Masala Madness at Hotel Naseeb
One of my New Year resolutions (and probably the only one I will be able to keep) is to watch more masala movies. Masala is the Hindi word for spice or, in practice, a mixture of spices; the often complex blend of flavors that makes a dish taste just right. Masala movie making also uses a variety of flavors – including melodrama, comedy, action and musical numbers – hopefully in a combination that proves delicious, or at least doesn’t give you a stomachache.
The masala philosophy can be seen in many, maybe most Indian films, but it hit its height in the 1970s, when Indian audiences were still “pre-cynical.” In these movies, logic is optional but thrills are mandatory. The gears of fate will work overtime, sometimes with a bit of divine intervention, as the car chases, fistfights, star-crossed lovers and long-suffering mothers get twisted into such improbable messes that you can’t help but go along with it. It’s the very audacity of the films that makes them lovable. A good masala movie should make you yell “What the fish?” several times an hour. In Amar Akbar Anthony, for instance, at least half a dozen calamities befall the central family before the credits even roll.
Amar Akbar Anthony happens to be my favorite masala movie. That may be because it was my first one, and almost my first Indian movie. But don’t take my word for it: the star studded film (It featured three of the biggest leading men of the day: Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna and Rishi Kapoor) was not only one of Manhoman Desai’s biggest hits, but is still considered one of Bollywood’s all-time greats. Just recently, Filmfare Magazine rated it #4 on its list of classic Hindi comedies.
I enjoy AAA so much that one of my movie litmus tests is: how many of the cast members were also in AAA? Even the appearance of one of AAA‘s bit players can perk me up, and when my Bollybuddy and I sit down to a movie we may suddenly exclaim, “It’s Laxmi’s brother!” or “Isn’t that the priest?” or “OMG – Zebisko!” So we were primed to love Naseeb, Desai’s 1981 blockbuster that was supposed to be an AAA reunion. Alas, one of the As – Vinod Khanna, who played “Inspector….Amar!” – wasn’t available, and the three heroines (Neetu Singh, Parveen Babi and Shabana Azmi) have also been replaced.
But the Bollybuddy and I didn’t have the opportunity to be disappointed, thanks to the misleading description that Netflix slapped on this movie. We were expecting a small drama starring Pran and Amjad Khan, with an Amitabh Bachchan cameo, and that alone is plenty to look forward to. Before the film even began we were riveted to the DVD menu, which flashed quick images of most of the cast. “Is that Hema Malini?” we exclaimed, and “Hey, that was Rishhi Kapoor,” and “OMG – Zebisko!”
We still had no idea what we were in for. In Naseeb, Desai tries to outdo AAA. And for sheer what-the-fish-ery, he succeeds. With its confusing beginning, hard edge and inferior score, Naseeb isn’t as lovable as AAA; but its nutty excesses are very fun. In fact, if you haven’t seen Naseeb I highly suggest you stop reading. Why spoil all the surprises?
For all the twists and turns of its narrative, AAA is pretty easy to follow; there’s only one family to keep track of, scattered though they may be. Naseeb’s “bigger and better” approach begins in the prologue when we meet the four families the movie centers on. Or is it five families? Or technically, six? I had to watch the movie twice to be sure of who was related to who. And since the short prologue includes murder, betrayal, earthquakes – you know, the usual – there just isn’t time to delve into, say, the question of whether Mrs. Gomes is somebody’s neighbor or somebody’s cousin.
The most important thing here is that there are four friends – Namdev (Pran,) Damu (Amjad Khan,) Jaggi (Jagdish Raj,) and Raghu (Khader Khan) – who split a lottery ticket. Namdev wears three rings, each sporting a religious symbol of Hinduism, Islam or Christianity. This is a little detail that pays off, oh, about an hour and a half from now. The lottery ticket turns out to be a winner, but the luck isn’t all good: Damu and Raghu murder Jaggi and frame Namdev for the crime. For extra insurance Damu secretly snaps some pictures of Raghu at the crime scene, another seed that will bear fruit in the second half of the film. The betrayers then whack Namdev on the head and toss him off a bridge.
At this point, my Bollybuddy and I understood the downside to the unexpected pleasure of an AAA reunion: Pran wasn’t going to have as big a role as we’d wanted. But we were sure Namdev wasn’t dead, and we consoled ourselves that when Pran returned he would probably have a different wig. Just as Lon Chaney was The Man of 1,000 Faces, Pran is the Man of 1,000 Hairpieces. We always enjoy seeing what he’s glued to his head this time.
