For information tidbits about this film gathered from other people, please see the below the review!
I don't remember where I first heard it but some naive people have said that watching a Bollywood film is very much like doing LSD. This is a rash generalization (since, depending on the film, it can also be like having your heart ripped out by a rakasha, or watching your grass grow, or the closest thing to heaven you'll find in this life...sometimes all three). But I would be remiss if I denied that this drug theory IS sometimes applicable, and with NAMAK HALAAL I think we've found the perfect example of the Bollywood LSD Experience.
The first 15 minutes are dull and confusing, which is sort of like that period where you stand around wondering if you've actually done a drug or are just sucking on a small piece of scrap paper...damnit, that Mohawk guy who sold it to me is gonna pay for this! Then things turn surreal and get gradually odder, funnier, and more insane during the next two hours. This is the period of maximum Bollywood entertainment. Finally the film crosses the border into LSD "comedown" territory, where the trip has become sort of bad and you just can't wait for it to finish so you can remember your name again (not to mention understand why the heck Amitabh keeps speaking in that mushy voice). This is the most unpleasant part of an otherwise good trip, and it is also the most unpleasant part of NAMAK HALAAL.
This film consists of polar opposites, two different substances that the filmmakers try to mix together. The first substance is exciting stuff like comedy, thrills (referred to in the trailer as "Different Action"), and music. The other substance -- the one they should have left out -- is crushing melodrama. The artistes responsible for NAMAK HALAAL threw these two elements into a pan and watched them refuse to coalesce. They tried to mix them up -- and believe me, they REALLY tried -- but they realized eventually that there's no hope: the elements are too different from each other. This didn't stop the NAMAK HALAAL cooks from resorting to a series of transparent sleight-of-hand tricks to try to fool us into thinking that the plotline is being explained and the melodrama is really relevant to the movie.
When even this trickery fails they just walk away and let the whole mess burn and stick to the bottom of the pan, leaving a terrible stinky smoke that collects on the inside of your skull and leaves you with strange dreams and a dull, confused look in your eyes.
Before I can illustrate this with an example, let me tell you a bit about the film. The complicated setup during the first few minutes is too confusing to explain in detail but the upshot is: Savetri (Waheeda Rehman) has a son named Arjun (Amitabh Bachchan). For some reason her husband made her promise to give Arjun away in order to raise another child (Raja, played by Shashi Kapoor) who is the heir to a very rich man's fortune who has just been murdered. Arjun's Grandpa (the always-decrepit, always-devoted Om Prakash) ends up raising Arjun, but Grandpa is just as confused and angry about this "give up your son to raise an orphan" arrangement as BollyMike and I were, and he chastises Savetri and makes her promise never to seek out Arjun, and he tells Arjun that his mother is dead. As you'd expect this turns out to be a major element in the second half of the film. Surprisingly, though, it has no real relevance on anything that happens. But they put this plot element in anyway.
You'll hear me say "they put this plot element in anyway" an awful lot during this review.
It is NEVER explained why Savetri must give away Arjun in order to care for another child...I suspect this has roots in the Mahabharata, because (besides Arjun's name) there are frequent allusions that epic. I read a condensed version of the Mahabharata but I must have missed the details that are included in NAMAK HALAAL...I was so distracted by the woman who gave birth to a cannonball-sized mass of undifferentiated flesh and the fact that Bhima was a rotten low-down cheating scoundrel, I bet. Likewise, during this introductory scene, Mike and I were distracted by getting channa masala out of little styrofoam containers.
We were finished eating by the time little Arjun had grown up, and this is when the film starts making sense again, which it continues to do -- more or less -- for another 2 hours.
