Starring: Amitabh Bachchan (Vijay), Vinod Khanna (Ajay), Saira Banu (Kiran), Sulakshna Pandit (Asha), Pinchoo Kapoor (P.K.), Padma Khanna (Extraneous Dancer)
Music by Kalyanji Anandji
Directed by Prakash Mehra
You know those nights when you discover that your best friend's dad murdered your father, so you get drunk and fall in love with the woman who's been hired to kill your mom, and then your friend drives away to kill your girlfriend but he runs over your mother instead, and eventually you end up with a whole bunch of people pointing guns at each other and holding your loved-ones hostage, and one of the guys with a gun is named "Sherry?"
YOU might have nights like that, but I certainly don't! Next to my white-bread lifestyle (a nine-to-five job, a sleepy cat, a collection of feathered headdresses in the closet) that Bollywood stuff is on a whole other kind of living. People killing my parents? Criminals in disguise? A man called "Sherry?" I've got a Jamaican plumber named "Rocky," but that's it.
Sometimes I wonder what's wrong with me, and if other people -- or rather, people in India -- really live these sorts of lives. And if they DO live these sorts of lives, how do they manage to keep everybody straight ("Hey John, I haven't seen you since you swore vengeance on my identical twin brother, kidnapped my wife, then turned out to be an undercover police officer! How is YOUR identical twin brother doing...the evil one that was abandoned at birth? You ARE the evil one? What a coincidence, so am I! We must stop wearing such convincing fake moustaches!")
If the folks in "Hera Pheri" are any example, the life of a person in Bombay is pretty complex. It has more twists than your average break-dancing snake-woman. Life in Bombay is about undying loyalty and family ties and guys who, while wearing garish suits, beat up other guys who also wear garish suits. It's about best friends who sing songs about their terrific friendship at the beginning of the day, and then end up trying to kill each other before bedtime. Most significantly, it's about the endless catalog of duty and guilt that's hidden inside the heart of every good Indian actor.
Ajay (Vinod Khanna) is a young man whose father sold him to pay for his mother's medication. His foster parents died too, leaving him to roam the gutters of Bombay and earn a Masters degree in Law all on his own. After having realized that a law degree can never replace a father's love, Ajay walked ominously towards a speeding train and was intercepted by his guardian angel, Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan). Since that fateful day they have become the sort of friends that you often see in Bollywood: two people who can't imagine ever hating each other...but had better get used to the idea real soon.
What's Vijay's story? His uncle -- a horrible man with a horrible disguise -- killed Vijay's father on a night that Vijay describes as -- you guessed it -- horrible. It was particularly horrible for Vijay's mom, who lost her mind (with an audible "ting" noise) and now alternates between deep sleep and a Bugs Bunny routine (complete with wicked cackling and big round eyes). Vijay's goal in life is to use an ancient and proven technique for curing lunatics: laying the severed head of a murderer between her feet.
Shock therapy would have been easier, however, because the murderer has a cunning disguise...so cunning, in fact, that I didn't realize he was supposed to be in disguise until the end of the movie. During the day he is sweet, gentle Mr. Ghanshyamdas, close friend of the police commissioner and the cultivator of a huge facial wart. But at night he becomes..."P.K.", a swindling murderer who looks remarkably like Mr. Ghanshyamdas...after he had momentarily removed his glasses and misplaced his wart.
I need to point out that the actor who plays P.K. (Pinchoo Kapoor) is the same man who played Dr. Fu Manchu in "Mr. India." I need to also point out that his disguise in that movie was equally bad, though at least he's not trying to pinpoint an ethnic stereotype in "Hera Pheri." While P.K. himself isn't a very engaging villain, he is supported by a loyal group of goons who I found myself deeply fascinated with.
One of them is a gaunt, carefully-groomed man with a pointy beard and elegant, wavy highlights who I think of as "The Ominous Hairdresser." He's the goon that P.K. sends out on most of his errands, probably because he's presentable and doesn't look even remotely menacing. When there's a kidnapping to be done or an eyebrow to be plucked, "The Ominous Hairdresser" is there to help. He's also pretty good at dragging women around, probably because of all those years dragging small children to the barber's chair for their first haircut.
A second goon -- who I call "Dumpling" -- is a dead-ringer for Ringo Starr...or rather, the animated Ringo Starr in "Yellow Submarine." Since he's the short one with the lumpy nose, the other goons make him sit in the middle of their economy car when they go out to run over old ladies. In fact, "Dumpling" appears to sit somewhere between the front and rear seats, in a position I cannot reconcile with Euclidean Geometry (but which Vanilla -- erstwhile "review reviewer" -- assures me is a sort of "hump" found in the middle of late-70's sports cars).
But the best goon of all is "Tiger," a chubby man with a fake eye glued over his real eye that's supposed to make him look deformed. In my wild and untamed Bollywood Imagination (the place where "Dil Chahta Hai" has a dramatically different ending than it actually does, for instance) I see Tiger as the unfortunate grandson of Melton, the rootless mongol slave-master of Mard. But while Melton fought skinny, underfed concentration-camp victims with his whip, Tiger doesn't have any fighting techniques whatsoever and is greatly hindered by his lack of depth-perception and the nagging fear that his eye might fall off. Ajay dispatches him early...but he will be forever stuck in my mind.
P.K. (not to be confused with Mr. Ghanshyamdas) has two missions that he needs his goons to facilitate. First he wants to find his long-lost son, who he -- like all unfortunate Indian fathers -- sold to pay for his wife's medication. He's built a shrine for the kid he threw away...a creepy white chamber decorated with elaborate statuary, mysterious columns, gorgeously-carved antique tables and a cheap vinyl swivel chair. P.K. is, for the most part, the kind of guy that you'd gladly grind into a pulp and feed to a giant crocodile...but he can occasionally surprise you: when he talks about how much he misses his son he starts to blubber like a baby, which makes you REALLY want to feed him to a giant crocodile (of which, in this film, there are none).
