1985, VHS copy from Nairobi
Starring: Amitabh Bachchan (Raju), Amrita Singh (Ruby), Nirupa Roy (Durga), Bob Christo (Simon), Helena (Lady Helena), one amazing dog and probably about 12 amazing (but expendable) horses.
Music by: Anu Malik
Directed by: Manmohan Desai
I know what you're thinking: "Do I want to watch Mard? Oh, no! It's just another historical drama about colonialism in India...we already know what happened back then!"
Well, that's true. I mean, we know that the daughters of the Raj's often wore black vinyl bondage outfits, tied up poor people in their ballrooms, whipped them, and then left them hanging as sort of "conversation pieces" during their parties. We also know that many Indian dogs of the period could put their paws in their mouths and whistle, and that horses were very strong and could actually stop airplanes from flying away. The fact that the other breed of horses -- the ones made out of stone called "statues" -- occasionally came to life and rode off is a colonial cliche that barely needs repeating. And how many more times do we need to hear about how the oppressive Raj's wore villainous black capes, crafted cunning plastic masks to impersonate people, and drained all the blood from their slaves so they could keep the fluid in bottles in their dungeons? I mean, YAWN!
But if you're willing to sit through this dry sort of historical drama one more
time -- or even just this dry historical review -- you will not be disappointed. In fact, some of you might just learn
something they didn't teach you in school.
There's a common belief among some viewers that Bollywood films are a potent form of LSD. In my experience this isn't usually the case, but a film like "Mard" will mess you up more than any hallucinogen you've ever taken, and it will also leave you with some brain-melting after-effects: confusion, disbelief, and a lingering feeling that the filmmakers didn't know what the hell they were doing (or why). I'd like to thank David Chute for sending this potent film my way, though I suspect he did it for selfish reasons: when American authorities discover this tape is floating around they'll declare it a prohibited substance and do all sorts of scientific experiments on those who've seen it. In other words, David: watch out. And consider seeing a doctor. But if they want to drain all of your blood, say no.
How does one review a film like "Mard?" This question has been bothering me since I first watched it a few weeks ago. There is simply no place to start, nothing to get a handle on: the film is slippery with insanity and uncontrolled creativity. Making fun of it is nearly impossible, because there's simply too much to joke about: the wild anachronisms, ridiculous plot twists, audacious and unexplained actions of the villains, and the strange sadomasochistic relationship of Ruby and Raju. The answer to my "how do I review this film" dilemma came one night while I was watching the film a second time: "Mard" is difficult to review because it's a world of it's own, and it has very little relation to our everyday experiences. So, how do we describe the world? We classify it and quantify it.
Here, if you will, is my "Atlas Of Mard," to help you survive the film if you ever
need to watch it. I apologize for the omissions, but there was simply too
much going on in the film for me to be able to cover it all. For
instance, I've left out the details of the woman with the strange, spreading
growth on her arm that prevents her from cooking. And I haven't even
gotten into Azad Singh's scenes of spectacular strength (splitting a table in
two and refusing to be drawn and quartered, if you really need to know).
Whole plots have been removed from this review in order to keep it from spilling
over (and possibly contaminating) the entire website. If you have some
pressing questions about the plot, write to me and I'll explain. Though
the stuff about the blood in jars is confusing no matter how you look at it.
The "Mard Atlas"
One of the most vexing questions in the film is, "when does this movie take place?" Rigid minds will try to figure this out, so a recurring motif in The Mard Atlas will be the only clues we're given as to the time period: the costumes the filmmakers had lying around the studio.
You've got Lady Helena (played, appropriately, by Helen) who spends most of the movie in Victorian-era elegance -- gigantic lacy hats, corsets, evening gloves -- and who often rides around in a horse-drawn carriage. If we were to include "geography" in the factors describing Lady Helena's character, we could assume that Lady Helena is firmly stuck in 1870's Britain, except when she dresses up like a 1940's torch singer -- the kind that would entertain troops in America -- with a little pointed hat and a button-up wartime blouse...but we'll try to disregard that because it's confusing.
What's even more confusing is who Lady Helena actually is. Since the subtitles of the film were craftily designed to blend in with the movie without spoiling it, some aspects of Mard's plot -- such as it is -- were lost on us. Lady Helena may be the wife of a governor or something like that. All you really need to know is that she's British, she's influential, and she dresses like somebody Jack the Ripper would have murdered.
Even more temporally displaced is Azad Singh, who begins the movie as a respectable and brave Indian king, transforms into Zeus halfway through, and ends up wearing Roman gladiator clothing complete with knee-laced sandals and a furry Tarzan top. Since the gladiator look is most impressive, let's place Azad Singh in 300 AD, in Greece (or whatever they called Greece back then)
It's interesting to see a Victorian lady and a gladiator getting along, but "Mard" knows no bounds: Azad is a freedom fighter for the beleaguered Indians, and Lady Helena is a woman who is always spoiling the fun of the vicious, bloodthirsty British...if she had her way, there wouldn't BE any movie...the British would never be allowed to torture anybody! So it's a good thing she gets strapped to the front of a tank later on in the film, which is something the Brit's were notorious for during their Indian campaign...the heartless bastards! Despite their differences, it's hardly surprising that Azad and Lady Helena get along.
