Ashanti


Director: Umesh Mehra
Music: R.D. Burman; Lyrics: Anand Bakshi
Year: 1982
Running Time: 2 hrs 41 minutes

A one-legged cop, two dead mothers and three kung fu kicking babes. No, not a Bollywood Christmas carol, but just some of the fun bits in this crazy action film from 1982. It’s my firm opinion that Bollywood has neither enough dead mothers nor fighting femmes so it’s quite rewarding to come across so much of it in one film. In the world of Indian movies mothers are elevated to a state of godliness in which they can do no wrong and that can get so annoying after a while - so getting the opportunity to watch two of them kick the bucket under unusual melodramatic circumstances made my day.  But nothing compared to the pleasure of seeing three females doing spins, somersaults, karate chops and kicks to the heads of lots of bad guys.

Having immersed myself in Hong Kong films over the past five years, one of the aspects of them that I have really come to appreciate are the very strong female characterizations whether it be a Brigitte Lin as the imperious Asia the Invincible or Carina Lau as a tough bar hostess who would just as soon bust a bottle over your head as not in “Girls without Tomorrow”. But what really sets cinematic women apart in Hong Kong from any other film industry is their willingness to let them go toe to toe physically with any man or group of men – a genre that took on the name of “Girls with Guns” in the 1980’s but which had roots going back to the 1930s and has consisted of literally hundreds of films that spawned many female action stars such as Michelle Yeoh, Angela Mao, Moon Lee and Yukari Oshima.  Bollywood has no such tradition sadly. Women characterizations can certainly be strong – but they generally fall into stereotypical roles such as the strong-willed mother, the conniving vamp or the heroine who will sacrifice for her man – but rarely does a woman take a bottle to a man’s head. They would rather dance than fight. There are a few exceptions that I have come across – Zeenat Aman as a revenge seeking babe in “Don” and Kareena Kapoor as a warrior queen in “Asoka” – but they are few and far between and certainly no actresses train specifically for action films or use them as an entrée into the industry as they did in Hong Kong. But here we have the pleasure of three lovely actresses doing their best to be nearly convincing in this action mayhem film – with the help needless to say of many stunt doubles!
Parveen Babi, Shabana Azmi, Rajesh Khanna and Zeenat Aman
Four men break into a bank and take off in car and start giving each the high fives when they notice that police officer Rajesh Khanna is right behind them. After a pretty terrific car chase through the streets of Bombay, he forces their car to turn over and chases one of them into a game arcade where Rajesh does a pretty good Dirty Harry imitation and beats the fellow senseless and turns to the onlookers and says “you heard him confess right”. The bad guys get back at him though by having the beautiful Shabana Azmi show up at his house – with his mother happily assuming this is his fiancé – to try to bribe him into letting the guy he captured go – when he of course declines, she plants some of the bank loot behind his couch. Later the cops show up, find the money, arrest him and send him off to jail for three years. Oh, and his mother keels over from a heart attack and dies when he is charged. One mother down.
Three years later he has grown a beard and is still pissed about his dead mom and starts going after the gang that set him up – torturing one guy by electrocuting him – but when he tracks them down at a junk car lot – he makes the mistake of having a car dropped on top of him and crushing his leg. With one leg useless, the bad guys must assume he is no longer a danger – big mistake – they clearly don’t realize that a crutch can do double duty as a rifle and that an artificial leg can be used to club a man to death – he is more lethal than ever – though to my disappointment unlike the Japanese film, "Gun Crazy", the artificial leg wasn’t really a bazooka! Really angry that he now won’t be able to dance in the musical sequences, he drags himself out of the hospital bed and goes looking for one-legged justice – with his leg often falling off – and he tracks down Shabana. She helps him retrieve his leg – the darn thing fell off again – and tells him how sorry she was but that she had no choice – they had drugged her and taken pictures of her nude body and forced her to do this dastardly deed – after asking first to see the pictures Rajesh recruits her to get back at these men.
Let’s bring the two other females into the story. Zeenat Aman is a nightclub performer whose boyfriend sells cocaine for this same group of thugs – but one night they think he is double-crossing them and so come for the both of them. Fortunately for her, Rajesh and Shabana knock her out first and gag her – but the gang tracks down the boyfriend to the house of a buddy’s and take them both prisoner. On to this scene creeps the buddy’s sister, Parveen Babi, who starts a ruckus by knocking out some of the bad guys, but in the ensuing mêlée both guys are shot and Parveen is chased down the beach by the legendary bad guy Bob Christo! She actually has his number until he uses a tranquilizer dart to her posterior. She is saved only by a drunk, Mithun Chakravorty, who is annoyed by all the noise. He carries her back to his shack and passes out in a stupor with her in his bed – and the next morning is angry to find Parveen sleeping there next to him! What the hell – angry to find her in his bed and kicks her out – clearly he has a major drinking problem – most men spend much of their lives trying to figure out ways to get women like Parveen into their beds! Later she goes back to her house to find her brother dead – and when her mother comes down the steps she too sees her dead son and naturally falls down the stairs and dies! Dead mother number two! A bad day for Parveen though – first waking up next to Mithun, then being rejected by a drunk and then finding a dead brother and a soon to be dead mother. Normally you would say she should have stayed in bed that day - but not with Mithun in it!
She too joins the band of Rajesh, Shabana and Zeenat – and after a whole week of training in fire arms and karate, they are ready to go after the band of bad guys. Soon Mithun joins them and oddly a group that consists of a one legged man, a drunk and three voluptuous women throw fear and dread into the gang. First they take on a kitchen full of transvestite cooks, then battle the bad guys in a warehouse to rescue two kids – in which at one point Zeenat jumps from the third level on to a high bar down below, does a few flips around to gain velocity and throws herself through a glass plate window to knock down one guy – just think if she had practiced for two weeks! Later the three babes dress up in traditional garb to perform at an outdoor fair in hopes of being sold into prostitution – in which they sing provocatively:

