I have been meaning to do a “Masters of Horror” series at RTDM for a long time, with the focus being superlative Indian horror movie directors like Mohan Bhakri, Rajkumar Kohli, the Ramsays, Kanti Shah and many others. The way I want to go about this is by profiling one movie of each of these masters of the craft. In this post, I look at the art of Rajkumar Kohli by profiling Jaani Dushman (1979), one of the first superhit horror movies in the pre-80s. Depending on audience interest and of course time I hope to continue this series subsequently.
Jaani Dushman begins with a marvelously constructed horror set-piece, establishing the mood for this deeply disturbing cinematic classic. A comely, newly-married bride is traveling with her husband in a car when she turns around and finds three big-ass cigarettes sticking out from his lips. In order to clarify that he is not making any sexual innuendo, he explains to his wife that the reason he is puffing three fags at once is so that the smoke from the three cigarettes would obscure him from the driver such that the driver will not see him kiss his new dulhan, which presumably he plans to do with the three cigarettes still in his mouth. The camera then pans out to show a vision of evil, one that will make the audience shake in their seats. Driving the car is Mac Mohan with a sinister smile on his lips and before you can wonder what is more disquieting—the metaphor of the famous Headless Horseman being suggested by the imagery of a smirking sinister driver or the fact that MacMohan looks *exactly* the same even in movies spanning decades, the car’s tires puncture. And it happens, as these things usually happen, right in front of a haunted haveli, which seems to have been last inhabited round the time there were industries in Bengal. The apprehensive couple go in for the night where Raza Murad (a dead Thakur) talks to them from inside a picture, gives a three minute flashback about how he was poisoned by his wife on his suhaagraat and how he has sworn revenge on all brides in red saris from them on before finally walking away from the frame.
This is when you first get a flavor of Kohli’s craft—his unique ability to throw in a sequence of disjointed shots one after another, almost as if he has a story in mind but just cannot remember it. After such a bizarre sequence , the new couple are sitting in a train compartment where the husband tells his wife to change into something “appropriate for a bride”. She vanishes into the attached room called “toilet” (since railways coupes have attached toilets). The only other passenger in the train is Amrish Puri, reading a book called “The Best Horror Stories”. Obviously, he and the new husband start talking about things that go bump in the night, more specifically how to identify an evil one. Amrish Puri describes, with great scholarly detachment, the symptoms of demonic possession (which he calls “paanch important nishaani” ) —heavy sweating, biting lips, trembling body, non-blinking eyes and a fear of fire—-most of which match suspiciously the symptoms of male arousal.
And then when the wife comes out from the toilet, the terror begins as Kohli’s directorial skills are once again in display. Taking the audience inside the mind of the Devil, he uses his camera to focus in and out, rapidly, on different attractive parts of her anatomy while cutting into shots of Amrish Puri’s eyes bursting out of their sockets. Soon the wildly ogling Amrish turns around, hair spontaneously appears on his back as if he had been spray-painted with industrial-strength quick-grow Rogaine and bingo he has metamorphosed into Anil Kapoor, a hairy vision of Jhakassness. The “bride-hating” demon then dispatches the couple with furious lust and fury and the credits start to roll—-with Kohli slipping a horror card even in that credits sequence with a screen saying “Above all Jeetendra”.
We are then introduced to be a sylvan world in the hills where village belles in fetching blouses and knee-length lehengas run about with some girl-girl bonding being particularly attention-worthy, the menfolk ride horses, thakurs dispense justice and judge gladiatorial contests and pujaris dispense blessings. In other words, a normal village. There is however a terrible curse on it—whenever a village girl is being married (i.e. lifted up in doli) and the doli taken to the temple for the blessings of the village’s god, something strange happens. Gusts are blown by a wind-machine from behind the camera, the villagers run round and round and presto the bride is kidnapped never to be seen again. The rest of the movie then becomes a finely constructed horror-suspense tale—-which, of the many many superstars playing bit roles, is actually the bride-consuming monster in disguise?
The suspects are many. There is Sanjeev Kumar, the Thakur, who grunts his dialogs in typical Sanjeev-Kumar style and rolls on the ground in paroxysms of craziness whenever he sees a red sari. There is his son, Shatrughan Sinha, a psychopath ready to ravish women and laddoos (which he throws skywards before consuming them), his greedy eyes on the voluptuous but cross-dressing Reena Roy but who in turn is pursued by the amorous Rekha. There is Sunil Dutt, a little long-in-the-tooth to play an young man, who is being pursued by Reena Roy and also by the Thakur’s daughter(Bindya Goswami). Then there is the Pujari, played by Premanth, who makes no secrets of his sinister intentions by making faces at the camera and Madan Puri who may have gone blind doing what it is that makes people go blind but also might not be. Sunil Dutt’s sister (Neetu Singh) is being wooed by Jeetendra, whose suspicious tuft of chest hair arouses suspicion as to whether he is the hairy beast. But if hair be the measure of suspicion, then the biggest suspect is spectacularly-hirsute Vinod Mehra, a vagabond shown to have gone mad (possibly because of seeing Rekha flirting with Shatru) who is sometimes found at the scene of the disappearances.
So who dunnit? I will tell you who. Its the director Mr. Kohli. His unique ability is to start off with a large number of sub-plots, develop a few, kill the others and leave the rest as homework assignments for the audience. What establishes the horror of the film is not so much the story of the monster but the totally weird way people react to situations, the abrupt switching between the sub-plots and the abstruse links between them, almost as if the way the movie was made like this (of course it was NOT)—-
Director: “What? Shatru has no dates available? Ok what about Sanjeev Kumar? Very good. Sunil Dutt—he is with us for another day—right? So let’s change the plot so that there is a sequence between the two. What was that? Rekha madam’s secretary called regarding payments? Fine. Cut her out of the story. We pack up in two days flat. Oh right. I forgot. We need to solve the mystery as to who the demon is and that we don’t know yet. Which of the actors can shoot on Wednesday? Ok so make him the demon. What the…! There is no sugar in my tea…how many times have I …”
Oh the horror. Oh the horror.
Kohli would unleash a quasi-sequel to this called Jaani Dushman-Ek Anokhi Kahani (2002) [review], an even greater masterpiece, where he would use exactly the same kind of film-making with similar, perhaps even greater, effect.
But it was this—Jaani Dushman that would become one of the harbingers of the golden age of Hindi horror in the 80s, a time when a bunch of talented directors and visionaries would show a glorious F U to the romantic song-and-dance of Bollywood, a last expression of revolt before the dark horrors of the Johars and the Chopras would overwhelm us all.
[Do read the series on Bollywood horror starting here by one of the greatest horror aficionados I know.]