Anyway, Azad Singh is betrayed by the evil Doctor Harry -- a man with a penchant for Abe Lincoln hats -- and Doctor Harry laps up the benevolence of the British by becoming the evil Mayor Harry. Though wifeless, he suddenly produces a daughter named Ruby (how this happens is never explained, and I suspect the filmmakers simply forgot to mention it), and Ruby (Amrita Singh) is a notably PECULIAR girl. I say notably, because she's even more peculiar than the characters Amrita usually plays. Bollywood directors loved to see Amrita Singh do two things: flamenco dance and get playfully tortured...and she obliges us this time by having salt rubbed in her wounds (literally) and...well, by performing a flamenco dance. As usual, whenever someone manages to humiliate Amrita on screen, I can't help thinking that she got her revenge shortly after, and if not...well, Amitabh, you'd better watch out. You shouldn't have pissed Dinghy off!
When Ruby ISN'T wearing a Spanish whore's flamenco costume, she can sometimes be found in a 1980's vinyl bondage outfit with an outrageously floppy collar. She can also be seen in clothing inspired by "Gone With The Wind," and clothing inspired by the costumes worn by trashy girls in the worst kind of country and western bars. One of Ruby's best moments -- and one of the best moments of the film -- is when she drags the esteemed Nirupa Roy through town by the end of her sari, which somehow got caught in Ruby's car door. This is meant to show us how nasty Ruby is, and it brings Nirupa back into the plot after a long absence.
You see, Nirupa is the wife of Azad Singh. After being betrayed by the wicked Doctor Harry, Azad was removed to one of those awful British concentration camps where they kidnap Indians and force them to do hard labour all day for no reason at all. Then, when they become too weak to work, all of their blood is removed and put into glass jugs...again, for no reason at all. This is one of the parts of "Mard" that seasoned readers of Indian history will doubtless find dull, but don't worry...it gets better.
Azad -- now in Zeus mode -- has been grinding flour for 23 years because if he stops there'll be no more flour and everybody in the camp will starve. I'm not making that part up, he really seems to believe this. After 23 years in a dungeon where they only give you water every second day -- and even then, the water is given to you inside a shoe that belongs to an obese mongoloid without eyebrows -- you're bound to have strange ideas about the world and your place in it.
Since her husband has been off grinding flour for so many years, Nirupa considers herself a widow, but that's just the first of the tragedies that have left her broken and mute. She also left her infant child at an orphanage, but the child got stolen by a horse. This horse (Badal) -- who once belonged to Azad Singh -- not only provides a sturdy mount and helps to further the plot when the villains start wearing cunning masks and impersonating the good guys, he also provides some unrelated comic relief when he falls in love with a statue.
This horse-abducted infant becomes -- of course -- the angry young Amitabh, whose costume and time period and ethnic inspiration is typically fluid: sometimes he's wearing traditional garb that could be from any century. Other times he's dressed as a Mexican bandito, complete with a gigantic floppy hat that suits his dog perfectly. This dog (Moti) steals the show, partly because he's funny (and can whistle by sticking his paw in his mouth -- or, more likely, by sucking on the paw of a dead dog of a similar colour), and also because he's incredibly smart, responding to commands that Amitabh doesn't even need to verbalize like:
* "Go into the place where everybody's washing their clothes, and steal something appropriate for me to wear to Ruby's birthday party." The package Moti steals turns out to contain both a dashing suit AND a "Father Anthony" preistly garb, which my friend Jen insists would never be worn by anybody in the Catholic faith. She neglected to mention whether somebody in the Catholic faith would pop out of a gigantic plaster birthday cake, and then play the violin and launch into the rousing Anu Malik swing number "Sun Rubia Tum Se Pyar Ho Gaya" ... but I doubt that they would.
* "Grab Badal's reins in your mouth, then jump into the quicksand river with them, so I can grab the reins and -- with Badal's help -- get pulled to safety." This is the first of Moti's spectacular stunts, which amounts to somebody dropping the poor dog into a river from a very high spot. This strange quicksand river is an essential part of the "Mard Atlas" and is a place where -- in the words of one of the villains -- people go to "meet their parents." What happens if a person's parents are still alive is never revealed, but the quicksand river seems an unpleasant rendezvous point regardless.
* "Build a powerful bomb and place it under the armoured tank." This leads to Moti's other great stunt: getting thrown laterally off the side of a tonga at a very high velocity. Moti's just a dog after all...he can build a bomb, but he tends to misjudge the power of his explosives and sits too close to them when they blow up. It would be a mistake to overestimate the reasoning powers of a dog, even one as smart as Moti.