Anyway, the sad story of the four friends with the lottery ticket isn’t so much the film’s set-up as its deep back story. Naseeb primarily isn’t about these four but their children. So we flash forward twenty odd years to find a new state of affairs. Namdev’s sons, John and Sunny, have been raised in poverty by Mrs. Gomes alongside her daughter, Julie. John is paying for Sunny’s school by working at the hotel owned by Damu and Raghu, who are secretly smugglers. Raghu’s two obnoxious sons are part of this criminal empire, but Damu’s son Vicky is ignorant of his father’s illegal doings. He is off at college studying agriculture, but he and John are best friends. And finally, Jaggi’s two daughters, Asha and Kim, have grown up to be beautiful and strong-minded. (Wouldn’t it be incredible if they fell in love with one or more of the men in this movie?
Got all that? Up to this point the film is kind of tedious, but things are about to perk up. We cut to the Hotel Naseeb, where everyone is looking for the favorite waiter, John – and it’s Amitabh Bachchan!
He immediately launches into a comical song, “,” which explains that he is awesome (no argument here) and that he has three names from three distinct traditions because he believes in Allah, Jesus and Ram. Religious syncretism was a favorite theme of Desai’s; in AAA the titular brothers were separated in childhood and raised in three different faiths; when they grew up they found that even though they were now of different religions, they were still brothers. Can we even call that symbolism? Because Naseeb is so overstuffed with events, there isn’t much room to expand on the idea of religious tolerance, but it shall be everpresent in John’s name and Pran’s rings. (You haven’t forgotten the rings, have you?)
Indeed, Naseeb is so overstuffed that this song does double duty. It’s also the excuse for a big parade of star cameos. Seems the hotel is hosting a party to celebrate the success of the movie Dharam Veer (also a Desai picture – how’s that for cross promotion?) so the film’s star Dharmendra is here, along with an impressive array of his peers from the Hindi film industry. (Pran was also in Dharam Veer, but alas, Desai doesn’t bring him back here.) This is what inspired the glamorous cavalcade of stars in the “Deewangi Deewangi” number in Om Shanti Om. Alas, Farah Khan did it about a hundred times better. In Naseeb it looks like they only had a day to film this sequence and the choreographer overslept. The stars just wander through the door in small groups, stand around awkwardly, and do a bit of half-hearted dancing for the big finish. What a waste.
Back in the kitchen, Julie (Reena Roy) is looking for John. When she was a child, Julie was into marbles. Now she’s a lovely young woman and she’s into marbles. Love of marbles is her leading characteristic. When a movie has so much going on, little things like characterization of the female leads just go out the window.
Julie has come to discuss Vicky’s birthday, so we cut to London and discover that the adult Vicky is played by Shatrughan Sinha. Mr. Sinha would not have been my first choice to replace Vinod Khanna. He’s puffy and has a goofy mustache and generally looks like he’s old enough to play, if not the heroine’s father, then certainly her happily married older brother. It would be fine if Vicky were supposed to be a dork, but he’s meant to be suave and arrogant.
We find him in a casino where he’s just made a killing. The casino manager, Zebisko – OMG Zebisko! – loses his shit and starts wailing on Vicky. Their dishoom-dishoom trashes the casino before they fall out a window and land on a double decker bus. Zebisko’s fantastic muscles avail him little against The Belly From Bihar, who thrashes him soundly and then pushes him onto a busy road for good measure, where he gets hit by a police car. Convenient!
This is just the beginning of the manly tale of Cowboy Vicky, London’s two-fisted Agriculture major. He encounters Asha – who has grown up to be as charming as Hema Malini, and a famous singer to boot – and saves her from an unscrupulous advertising director and then some goons, literally riding to her rescue on a white horse. (Which, as we all know, is standard issue at any credible London college.) Vicky is smitten but Asha knows she can do better. She gives him the brush and he becomes a lush. Ah, this is why he wears cowboy hats – his life is a country-western song!
Back in India we meet the last two players. Sunny (Rishi Kapoor) is threatening to throw himself off the school’s roof if he doesn’t graduate on time. The headmaster (played by Jeevan, the baddie in AAA; the Bollybuddy and I shook our fists and yelled, “Robert!”) is unimpressed. Maybe you should have studied, yaar! Sunny’s histrionics are interrupted by cries that the girl’s dorm is on fire – and Sunny’s girlfriend is trapped inside! In yet another nod to AAA, Rishi makes a swashbuckling attempt to save his lady love from a fiery death!
But there is no danger. Kim (played by…Kim) has accidentally set a towel on fire with her cigarette while absorbed in a book on lip reading. Julie has her marbles, and Kim has her lip reading. If there was another major female character she’d probably be a ventriloquist or a yo-yo champion. Anyway, Sunny and Kim convince the school that he has rescued her from certain doom and the jubilant headmistress bullies the headmaster into passing Sunny.