Even if you eat me a little
You will be in difficulty
Don’t say I didn’t warn you
I am a chilly from Kolhapur

They all manage to find themselves in the castle of the major baddie – played with his usual subtle eye-popping badness by Amrish Puri who is intent on spreading chaos in India because they took his kingdom away from him. Another major brouhaha follows. A lot of this isn’t that well executed but its so much silly fun. During the fight Rajesh takes off his leg to use to hit someone, but somehow still manages to walk - a mysterious third leg perhaps?

It is an interesting cast made of newcomers who were to make it big and stars that were very much on the wane. Rajesh was a huge star in the early 70’s – the first to be anointed as a super star by the media – but by the 80’s he was grasping for any role and making friends with the bottle. Both Zeenat and Parveen were teetering at the far edge of their careers as well as new younger actresses were coming into film. During the 1970’s Zeenat and Parvani had been rivals of a sort – both with the same sultry looks and both often playing characters who broke the traditional good female role by being part vamp and part heroine and all sex. They also often co-starred with Amitabh Bachchan in his less serious outings like "Shaan", "Don" and "The Great Gambler". Parveen never quite made it to the star status that Zeenat did – sometimes referred to as a poor man’s Zeenat – but they both had their fan base who had nothing nice to say about the other actress and at one point she made it to the cover of Time magazine. Though Zeenat is a favorite of mine I have to admit by the time of this film, she was starting to lose her luster and appears a bit bloated with way too much rouge applied while Parveen still looks great. To read more about Parveen check out this page.
Mithun’s career was just taking off and in this same year he was to reach stardom with the classically bad film, “Disco Dancer” that created a disco rage at the time. The stunning Shabana actually never made it that big in Bollywood but has had a legendary career in what is termed the “parallel” cinema – i.e. serious non-musical films – in 2002 the New York Film Festival paid tribute to her – and she has gained much acclaim (and criticism from the power structure) for her work for social justice – crusading for the poor, for women rights and for religious tolerance. Why she choose to appear in this film in the same year she made the classic “Aarth” is perplexing (but I am glad she did!) but certainly many actors in the parallel cinema often jump occasionally to Bollywood for the high salaries so that they can afford to act in theater and serious fare.
I don’t want to mislead anyone into think this is a good film per se – but many of these action films made in Bollywood during the 70’s and 80’s are simply over the top fun in which every punch has the sound of a firecracker, people constantly are flying in all directions and in the end the good guys are always victorious. This is one of those. Though this is an action film, there is always time to stop the killing and dance and this has five musical interludes but the music from R.D. Burman isn't up to his usual standards and won't stick in your mind for long.

My rating for this film: 6.5

Song 1

Song 2