Amitabh plays a bit of a simpleton in NAMAK HALAAL. My initial impression of Amitabh, when I started watching Indian films, was that he was the sort of actor who would only play dignified roles. I already knew this wasn't true by the time we sat down to watch this movie, but NAMAK HALAAL reinforces that Amitabh will gleefully throw himself into a scary Jerry Lewis impersonation with no reservations whatsoever. His range of characterization in this film rarely moves outside of the "constant silliness" realm, and when it does -- during the aforementioned misplaced scenes of melodrama -- you wish he'd hurry up and start acting dumb again, because he's really pretty good at it. In this movie Amitabh falls over things. He does goofy, awkward dance-steps. He hits people a lot. He squeaks and burbles and makes funny faces. What's even stranger than all this is that he sometimes slips into a strange "I'm eating paan" sort of voice, even though he's not eating paan. As BollyMike said, "the rickshaw-wallas must have LOVED this."
Since Arjun is such a simpleton -- and routinely dreams about clutching Om Prakash and screaming "DON'T EVER LEAVE ME, GRANDPA!" something any therapist will tell you is A VERY BAD THING -- Grandpa decides to send him off to the big city so he can meet some girls and learn responsibility. Amitabh does some squeaking and burbling in protest, but even this scene shies away from the melodrama which will so pollute the film during the final hour.
Through a series of mishaps -- including an encounter with the sinister "Mister Moustache" -- Amitabh ends up in a fancy hotel that seems to have hired a bunch of P-Funk Bootsy Collins impersonators to be their entertainment: six men with fake afro's, dark skin, little paunches and superstar glasses stand on a stage and play funky guitars and horns. If you didn't already know that Bappi Lahiri was the king of the overproduced, extremely long, western-influenced 70's song sequences, you'll learn it pretty fast in this wonderful hotel.
Amitabh -- after making friends with a drunk who owns a dwarf -- is encouraged to sing a song, and he does so in what the film trailer refers to as "Disco, Qawaali style!"
Backed up by dancers in African garb and the aforementioned fake P-Funk all-stars, Amitabh does exactly this. Disco, yes. Qawaali, well...sure, I guess so. Whatever it is, though, it's pretty wild, and -- in Bappi Lahiri style -- it goes on and on through several different iterations, changing to a more romantic number when he falls instantly in love with Poonam (Smita Patil), a woman who works in the hotel. Amitabh creeps everybody out by opening the front of his shirt and showing that he's got a slightly transparent image of Poonam floating in front of his damp chest hair.
On the basis of his stellar impromptu Disco Qawalli routine, Amitabh is hired as a servant by the hotel manager who also happens to be the son of a very nasty villain. Let me spell this out here because this is a bit complicated. The nasty villain (Mehta) is really the brother of the millionaire who was killed and left his son (Raja) in the care of Savetri. Raja is the owner of the hotel. Raja doesn't know that Savetri -- now a teacher in a primary school -- isn't really his mother, and Arjun doesn't know that Savetri really IS his mother. The nasty villain wants his son to kill Raja so that they can steal his hotel empire, which consists of a lot of cheap models named "Rome," "Singapore," and "New York" made out of cardboard with black windows painted on them.
As an added gag Amitabh impresses the hotel manager with his knowledge of English, which is an interesting study in what happens when a non-English speaker tries to write an extended Three Stooges sort of dialogue in English for a non-English speaking audience: word confusion that doesn't really make any sense, lots of stuff about Cricket, and a very funny scene indeed (perhaps for the wrong reasons...but is there such a thing as "the wrong reasons?")
|BONUS! Here is Amitabh's English dialogue,
quoted by Gafoor (from memory, I believe!)
Ranji asks Amitabh - do you know English ?
Sending the "coincidence meter" into the red, Amitabh's boss at the hotel turns out to be none other than Poonam, the woman whose image was tangled up in his chest hair. She is at first a little cold to Amitabh, but when he saves her and her blind brother from an attack by a nasty upper-crust hotel patron (appropriately lodged in room 666) she decides she really would like to date him. Once again, the evil wrong-doings of horny Indians bring resistant lovers together.