The students then beg for a coed game of kabaddi, and after some wrangling and trickery the headmaster and headmistress consent. When we see everyone kitted up for the game, the appeal is obvious. The players wear tight shorts! Even though all the boys suffer from Bollywood Crotch Syndrome, the playing field is a seething cauldron of sexual tension – the kind of tension that can only be expressed in a musical number. I managed to learn a lot about cricket from Lagaan, but I’m still pretty vague on kabaddi. It seems to be a combination of tag, red rover and Lamaze. Holding your breath is part of the game, which makes it a perfect choice for a song picturization. The scene becomes so erotic that the repressed headmaster and headmistress imagine themselves playing the game. Finally the entire student body runs onto the field screaming, and the camera cuts away from the dusty orgy.
Back at Hotel Naseeb, Asha is leaving the parking garage. Raghu has hired her to be the new singer, but his son Ashok (Shakti Kapoor) isn’t having it. He wants his girlfriend Sheetal to have the job, and has brought some goons to kindly suggest that Asha shove off. Poor Asha is really a creep magnet. She attempts to drive away, but the goons have closed the exit. So Asha calmly turns her motorcycle around and starts running down the bad guys! How awesome is that? But her wheeled wrath comes to an abrupt end when Sheetal throws a net over her motorcycle.
Considering how the women in this movie tend to be reduced to schticks, I think we have to assume that Sheetal has a thing for nets. I bet she takes that damn net everywhere. People invite her to a party and she says, “Should I bring my net?” and they’re like, “Uh, sure, whatever.” Snaring Asha in the net is probably the best thing to happen to Sheetal ever. Years from now she’ll still be telling the story.
Anyway, John Jaani Janardhan shows up to save the day. There is much dishoom-dishoom, some of it in slow motion, and after the goons are thoroughly thrashed, John starts to put the moves on Asha. She’s so used to being accosted by creeps that she fails to notice his utter awesomeness. But later she seems more intrigued than disappointed when she finds out he’s just a waiter. Maybe she likes the zeal with which he cheers for her show. Her show, incidentally, doesn’t merit the enthusiasm. The song we see her sing is unremarkable, even though it ought to be the centerpiece as she’s singing about naseeb (destiny.) Also, it looks like the choreographer overslept again. The only cool thing is that she enters from a basket that descends from the ceiling. It’s masala ex machina!
Asha is so susceptible to this flattery that she offers John a ride home at the end of the night. Then we get a few minutes of something resembling flirtatious banter, culminating in John asking Asha to drop him at Ballard Pier where his lover is waiting for him. Asha drives off in a huff before John can drop the punchline: his “lover” is his boxing trainer/manager (Played by Mukri; he was Taiyyab Ali in AAA. There’s a drinking game in here somewhere.) Seems John moonlights as an amateur boxer. More dishoom-dishoom ensues, with a red filter this time. John is getting the dal beat out of him by an opponent who looks like he belongs in the background of a Popeye cartoon, until Asha returns and cheers him on. Ah, love!
We haven’t checked in with the villains in a while, so there’s a brief scene here detailing some of the smuggling operations of Damu and Raghu. Where would masala movies be without smugglers? There’s a romance to smuggling that’s just not found in extortion or assassination or DVD piracy. But Damu kills the mood by announcing that he’ll be cutting back on the crime because his son (Vicky- remember him?) is returning from London. Aw, what a sweet dad. Raghu disagrees, judging by the murderous look in his eye.
The heartbroken Vicky is now a total drunk. He pretty much tells John that without love he’ll drink himself to death. This is when John finds out that Vicky is in love with Asha. It’s twice the melodrama, because Julie is in love with Vicky. In Hindi movies the characters will go through all kinds of tribulations for their lovers, but they won’t date the person their best friend loves, or get in the way if the object of their affection loves another. That just wouldn’t be nice. John and Julie bravely Do The Right Thing and cook up an extremely melodramatic (and dammit, rather affecting) way to get Asha and Vicky together: they pretend to be engaged. The film’s first half climaxes with Julie and John watching forlornly as Asha and Vicky drive off together.
There’s no “interval” notice but I reckon this is where the intermission would be. Now if by some chance you found the movie slow-going up till this point, don’t give up. Masala movies usually get crazier and crazier as they go on. Even an earnest social drama may suddenly have a musical number with dancing amputees and a dishoom-filled climax. Naseeb is no exception, and the final 45 minutes register off the scale on the WTFometer.
