If you don’t buy your drugs from an egomaniacal man in an orange wig, raspberry bow tie, pink ruffled tuxedo shirt, and sunglasses fitted with a metal nose cover, you’re doing it wrong.
Charas is a fantastic example of what 1970s Hindi cinema does so well: packing a film with plot, action, romance, music, and visual stimulation while always keeping the entertainment knob cranked up to 11. This particular example is sleek in a way that some of its contemporaries are not, wasting no energy on unfunny comedy tracks or tiresome preaching. As much as I love the byzantine complications of directors like Manmohan Desai, it’s surprising to see something as full of goodies as Charas is that somehow remains lean.
The creative crew of Charas really deserve most of the praise; while the cast is very good, it’s the creation and combination of all the fairly standard masala-film ingredients that make this film a standout. Writer/director Ramanand Sagar made a variety of films; Ankhen, a globe-trotting spy thriller, is similar in tone and scope to this one, but his remake of Jane Eyre is weepy (side note: in terms of cultural modifications, it’s hard to top Jane and Rochester growing up as childhood friends and Jane being a devotee in a temple to Shiva).
The plot is fairly standard and executed flawlessly. Kalicharan (played by legendary Bollywood villain Ajit) leads a group of smugglers in international drug-dealing and has blackmailed Sudha (Hema Malini, known as “the dream girl”) into helping him. Suraj (Dharmendra, who adds an extra dose of sparkling fun to his role), the son of one of the someone Kalicharan betrayed early in the film, becomes a police officer to stop him.
The film’s one detour into morals is not about drugs but female chastity, but it blames not the victims but the men who enslave them. In some films, if the hero’s sister is kidnapped by the villains and forced to dance at a nightclub, she might bemoan her lack of worth as a human being and then get killed, as though the writers agree that she’s now disposable. In Charas, Nimmu (Aruna Irani) and Suraj have a loving, judgment-free reunion, an inclusive spin on the more typical brothers-only reunions that Bollywood loves so much. Another dancer rallies for the fight for freedom, for the sake of all women who have been forced into similar lives. The villain treats women as he does drugs: capital. He has no interest in the sensual pleasures of the crime he commits—he just wants the money or whatever advancement of his plans they can offer. He’s a very bad man, but he is more simply pragmatic and greedy than he is debauched or threatening to moral order or integrity.
Charas is not frequently included in lists of great films of the 1970s, but there is at least one feature that makes it unique to historians. It is the debut of the finest of India’s white-guy character actors, Tom Alter, who grew up in India, learned Hindi as a child, and studied at the Film and Television Institute of India, the alma mater of art-house legends like Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, and Om Puri. Alter often, though not always, had roles as henchmen and English oppressors, but in Charas he is fully on the side of right and legitimacy, working with the hero almost as a brother to defeat the villains. Even in Bollywood films set in Europe or North America, white extras are rarely as positive or integral as this character is. For example, the recent film Dhoom 3, set in Chicago (and taking its own crack at Blue Brothers-style car chases through downtown), features a white American police officer working with the Indian cops who have been flown over to help track the criminal mastermind who leaves clues in Hindi, but she does next to nothing.
Another spectacular element of Charas is its musical numbers. The enters the film from the head of a sphinx in the wonderful Egyptian-themed number “Mera Naam Ballerina.” There’s no connection made among ballet, flamenco, belly dancing, ancient Egypt, or any of the other aesthetic references in the song, but who cares! As if in retort to the good girl’s big song, there are two songs in the villains’ nightclub in their property in Malta. This is one of the best nightclub sets in all of Bollywood, crammed to the gills with sea creatures and fishing props, as well a giant eye that opens into a back room for spying. The blood-red entrance is a giant shark mouth, complete with two other little fish inside it. There are lava vents, giant anchors, and seahorses and frogs with light-bulb eyes.
There’s a smattering of religion in Charas, with Catholic statues and crucifixes as the object of address by the hero and heroine. This sort of direct communication with the divine happens in Bollywood all the time but it’s usually to Hindu deities at shrines or temples. This is a smart link between what film characters typically do and an honoring of the chosen setting. It also quietly suggested an attitude about the universality of the divine and the power of prayer that I wasn’t expecting.
At times, the sunny European locales and the emphasis on the crime (as well as a certain helicopter stunt) give Charas a James Bond feel. Certainly a chase over winding hilly streets helped, as did the island depot/lair that the smugglers use as the final stop for their crates of drugs, full of stalactites, machinery, and flooded floors. I also really liked how some of these shots were designed, with exciting diagonals and room to show the action from interesting angles.
I love this movie in all its mid-70s streamlined masala glory! Despite all of this and more—a taxidermied tiger that seems to be in all Hindi films of this vintage, a transmitter hidden in a watermelon, a hit man with a prosthetic scar that won’t consistently stay stuck to his face who says “When I kill them, they stay dead!”—Charas is consistently focused on momentum rather than tangled breadth. It’s as though both the real people making the film and the characters in it never forgot that they were trying to outwit each other before the clock ran out.
Beth Watkins obviously lives in a lair with a giant shark mouth as an entrance.
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