Amitabh is a very popular guy at the hotel because he's LOYAL. When he suspects one of Raja's girlfriends of stealing, he picks her up and shakes her upside down, confirming his suspicions both about her and what she had concealed in her "dare bare dress." While watching this scene BollyMike had an epiphany about why NAMAK HALAAL is such a weird film: it's like a cartoon! I mean, he actually picks a woman up, tips her over, shakes her, and Raja's wallet falls out of her dress. Like everything else in the movie you could just as easily see Bugs Bunny in the place of Amitabh, and Porky Pig as Shashi isn't too big of a stretch.
Even though Arjun is a "loyal servant" Raja still has a right to be suspicious of people. During what seems to be Switzerland's "All Indian Ski Match" the wonderful Bob Christo -- villain-lackey extraordinaire and personal mascot of the BollyBob society -- shows up with a gun and a leopard-print hat and tries to shoot Raja...which would be okay in a biathalon or in Kashmir but not in this situation. It's obvious, though, that whoever is masterminding this plot (no doubt the Nasty Villain) is trying to convince Raja that his MOTHER is out to kill him. This is because they find a letter inside the pocket of a dead villain's coat...it's an order from Savetri to kill her son! The movie sort of glosses over the possibility that Raja might recognize his mother's handwriting and discount this letter as an attempt to frame her.
After failing to kill Raja during his ski match (which he won anyway, I should point out), the Nasty Villain poisons Raja's birthday cake, which proves that this Mehta guy is very nasty indeed...he doesn't seem to care that EVERYBODY at the party could die. Fortunately for the Raja and the guests, though, an unpleasant woman nobody knows brought her Chihuahua to the party and left it on the banquet table, where it ate the birthday cake and died. One less Chihuahua in the world, is all I can say.
Amitabh -- namak halal that he is -- declares that he will not leave Raja's side until the killer is uncovered. This is all fine and good until a millionaire arrives at the hotel looking exactly like Om Prakash with a black wig. This leads to three endurance tests in the film: the test of Amitabh's loyalty to his employer (because Grandpa wants him to come back home with him now that he's dating Poonam), the test of Grandpa's ability to pretend to be an amoral hedonist (as part of his brilliant disguise), and the test of the viewer's tolerance for plot twists that just don't make any sense.
Remember, earlier on in this review when I mentioned that the filmmakers try ridiculous sleight-of-hand techniques to distract the viewer? Here's an example:
ARJUN: Grandpa! Why did you come to the hotel in disguise, pretend to be a totally different person, and not reveal yourself to me no matter how many times I implored you?
GRANDPA: Oh, beta, it's easy to understand. Now that I'm here I want you to come back to the village with me, and bring Poonam with you.
That's a bit subtle, but you see what I mean? Arjun asks "Why did you do this," Grandpa replies "it's easy to understand" as though he's about to answer the question, but he never actually does...he just says he wants Amitabh to come home with him. This happens so often in NAMAK HALAAL that it becomes a bit of a joke, though one which becomes less funny over time.
You might be asking, "Why did the filmmakers put funny and ridiculous scenes into this movie if they were unable to explain them?" Well, it's easy to understand -- and I really AM going to answer your question this time: they did it because they had lots of great scenes in mind, but they had no idea how they'd fit them in. Rather than provide even the thinnest rationales for these scenes (eg. "Grandpa ran over a sadhu in a motorcar when he was young, and has since been cursed to do irrational things for one day every three hundred years"), they just sidestep all the explanations...probably because they know that anybody who loves NAMAK HALAAL won't care that it makes no sense.
This is true, but this becomes a problem when they use melodrama to distract you from the nonsense. The above exchange between Arjun and Grandpa goes on for at least five minutes of "Why did you do this?" "It's easy to understand" sort of dialogue, mixed with Amitabh's stoic tears and Om Prakash's throat-cracky, phlegmy "somebody please stop that old man from crying" delivery.