The second half begins with yet another nod to AAA – a drunk Amitabh talking to an inanimate object. This time it’s the liquor bottle he’s haranguing. Seems heartbreak has turned Johnny into an alcoholic. In this movie, love and alcoholism are just two sides of the same coin; they’re both mysterious, dangerous, and above all transferable. After being a drinker for something like a week, Vicky had done significant damage to his liver, so you’d think Johnny would know better. But no, he shows up drunk for a cage match and gets the dal beat out of him again.
There’s no Asha to inspire him to victory this time. Instead Sunny shows up, pulls his big bhaiyya out of the ring, and takes on the challenger himself. As in AAA, Rishi is the cute, sensitive one. But Naseeb has a harder edge than AAA so unlike Akbar, Sunny is no pacifist. With a wacky combination of dishoom and acrobatics, Sunny preserves his brother’s honor by knocking out his opponent. By the standards of Desai movies, in which the fight scenes are always inventive but seldom well-choreographed, this fight is very good. It actually looks like the blows connect.
Sunny drags his sorry brother home, singing a boring song about how awesome it is to not be an alcoholic. He should have tried punk rock instead. Punk led a lot of people I used to know into going straight edge.
There’s more heartbreak at Kim and Asha’s house. Damu has dropped by to discuss Asha’s wedding to Vicky, and Asha doesn’t seem too enthusiastic. Damu goes on and on about how fond he was of her father, working himself into such a state of faux nostalgia that he gets all indignant when he learns that Kim is in love with Sunny. How can she date the son of Namdev, her father’s murderer? The girls’ mother agrees, and tells Sunny to get out.
Meanwhile, at stately Wayne Manor – actually I don’t know where this next scene takes place, other than an opulent mansion, but what matters is that it begins with a close-up on somebody’s hand. I told you to remember those rings. Pran is back! With a new wig and mustache set! Naseeb definitively proves that Pran always makes a movie better. From this point on, the film is made of awesome. This scene alone made me say “Could this movie possibly get better?” three times.
Just like Kishenlal in AAA, Namdev has spent his missing years becoming a crime boss. But here, Namdev isn’t the head of a criminal empire; he’s the right hand man of the don, who of course is named Don. Don is played by Amrish Puri in a wig that must have been a two-for-one deal with Pran’s wig. Could this movie possibly get any better?
Like Amjad Khan, Amrish Puri played many villains in his career. Khan got typecast after playing the most memorable bad guy in all Hindi cinema, Sholay’s oily Gabbar Singh. Puri was the victim of something far more powerful than typecasting: genetic destiny. He just looks evil. His two default expressions are a leer and a sneer, and his eyes burn with so much craziness that his gaze can probably set things on fire. He takes to hidden lairs, outrageous outfits and killing his own henchmen like a duck to water.
Having Pran and Amrish Puri together is masala gold. The only way this scene could get any better is if Helen sashayed in and did a cabaret number. (Like Pran, Helen makes any movie better, no?) Anyway, Don orders Namdev to kill an underling just for the fun of it, and when Namdev balks Don threatens to kill him. Before he can do the dirty deed, Don’s son bursts in with bad news. OMG, Zebisko! Zebisko is Amrish Puri’s son! Zebisko is no Helen, but still – could this possibly get any better?
Incidentally – and I realize I’m going out on a limb here, but – I think there’s a subtle theme of fathers and sons going on in this movie. I’m probably reading too much into it, but still, I think Naseeb would make a perfect gift for Father’s Day.
Don sends Namdev to India to whip Damu and Raghu into shape. Oh, the irony! Since Namdev is a wanted man, he will masquerade as the Don himself. This is actually a ploy to make Namdev Don’s fall guy, but Namdev is too consumed with thoughts of revenge to consider that possibility. He meets his former friends at Hotel Naseeb – where else? – in its brand new revolving restaurant. Because this is an evil revolving restaurant, it can spin at speeds that knock people to the ground with overwhelming centrifugal force. Namdev demonstrates this to Damu and Raghu just to mess with them. Because he’s Don now, and Don is evil.
However, Namdev just can’t stay in character. He goes to the little cafe he used to work at, where he finds Mrs. Gomes putting a fresh garland on his memorial portrait. This is where we start to see that Mrs. Gomes is Naseeb’s answer to AAA‘s Bharti: she’s prone to monomania and outrageously bad luck. Namdev runs after her, but not before one of the waiters recognizes him. Namdev and Mrs. Gomes have a nice little reunion at his criminal lair, after she falls off the back of a bus.
