Bollywood Shuffle: Jaal (1986)

With his mother developing a consumption-like illness that makes it impossible for her to keep continuing the cooking work that paid for the family’s food and education, and since his father has been dead for quite a few years, it now falls to kind-hearted part-time badass Shankar (Mithun Chakraborty) to earn the money that pays the rent.

His first attempts are – of course without his fault – without much success. His luck changes when a mysterious woman calling herself Sundari (Rekha) makes Shankar an offer he can’t refuse. She’s going to pay him quite a lot of money if he’ll do whatever she asks of him for two years. Once Shankar has reluctantly agreed, Sundari tells him what his first mission for her is going to be: he is to go to a small village and somehow slime himself into the trust of the local evil Thakur, a man named Bhanu Pratap Singh (Amrit Pal).

Obviously (well, for everyone except for Shankar), Sundari has chosen Shankar for a reason. Soon enough our hero will learn the truth about the death of his father (Vinod Mehra) and a sticky and complicated past, find his true love (Mandakini), lead a minor revolution, and kick people in various parts of their anatomy with all the power his Mithun fu provides him with. And if you think I just left out about a dozen minor plot lines, detours, and flash backs, you’re absolutely right.

It’s been quite some time since I’ve last watched a Bollywood movie, and as always when I let this happen, I’m asking myself afterwards: why the heck did I take so much time to look towards India again? Thanks to the watchalong efforts of my delightful friend Beth, I’m back in the groove again, and we couldn’t have chosen a better film than the delectable Jaal (which means “Trap”, and is not to be confused with other Hindi movies named Jaal). Apart from being pretty damn fun to watch, Jaal also again made clear some things one really should keep in mind when watching masala of the 70s and 80s, lest one’s false expectations turn an incredible experience into something dreary and annoying.

Jaal‘s mixture of melodrama, a complicated backstory to be revealed sooner or later, overheated action, sudden bursts of psychedelia, musical numbers (written by Anu Malik) in at times frightening and always imaginative choreography, unfunny humour (responsible here: Jagdeep, one of the true horrors of the ages) and plain weirdness for weirdness’ sake looks typical of masala movies even to a Bollywood dabbler like me; the only things missing to the formula are a death scene for Mithun’s Ma and long-lost siblings at odds with each other. Of course, and that’s the main thing I need to remind myself of whenever I dabble in Bollywood movies of this style, one shouldn’t go into most of these films in search of originality or a sensible. linearly presented plot but to enjoy them scene for scene in a game of “whatever will they come up with next”. These films were after all meant to include something for every potential member of their Indian audiences, which is not something that makes coherence as Hollywood praises it (and often doesn’t achieve for completely different reasons) an easy or even useful element of what the films were supposed to be and do. The masala approach does lend itself to produce joy, though.

In Jaal‘s case, what the filmmakers came up with to produce that joy are delights like Mithun hitting someone with his crotch (to my disappointment only once, or I could have used the phrase “crotch fu” to describe his fighting style), Rekha’s vengeance plans including awesome details like provoking one of the bad guys into a heart attack via an aerobic themed (well, nominally breakdance themed) musical number that for some reason also features mimes. There are also needle-dropped Madonna songs, the misadventures of the easiest marks for a confidence trick ever, Rekha doing her patented (and inspired/awesome) glowering, moral confusion, women getting very very wet during a musical number, magical jumping boots that appear for one scene only to forever disappear from the film afterwards, girls with guns, some deeply problematic ideas about prostitution that collide with some rather more humane and progressive ideas about prostitution and never get directly resolved into what I’d call a position, and a baseball match that ends with Moon Moon Sen being board-cified in a sexually suggestive position I’d really rather would have expected – and raised an eyebrow at – in a Japanese film.

As is so often the case with masala movies, it’s difficult to talk about Jaal as the sum of its parts, because, as explained above, a lot of masala films (there are of course humungous amounts of exceptions to this rule) don’t seem all that interested in being the sort of thematically coherent whole that is best looked at as the sum of its parts. Consequently, it makes little sense to judge the merits of a film like Jaal that way, or to get cranky at it for not following the rules of filmmaking made to construct and understand something with very different goals. Why, it would be like looking at a Hollywood blockbuster the same way as you would look at an arthouse movie. So instead, I like to look at these films and praise (or not) them for the amount of joy their succession of single scenes provided me with while watching.

Seen from this angle, Jaal looks pretty darn great to me, seeing as it contains not a single boring minute, and is never afraid to just throw in anything director Umesh Mehra found cool on that particular morning.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?