But even at this point in the NAMAK HALAAL experience the movie is still a lot of fun. For instance, while trying to force his Grandpa to reveal his identity Amitabh stages an elaborate ruse and dance number with four minor (probably totally unknown) actresses, one of whom is at least six feet tall. This is great, and -- like I may have mentioned -- makes no damn sense at all. Though it does teach us a valuable courtship lesson: amazon women don't like it when you spray alcohol on them. (We have a special "who-dat?" request for this particular actress...click here and see if you know who she is!)
Speaking of plots that don't make any sense the Nasty Villain has hired Nisha (Parveen Babi) to kill Raja by seducing him. Nisha lives on a barren island with her mother, and they appear compelled to kill men even though they don't want to and would rather just kill themselves. Maybe this is another Mahabharata thing -- like, Nisha is some sort of Fata Morgana or snake-woman or something -- but even though I don't understand her I'm glad she's in the film. Parveen Babi is sort of like the special ingredient they mixed in to make sure this LSD trip is more fun than it would be otherwise. She's cold and emotionless, reptilian and weird, and of course Raja falls immediately in love with her.
And how could he not? Her first song is a dance spectacular in a room with rotating spiky balls that look like the spaceship from SUPARMAN (released around the same time as NAMAK HALAAL, I think). As she sings, semi-transparent versions of herself arrive to do her backup vocals...we think they are her avatars, but they appear to be made out of soap bubbles or something. Sometimes these avatars glide beautifically across the screen, and at other times they dance with her inside the curious set piece we think of as "The Time Tunnel" (just about the only plot element the filmmakers DIDN'T exploit to keep things interesting). The first number that she performs is the only Donna Summers-inspired Hindi hit I've ever heard, and I can only hope there were more.
Nisha doesn't want to kill Raja...she's in love with him. "Please don't make me do this!" she implores to a floating, speaking ball of light. This light only appears in one brief scene and it commands Nisha to do things in a woman's voice. This plot hole is so big it could consume the entire universe, since the villains in NAMAK HALAAL are all men...HEY, WHAT KIND OF MOVIE IS THIS, ANYWAY? A SCI-FI FILM? HOW CAN THAT FLOATING BALL OF LIGHT SPEAK, AND WHERE DID IT COME FROM?
Don't even try asking these questions...you're shouting into a void at this point: the void of desperate, non-sensical entertainment. Here we're beginning to fall into the final "bad trip" part of Bollywood Drug Abuse. It's all downhill from here.
Nisha performs one more song, this time on a boat at a swanky party where men with pantyhose on their heads walk around without anybody noticing. The pantyhose men have set up a trap door to drop Raja into a tank of water where a man in scuba gear is ready to kill him with a knife. But Amitabh -- namak halal -- falls in instead, and after interrogating the would-be-killer ("Are you amphibious?") he escapes. It turns out that all the villains REALLY care about is getting Raja to sign a paper which will give all his property to the Nasty Villain and his son. How could they have achieved this by killing Raja, which they've been trying to do since they first shot at him and poisoned his birthday cake? Well, they couldn't have. He would have been dead an unable to sign anything. You see, it's easy to explain...ummmmm...
A hastily inserted scene ("We need some comedy!" yelled the producer) involves Amitabh making a bunch of businessmen impersonate Raja, which is annoying, then a lengthy routine where Amitabh talks to a fly which lands on people's heads. Amitabh then vigorously attacks the businessmen,. supposedly to kill the insect but mainly so we can see people get beaten up in a funny context. Which is always good for a laugh, I guess.
This is when the pan of NAMAK HALAAL ingredients really starts to burn and melt, so it's hard to pick out individual elements from the mess. Seriously, none of it makes any sense. Amitabh becomes a traitor for no reason whatsoever. All of his loved ones -- and a few people he's never even met -- get tied up and held for ransom. Amitabh gets shot, but he's wearing a bulletproof vest ("Why don't you people ever aim for the head?" he asks, which is an excellent question). Mothers become step-mothers and dead mothers become live mothers. A fight scene goes on forever, alternating between serious fighting and comedic fighting (I guess this is what they meant by "Different Action" in the trailer) Of course it all works out in the end, though in the last few seconds we're treated to a scary sexual moment featuring Amitabh, Smita and Om Prakash. Avoid this scene please.