We were uncertain about Moti's breed, but we decided that he must be a "Miraculous Chocolate Dog," a very rare animal that -- like the earthworm -- acquires the wisdom of other animals by eating them alive, which would explain why he's so smart. This breed is not to be confused with the dhole, an endangered species of wild dog from southern Asia that whistles instead of barking. Moti does have two things in common with Dholes, though: he whistles too, and in his acting career he's certainly endangered.
Speaking of dholes, ghouls and other arcane monsters, another colourful character in The Mard Atlas is Goga, Mayor Harry's sidekick. It's never clear exactly what Goga does -- other than aim his gun at Amitabh and accidentally shoot the chandeleir -- but midway through the film he begins wearing spooky outfits reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, and as time goes by he starts looking more and more evil and depraved. My theory -- as valid as the one about Moti being a cannibal unrelated to the dhole -- is that Goga is in fact the real villain of the film: he's a vampire, and the rest of the characters are his loyal hypnotized humans. Before you dismiss this idea, please keep in mind that this explains why the bad guys bottle the drained blood from their slaves, and also explains Goga's final death in the quicksand river: he gets a wooden stake through his heart. Why these vampire scenes were cut out of the final print is beyond me -- maybe the directors felt the presence of a vampire was just too "far out" for the rest of the film. I disagree.
The vampire plot isn't the only thing missing from the film...the print that I watched is also missing the steamy middle portion of the "Will You Marry Me" song. Fortunately, I own another videotape which contains slightly more of the song. Here are some teasing screenshots to help you imagine what a director's cut of "Mard" would look like (for completists and perverts only!)
What the videotape lacks in vampires and sexy picturizations it more than makes up for with a series of insane commercials from India and South Africa: perfumes with names like "flange" and "love-drops" (which come with a certificate of authenticity...just in case you notice there's less than the usual amount of flange in your love-drops), and an ad which tells us that the universal symbol of time is "wings" (which I wasn't aware of). But by far the most notable commercial is one for Ghee, which deserves a page all to itself.
Now, please excuse me here while I continue to muddle through the mess that is this film. I haven't even gotten to the most lovable characters: Danny and Melton.
Danny is General Diar's son, and while General Diar is just your basic dumbo villain, Danny is unspeakably evil. He's so evil, in fact, that he wears a cape, and he insists that everybody else who works in his concentration camp wear a cape as well. It's Danny who runs the "King George Hospital" where they drain all of your blood. It's Danny who throws peasants into the scary quicksand river. And it's Danny who finally usurps the power of the benevolent Lady Helena, and ties her to the front of his tank. And he wants to marry Amrita.
Danny's most lovable servant is Melton, yet another strange time & space transplant. Melton looks like a slightly deformed Mongolian warrior from -- I would presume -- the 1300's. There is so much to like about Melton: his elaborate war outfit, his shaved eyebrows, and his silly moustache, not to mention his wildly inappropriate name. As well, he giggles uncontrollably when innocent people die. The scenes featuring Melton -- few as they are -- are some of the best in the film, and I find myself wondering if Manmohan Desai has ever considered marketing him as a soft toy or giving him his own star vehicle. As far as I'm concerned, Govinda and Melton would make a great goofy pair.
I've saved the most important character for last: the esteemed Bob Christo! Beloved mascot of the Bollybob society, who spent most of his Bollywood career playing second-string thugs who suffered constant humiliation! This film is no different, but it's notable in that Simon -- Bob's Character -- gets an enormous amount of screen time (though much of that is spent sitting on top of tanks and blowing up huts). Simon is just another bad guy in a sea of bad guys, but since the film is supposed to be about British atrocities he gets the special distinction of looking the part (unlike the rest of the characters). He finds himself repeatedly beaten by Amitabh...always in a funny way, of course...Moti even pees on his head, which would be a tasteless scene if the rest of the movie weren't already so monumentally trashy.
The movie never seems to know exactly what it's doing next...it's like a blind man driving down a twisty mountain road, always in danger of going over the side and bursting into a fireball of death. "Mard" bursts into a fireball at pretty much every corner, but is interspersed with long comic routines and strange, seemingly unrelated moments of exposition. There's an extremely long scene where a drunken Amitabh tries to convince a statue of Lord Curzon to let his horse marry Badal, and another equally long "mirror routine" of a kind that you've surely seen before...and I bet you've seen it done better, too.
It's an entertaining film. The soundtrack is excellent and Amitabh plays his macho role to the hilt, and the sets and costumes are garish and fabulous. But if you're looking for a touching romance, a gripping historical drama, or subtle characterization...well, you'd better look elsewhere, 'cause it ain't here. Mard's reason for being is to keep you fascinated and interested until the very last second, and if nothing else it manages to do that.