P.K.'s other, less noble mission is to permanently silence the person who witnessed one of his cold-blooded murders: Vijay's mom. It seems strange that the confession of a madwoman would be so threatening, particularly when police all over India are poised to arrest him for a multitude of OTHER crimes, but still...he's got a pathological need to find her and kill her, and we must forgive villains their little foibles.
For years Vijay has been sheltering his mother from P.K.'s murderous wrath in a kind of hide-and-seek game that neither person finds particularly entertaining. To pay for the non-specific injections that keep her sedated, Vijay has turned to a life of crime...and Ajay gladly helps him, though he knows nothing of Vijay's past and believes his parents are dead. Other than this tiny bit of deception, they're best buddies...even though Vijay is a womanizer with a drinking problem and Ajay is a shy, somewhat neurotic abstainer (who does, however, pose quite fetchingly in a pair of extremely tight shorts).
The two of them are modern-day Robin Hoods, though they never actually give anything to the poor. They start out small -- protection rackets, crooked gambling -- then graduate to a huge song-and-dance routine involving the theft of hundreds of bags of...well, cement, from the looks of it. To pull this off they dress up like gurus who are dressed up like John Lennon, and they perform magic tricks and combine classical Indian dance with an outrageous "Three Stooges" routine...a combination that somehow works. The lack of a third stooge does not make the movie any less wacky; in fact I believe that the third stooge is the Director Of Photography, whose favourite trick is to film somebody falling out of a tree, then play it backwards to make it look like they're jumping up really high.
Vijay and Ajay don't perform their dirty deeds in a vacuum...there are other clever thieves in Bombay! One of them is Kiran (Saira Banu), a minor crime boss who gives the best comic performance in the movie: a hilarious impersonation of...well, a traumatized, screeching rape victim.Ahem. You kind of have to see it. Believe me. Please. It gets even more funny when Vijay tries to manipulate the hysterical, snot-dripping woman into having sex with him. How can I justify this as the highight of the film without sounding uglier and even more evil than Tiger? I don't know. Maybe Amitabh's rubber chicken (which clucks with the voice of a sound editor) added something to the scene. Or maybe we should forget I ever brought it up.
If it's any consolation to the sensitive reader of this review, Kiran wasn't actually being raped...it was all a ploy so she could steal back all those bags that they stole from her boss (which turned out to contain money instead of cement after all). Yes, Kiran is P.K.'s accomplice, but maybe Vijay's dead-chicken routine had an effect...the way she thrusts her breasts at him when he tries to steal the money back (again) is one of the universal signs of love. Or maybe he won her heart by setting fire to her soup, then threatening to do the same to her. "I love a man who incinerates my food while I'm trying to eat it," she seems to be saying, and she later goes on to decorate her apartment with more than twenty identical photographs of Vijay, arrayed around the doors and windows like talismans to keep away those floating, entrail-dragging witch-heads that aren't in this movie (but should have been!)
Meanwhile, across the city, Ajay was busy rescuing his own rape victim: Asha (Sulakshna Pandit). Once again random gangs of rape-hungry Indian thugs have brought a young couple together...it helps that they always rip the sleeves of their victims, exposing bra straps that Ajay appears to be totally hypnotized by. Ajay and Asha would LOVE to get married (she lies awake at night, dreaming about him wearing a short-sleeved sweater, staring at her with that distinctive Vinod Khanna scowl as she sings among the trees)...but there's just one problem:
Asha's brother is Inspector Khanna, the dedicated police officer who has spent much of his career trying to bust Vijay! Like all good inspectors he sometimes does undercover work dressed as "Shrek," the New Zealand sheep who didn't get sheared for twelve years. He also, incidentally, has the world's largest wall calendar hanging in his apartment. Inspector Khanna won't let Asha hang around Ajay because Vijay is such a bad influence...and besides, Khanna is good friends with Mr. Ghanshyamdas, and Mr. Ghanshyamdas believes that Ajay might be his son, which would mean that Ajay would be the son of Vijay's worst enemy...
You're bound to sympathise with Ajay when he screams "Dear God, what are you putting me through?" This sort of situation might be commonplace in India -- the world of identical twins, blood feuds and long-suffering mothers -- but your average viewer can only sit back and be glad that it's all happening to somebody else.
I would very much like to explain the tangled web of intrigue that is the last half of the film, because then maybe I'd be able to figure it out myself (not realizing that the villain was in disguise half of the time -- and wasn't just entering a parallel universe where his enemies treated him like friends -- was part of the problem)...but I have an intense respect for "Hera Pheri." The melodrama was too over the top for me to take seriously, and the multiple climaxes at the end left me feeling like I was watching some kind of elaborate joke (each climax is announced by a trumpet blast, one note higher than the previous blast...whoever played that trumpet should have gotten danger-pay!), but the performances by all the actors are spot on...I've never seen a comic team quite like Amitabh and Vinod. Saira Banu was the icing on the cake (or rather, the fire on the soup) which made it all that much better. And while most of the songs were sort of pedestrian (at least without subtitles), Padma Khanna's romp through the casino -- with six horn-playing Turks in tow -- lent a degree of spectacle (if not realism) that the film otherwise lacked.
Stop reading this review now (it won't be much of a loss...it's over!) Then see "Hera Pheri." For those of you who don't want to know anything more about the plot, I've put the "Octagon Of Guns" sequence on a separate page. You may want to show it to your children to teach them lessons about gun control, the transfer of power, and the folly of an overcomplicated plot.