rather than something evil masterminds are going to use to to enslave the innocent of India and bring the moral downfall of a culture. Drugs are a legal issue here, not an ethical one. Family drama, religion, and revenge are succinctly handled with some unusual spin and plenty of impact. There is no melodrama, but I didn't miss it one bit. All the usual masala ingredients are there, but they're in the service of...momentum, I guess I'd call it. It's like everyone involved—both the real people making the film and the characters in it—never forgot that they were trying to outwit each other before the clock ran out.
There is little about the plot that you couldn't guess—Ajit leads a group of smugglers in international drug-dealing and has blackmailed Hema Malini into helping him, and Dharmendra, the son of someone Ajit betrayed early in the film, becomes a police officer to stop him—and everyone involved in front of and behind the camera does their job expertly. It's the crew of of Charas who really deserve most of the praise that bubbled out of me while I watched the film. While the cast is very good (with Dharmendra adding that little something extra in some of his comedy and undercover bits), I think it's the crafting and assemblage of all the ingredients that make this film what it is. The other films written by writer/director Ramanand Sagar I've seen, Barsaat and Sangdil, do not at all indicate he'd be so good at creating something as fun as this. As much as I love the wackadoo and complications of Manmohan Desai, it's surprising to see something as full of goodies as Charas is that somehow remains lean. What follows is a list of what I think made the film so special.
|This isn't relevant to anything, but I had to include a shot of the best stationery ever.|
|He's the lone person in khaki on the ridge; all the other police are in blue. But mostly I just liked all the diagonals in this shot.|
Charas hosts some pretty spectacular musical numbers. Hema's character is a dancer (the subtitles keep calling her an actress, but we don't see any acting) who tours internationally, and she enters the film from the head of a sphinx in the wonderful Egyptian-themed number "Mera Naam Ballerina."
|The backing dancers play drums with their hair.|
my list of Egyptian-based or -themed film songs). As if in retort to the good girl's big song, the villains have a nightclub in their property in Malta (where much of the action takes place), where we get two songs with Aruna Irani (playing Dharmendra's presumed-dead and kidnapped sister, who has been forced into the shameful life of a dancer [eyeroll]). This is one of the best nightclub sets ever, crammed to the gills (ha!) in all directions with sea creatures and fishing props.
As is completely sensible, the smugglers and police, spread over two continents, need to keep in contact, and there is a vast array of communications equipment. Both sides have bleeping, blinking control rooms full of knobs and switches (note the Maltese cross in the police room). Dharmendra has the classic shoe phone and officers Asrani and Keshto Mukherjee have tracking devices hidden various places, including a watermelon.
|I'm so pleased to say that this is not the only film I've seen that hides transmitters in melons (it also happens in Inkaar).|
I still can't quite put my finger on what reminded me so much of James Bond in this film. No one is a spy, so I think it must have been the sunny European locales and the emphasis on the crime.
There is repeated (though brief) talk about female honor, and you know I always need to discuss that. Early in the film, Aruna is captured by Ajit's gang and forced to dance in their undersea nightclub; while there, she has discussions with the other principal dancer (Madhumati,who gets some awesome costumes) about the futility of worrying about honor once you've ended up in a place like this. Later Madhumati advises Aruna not to be ashamed of herself and to call her brother for help, not only for her own sake but for that of all the other girls who are forced into similar lives. Aruna falters, unable to admit what has become of her through absolutely no fault of her own, but Dharmendra is thrilled to see her and they have a wonderful bhai-bahin reunion. I must have seen other long-lost sister-brother pairs, but I can't remember any, and this was a nice change from brothers. (And now that I think about it, I'm realizing that the most important people to the hero are women. His work world is very male, but his emotional one consists only of women.)
Hema too is forced into this life of crime by Ajit; he says he has evidence that can either convict or acquit her of a long-ago murder.
|Bowls of fruit almost always lead to knife violence in masala films.|
The villain treats women as he does drugs: capital. He talks about photographing girls while his men "molest" them and selling the pictures to Europe, but he does not do the molesting himself or surround himself with dancing girls who feed him grapes. It's another example of a villain who has no interest in the sensual pleasures of the crime he commits—he just wants the money or whatever advancement of his plans they can offer. Even these women's "honor" is a means to an end rather than, to borrow language from other films, a juicy fruit that he wants to savor himself. This is in no way to say that he's not such a bad guy after all. He is, but he is more simply pragmatic and greedy than he is debauched or threatening to moral order or integrity.
To end, here are a few other masala delights. The wardrobe crew of Charas was relatively restrained, but that doesn't mean the clothes are boring. No no no. There is a ton of plaid in this movie, mostly on Ajit's jackets, but Dharmendra has some too, including a head-to-toe plaid suit paired with Pucci-esque tie. Amjad Khan (as one of Ajit's gang) always appears in a ruffled tuxedo shirt and a giant plastic-y scar on the right side of his face. Often he wears a black jacket and tie, but for picking up a supply of drugs at the airport he chooses to wear a white jacket, red tie, and brown fedora. You know, keeping things low-key and inconspicuous. Asrani goes undercover as a hippie with lots of patches on his jacket and jeans; my favorite says ALL INDIA DRINKING TEAM. And Madhumati and Aruna get some nice dancing girl outfits; nothing too crazy, but how about this gold spangle-fronted top? Classy!
|Dharmendra is most seriously displeased.|