"By snake worshipers, for snake worshipers."
A review by Muffy St. Bernard
containing spoilers and irrelevant information
If you're like me, you love a good snakewoman film. The idea of "miraculous snakes" -- reptiles which can take the form of humans with varying degrees of success -- comes and goes in the world of Bollywood, much the way that a glut of vampire films appear in the west on occasion. Sridevi played a mighty sexy, good-natured nagin in the 1986 film "Nagina (The Jewel)," and a whole bunch of women played a single snake bent on revenge in the somewhat nuttier 70's film "Nagin."
But now, here's "Naag Shakti," and unlike the other nagin films I've seen this one is almost painfully sincere...I get the feeling that the filmmakers really love their snakes...and they know you do too. What's more, they want to show you how to treat your snakes right..
First off, this film is (I suspect) Tamil, and it has the hallmarks of South Indian filmmaking that I find endearing: it's a little more relaxed than your average Indian film, less concerned with impressing you and more concerned with having a great time, meanwhile presenting an unapologetic religious spectacle: it's all about Gods, dharma, and worship, without any attempts to 'tone it down' for those of us who don't -- for instance -- leave milk out at the temple for snakes to drink. As well, it's pretty darn sexy. There's something about some South Indian films that I find very, very steamy. Maybe it's because, under the pressure of Indian censorship, they've needed to come up with clever ways of getting eroticism across, but they can get away with a bit more than they can in the north. No bums here, but watching a guy eat an apple off of a woman's chest...in front of her pet parrot, no less!
Something else that sets this apart from your average, run-of-the-mill nagin film: if you've seen other "miraculous snake" movies, you're probably familiar with the special effects used to portray the transformation: stop-motion photography (now she's a human...now she's a SNAKE!), tricky optical effects, cutting out a picture of the actress and shrinking it down on the screen until it's roughly snake-sized (ala "Nagin"). But "Naag Shakti" ups the miraculous-snake-movie ante with excessive use of CG. The computer animation is by turns beautiful and hilarious -- whoever invented the technique of "morphing" must have said "now people can turn into snakes more convincingly!" Sort of. Lucky for the people hired to do the computer graphics for this film, cobras have two little dots in their hoods that are very similar to eyes. Maybe mother nature herself saw this coming...
But just to prove that you don't need to resort to morphing to freak people out, a snake drinks milk from a cow's udder, which is shocking. I don't mean to dwell on the visuals here -- I'll get to the plot in a second -- but the film was so intensely visual that it's hard for me not to dwell. Never before have I seen a movie so exuberantly colourful...watching it was a bit of a sensory overload, to be honest. Mutating faces (and pottery!), glowing serpents, adventures in the spirit world, divine intervention, poison oozing under a little boy's skin...how could I not be impressed?
The story itself revolves around Naglaxmi, a beautiful girl with a turtle-nose who has a special connection with the snake goddess who lives in a gigantic snake hole (something I realized in this movie: snakes build huge termite-ish mountains to live in). They have this special bond because the snake goddess was responsible for Naglaxmi's birth (in yet another spectacular CG scene that I won't get into here). For some reason -- possibly because she's such a pure, beautiful, sweet girl, Naglaxmi has a parrot friend named Panchrangi who flies around saying brazen things in a high-pitched voice and telling people how to worship properly. Panchrangi is sort of like a Disney parrot, but one that never sings and doesn't look happy about being glued to its perch.
Naglaxmi almost drowns when she loses her paddle in the river, and she falls in love with Shivraj, her rescuer, a man who was tragically poisoned as a child by his own step-mother (and he is now the "poisoned man," meaning that anybody who has sexual relations with him will die). Things get a little sketchy at this point but it seems that Shivraj's step-mother is not a particularly nice woman: she wants Shivraj's estate for herself and her 5 or 6 stooge-like children (one of whom is mute) and she also wants to kill Naglaxmi by getting her married to Shivraj and goading the two into sexual relations. To make things worse, this lady is involved with a vulture-man in a red wrestling outfit who was exiled from the snake world for loving the snake goddess...now he's down on earth and he wants to kill Naglaxmi, or maybe Shivraj, or perhaps both, for reasons I'm unclear about.
You know, maybe I should explain right now why I don't really know what the heck was going on in this film:
THE SUBTITLE PROBLEM
What would an Indian DVD be without a subtitle problem? Well, don't worry, readers, "Naag Laxmi" has a real doozy of a problem..
Whoever subtitled it felt it was only necessary to translate the first line of any character's speech, so
for the first half of the film you get exchanges like this:
MOTHER: "Nobody will play with my daughter because"
VILLAGE ELDER: "How did this terrible thing happen?"
MOTHER: "It all happened the night her father"
MOTHER: "and then her face began to look like this!"
VILLAGE ELDER: "That's terrible!"
What's really terrible is I'll never find out why that little girl's face was so hideous. If anybody out there speaks Tamil, please write in and let me know, because I'm really curious. Fortunately, the benevolent snake-goddess arrives later in the film to lick off the girl's scabs, and presumably she lives a happy life free of tragic (unexplained) deformation.
Suddenly, halfway through the movie, there's a strange alteration in the look of the film -- a difference in brightness, a brief flash of light -- and as though the snake goddess herself had intervened. The subtitles kick into full force, and they are so wonderfully and meticulously translated from that point on that it's necessary to pause frequently to read them all.
For this reason I'm a little vague about the finer details of the plot during the first half of the movie.
Anyway, things escalate from there and the complicating elements pile up on each other like the scabs on a small child's face. The villain sends a particularly mangy and nasty vulture to kill Shriraj, or to at least scare him or wound him or something. This is a pretty intense scene where Shriraj holds the feet of a madly flapping bird and tosses it back and forth as though it's hurting him. I suspect that the only creature getting hurt was the vulture, but anyway, that's nothing new. Shriraj has another female admirer -- she also has a turtle-nose, incidentally, which may say something about beauty standards in South India -- who knows about the step-mother's plot and sacrifices herself to save Naglaxmi. You see, if the "poisoned man" gets particularly angry or horny, he follows women into the wilderness and bites them until they're dead.
Naglaxmi, in order to save her husband, discovers that she must fast for 14 days and perform a sequence of Herculean tasks during that time. One of these tasks is to get 7 women from the village to eat with her, and another task is to feed orphans. This should be easy, shouldn't it? Nope, not when you've got 5 or 6 stooge-like step-brothers and step-sisters out to foil you. First, they tell the women of the village that Naglaxmi has leprosy. Then, they put poison in the food that Naglaxmi feeds to the children, but in both cases the snake goddess arrives -- much like she did to fix my subtitle problem -- and puts everything right. "What?!" exclaims the evil step-mother. "We used the poison of the black cobra...and not a single kid died!"
Once the vulture-villain gets tired of pussyfooting around, there's a spectacular confrontation. I've put images from this confrontation on another page, so those who REALLY don't want to see the ending won't have it spoiled for them. But they're pretty nifty, if I do say so myself.
In short: Naag Shakti made me very
happy. It reminded me of those golden mornings watching the "Krishna Serial" on CHIN. Only, it's a lot
sexier, and the special effects are better. Plus, there weren't any lotus flowers in Naag Shakti. What's more, this film has a beautiful, epic quality that I absolutely love, and has convinced me that I must see more Indian mythologicals. The downside of an epic, unfortunately, tends to be that the characters fall by the wayside...they're largely one-dimensional. The character I felt closest to was Panchrangi the parrot, which is why I haven't revealed what happened to it.