Meanwhile, the cafe owner gives Raghu the good news that Namdev is still alive. Raghu realizes that Don is actually Namdev, but keeps this info from Damu, hoping that Namdev will kill him.
Meanwhile meanwhile, Vicky is trying to patch things up with John by helping arrange for John and Julie to get married. The despondent Julie overhears this and decides to throw herself off a cliff. Luckily, Sunny and Kim just happen to witness this and save her. All of this happens in about as much time as it takes to read about it. At this point something happens that’s so extraordinary that Desai didn’t dare to film it: the characters have a sensible conversation instead of suffering in silent, stupid nobility.
We infer that this has happened because Vicky summons John to his home, and tells him that Julie is upstairs preparing for the wedding. John goes up and finds her, with her back to him, in a wedding dress. John gives a big speech about how it would be foolish for them to get married since she loves Vicky and he loves Asha. Then she turns around – and it’s not Julie, it’s Asha! Asha still loves John and Vicky has decided he loves Julie. Are we at the happy ending already? No, because Kim and Sunny can’t get married until Namdev is cleared of Jaggi’s murder.
There’s also the small matter of Ashok, who has decided to take matters into his own hands and kill Damu. Despite having several guns and the element of surprise, he couldn’t have done a worse job unless his weapon of choice was a banana cream pie. He makes an embarrassed getaway but gets captured by Namdev who somehow knew about the whole assassination thing.
From this point the movie gets so fast-paced and intricate that I can’t possibly go into detail. A lot of cool stuff happens, like Namdev and John trying to kill each other and their tearful reunion, Damu getting tossed off a balcony, the real Don showing up in a quasi-futuristic uniform, and the three heroines crammed onto Asha’s motorcycle as it bursts through a window to knock down some bad guys. At one point Namdev gives his three rings to the young men; later they kick the crap out of Zebisko and his face bears the imprint of the three religious symbols. That just might be my favorite bit in the whole film, although I don’t expect any religious leaders to agree with me. (Except maybe the bizarre priest in Brain Dead who proclaimed “I kick ass for The Lord!” Try this experiment right now: Say out loud, with a New Zealand accent, “I kick ass for The Lord!” Isn’t it fun?)
The photograph that proves Namdev didn’t murder Jaggi (Remember that from two hours ago?) turns up and changes hands several times. By the time we get to the climax Don has the photo in his possession, and all the bad guys, plus Pran, are attending the inaugural night of the revolving restaurant. In the climax to AAA, the three heroes infiltrate the bad guy’s lair in disguise and sing a comic song before dishing out the dishoom-dishoom. In Naseeb everything is bigger and better, so here the heroes and the heroines sing and dance in costume. And it’s not some impromptu thing, either: they are the floor show and their number has international production values.
John and Asha come in first, dressed as a toreador and a flamenco dancer. They definitely have the best costumes. The flamenco dress shows off Hema’s figure and Amitabh looks great with that fake goatee. (Aw, he takes after his dad!) Next come Vicky and Julie, dressed as a cossack and, uh, a gypsy I guess. This number isn’t so much international as Epcot. Oh well. Finally Sunny and Kim enter, dressed as, er, The Little Tramp and Eliza Doolittle. OK, it’s Epcot meets Universal Studios. Or maybe just a Wong Jing movie. In AAA’s climactic song the heroes proclaimed that “When we three get together, the impossible becomes possible!” Here the sextet promises unforgettable “color and intrigue” and to “put everybody in a spin!”
Sure enough, the song is barely over when someone sets the restaurant’s spin control to “unreasonably fast,” which causes everyone inside to instantly fall over. The diners and the heroines make hasty exits, while the heroes and the bad guys have one of the craziest fights I’ve ever seen – maybe the craziest outside of Hong Kong cinema. Just imagine the possibilities: a rotating restaurant full of random objects and decorated with medieval weapons. Just for good measure, it catches on fire. On its own merits this fight scene is terrific fun, but it’s also the main reason Naseeb isn’t as lovable as AAA. Although a lot of bad things happened in that movie there was still an innocence, a lack of mean-spiritedness; while here, the heroes kill the villains with no evident remorse.
By the time only the good guys are left standing, the building has turned into The Towering Inferno and the heroes have to escape by sliding down a rope into a building across the street. Not wanting to show up his sons, Pran declines to walk across. Despite the fire in the revolving restaurant, Hotel Naseeb is back in business for the denouement, which finds Namdev is now running the place, the couples are together in the proper configuration, and all is right with the world. As far as I know, Desai never tried another AAA reunion, and it’s no wonder – he would have needed robot dinosaurs and lesbian ninjas to top this one.