Who was NAMAK HALAAL made for? I'll make a handy list...see if you fall in there somehow:
| a) Crazy people
b) People with no short-term memory or experience with basic wordly logic
c) People who just want to have fun without thinking about anything
d) Rickshaw-wallas (see a, b & c)
e) People who enjoy campiness and movies full of audacious, ridiculous situations (that would be BollyMike and I).
f) People who would watch anything featuring Amitabh, even a short film where he chews up live rats and then spits them on widows (which, sadly, he doesn't do in NAMAK HALAAL -- that scene was probably cut).
For this reason I whole-heartedly endorse this movie to all those looking for a bizarre experience. It's worth it just for the soundtrack alone, but if you have an urge to see "Different Action," "Fun-Funny-Funnier" and "Disco Quawali" then this is the film for you. It's more exciting than bungee jumping and even weirder than Navin Nishchal in a dress. Just take a few days off work before you watch it...this one is a DOOZY.
Comments by loyal Bollybob readers:Gafoor:
"Namak Halaal is very very enjoyable movie. It was a big hit of those times & I think everybody enjoyed it - the masses & the classes - like a lot of other Amitabh movies. Though a lot of ridiculous sequences happen in the movie, Amitabh carries it off very well."
"The "Disco Qawali" song - "Pag Ghungroo baand" is one of Kishore Kumar's legendary songs. Some scenes are copied from the movie "The Party" - Peter Sellers playing "Hrundi Bakshi"."
"Amitabh's English routine is also awfully funny - one of the legendary comedy routines of Hindi Cinema - "Vijay Merchant & Vijay Hazare", "Wasim Bari & Wasim Raja" - I doubt if there is anyone who doesn't recollect at least 1/2 of this routine by heart."
"The dialogue was made-up extempore by Amitabh. However he insisted that only the director and the cameraman remain in the room while this scene was shot. They of course needed only a single take. ;-)"
"Aaj Rapat Jaaye" song with Smita Patil - (the rain song) oozes sex (at least everybody felt so at that time - I haven't seen this movie in the last 10 years).
"I break out into a laugh everytime I hear Bappi Lahiri singing "Deewane Parwane marne se darte nahin"."
"IIRC, this movie was Smita Patil's first commercial movie. Before this Smita Patil used to appear only in arty movies. She also did another movie with Amitabh later."
Girish Bhat (replying to comments in the review):
* Why did Savetri need to give up Arjun in order to raise Raja?
"Never question too much in a Bollywood movie. ;-) And I have never seen the starting of this movie but here goes... Her husband (who too is a Namk Halal) has asked her to take the place of Raja-beta's mother (who presumably has died off-stage). Obviously she wants the whole world to think she is the real mother of Shashi Kapoor. Therefore to fool the world into thinking she is his real mother, she has to abandon her real son. Plus obviously, if the mother is not present, the villains will get to take over as trustees of the property till Shashi grows up. Worse, they will bump him off there and then itself. There so simple! (Now don't ask why Savetri Devi wasn't killed) ;-)"
"There has been such gestures by certain persons in recorded Indian history. I had read this Amar Chitra Katha comic book about a Rajput woman, (a servant), I think her name is Pannah, who lets the royal enemies kill her own child to protect the prince. So, some Indians can relate to that kind of sacrifice. OK, Arjun doesn't get killed here, but the part about Savithri sacrificing her own child's care for the sake of her master's son is quite believable."
* Why did characters in the movie always SAY they were going to explain something, but never explain it?
"Again, this WAS a running gag! 3-4 times they pretend as if they will explain this plot twist, but everytime Daddu gets distracted by something or the other. It's a JOKE!"