If you like alien princesses, dance routines in bike shorts, and murder by picnic baskets, this is the film for you!
The late 1980s and early 1990s were a terrible time in Hindi cinema. The explanation I’ve heard is that more and more people owned VCRs and bought or borrowed pirated tapes from local shops, getting their movie fix at home where there were no lines for tickets, prices were cheaper, and snacks were better. The film industry responded by paying less attention to attracting the ever-important family audience, focusing instead on relative gore and raunch to pull in young men. This pattern didn’t last forever, and by the mid-90s, family dramas and big romances returned, looking flashy and grasping at “cool” thanks to the huge influx of foreign brands and cultural influences that followed the nation’s 1991 economic liberalization policy of reduced tariffs and deregulation.
There’s also just the age-old question of never being able to account for taste, particularly as an outsider. I find the Bollywood films of this era broad and garish, unsalvageable even by their soundtracks full of screechy pop. My reactions to this chunk of cinema are unpopular opinions with some of my Indian friends who are my age. Fair enough: no one wants their favorites from their formative years criticized.
What does shine from this era is a handful of the actors. Chandra Mukhi, released in 1993, will introduce you to two of them. Sridevi, who worked in several film industries across India (not just the Hindi films that I usually write about here), is called India’s first female superstar. The sexism of that designation aside, she has a staggering career of almost 300 films, starting at age 4. To me, she is pure magic on screen. She is a remarkable shapeshifter and woman of a thousand faces, particularly in comedy. It’s unfortunately difficult to talk about her appeal without indulging in film industry ickiness: her huge eyes and fluency using a breathy voice gave her that Marilyn-esque ability to fuse girl and woman, and her performances are often a reminder of how the entertainment business tragically makes girls grow up way too fast and forces women to play sexy-dumb.
Opposite her in this film is Salman Khan, an actor whose appeal I’ve never really gotten, frankly, but consists of blending of muscles and man-childishness into innocent, blameless violence. That’s easier to swallow in the early 1990s, when he’s not yet 30, than it is now, when he still plays similar characters at age 52. Taken together, his roles and his off-screen bad behavior create a cautionary tale of why society should not shrug off crimes with “boys will be boys.”
The plot of Chandra Mukhi reminds me of a bunch of movies I’ve seen before—Superman (powerful anthropomorphic alien lands on earth), Big (boy suddenly gains the shape and responsibilities of a man), E.T. (friendly aliens and kids on bikes), but I can’t put my finger on whether that’s the sum effect of several different parts or a single specific film.
Sridevi plays an alien princess who falls to earth as a bad guy Dhola fights her for a magical leaf that is the universe’s source of power. (Don’t quote me on this—without subtitles, all I know for sure is that a big golden leaf is important and that characters say the word for “power” a lot.)
Salman plays Raja, a child who is doted on by his property-owning grandpa but abused by a covetous, evil uncle named Madan and his crew of creepy friends.
Sridevi’s character gives herself a name once she lands: while a tv in Raja’s house plays the 50s version of one of India’s most-filmed stories, Devdas, she overhears the name and takes it for her own. This is an interesting intra-Bollywood nod, especially for a character who presumably has never seen a Bollywood film before. Devdas is a miserable story in which no one is happy, and Chandra Mukhi is the courtesan with a heart of gold and a high tolerance for thankless emotional labor who inexplicably loves the cruel hero. Our Chandra Mukhi has nothing in common with this character beyond generally being good at dancing and stepping up to help the hero, but those traits are found all over popular cinema. I have no idea why the writers make a connection to one of India’s favorite tragedies.
When she sees how horribly Raja is being treated, Chandra Mukhi uses some of her remaining super space powers to turn Raja into a grownup who can defend himself. The two alternately escape from and beat up Madan and his gang. Added to this inheritance-driven threat comes Dhola, still keen on finding the leaf.
There’s also another villain, whom I’ll call Mr Mustache because the print of this film I found didn’t have subtitles, who captures Raja, Chandra Mukhi, and Madan. They outfox him thanks to Chandra Mukhi’s magical powers that make people compliant—plus her excellent dancing skills, of course (yielding a fine addition to Songs Set in Villain Lairs). Mr Mustache duly dispatched, we then meet Mr Decorative Forehead,
in whose hangout she performs another fabulous song, this one with Middle Eastern vibes and the ballooned golden pants to match.
Meanwhile, Madan’s henchlady has knocked grandpa over a cliff with a picnic basket, and Raja’s friends are captured and threatened with a boiling vat of something awful by a guy who could have wandered in off of a sword and sandal set.
We’ve discussed reasons for the relatively small number of SFF films in India before at the Gutter, and Chandra Mukhi must have stood out when it released 25 years ago. Some reviews of this film discuss whether or not Chandra Mukhi should be considered Hindi cinema’s first female superhero, and I’d say that if Clark Kent counts, then she should too. The film incorporates Hinduism less than many other films that assign otherworldly powers to spiritual causes, instead having a sort of complementary track for Raja and his grandfather’s worship of Shiva and the benefit that gives them in the brawl at the finale, which may or may not be conveniently located at a Shiva temple where they may or may not happen to find the god’s giant pointy trident. Chandra Mukhi is depicted as recognizing this power fully, partaking in devotional acts, but she also uses her own alien powers quite effectively throughout, and the hero would certainly have been defeated long before without her interference. They actually make a pretty good evil-fighting partnership, with equal contributions throughout the film, a dynamic I’ve seen very rarely in Bollywood. The performances are the film’s other standout feature. I’ve only seen a handful of Sridevi’s massive filmography, but she is known for this sort of blend of comedy and romance.
The pedophilia aspect of this film—Raja is only 12 or so, and physical intimacy is heavily implied by longing looks, hands running through hair, and a roaring fireplace—is sliiiightly mitigated by her being an alien and thus probably unaware of human behavioral codes (and I don’t think we know how old she is). Given that it was written into the story, Sridevi is the right person to pull it off. She projects appeal as much as cartoon princess as she does as a grown woman.
In the last decade, Salman Khan has settled into a specific form of film hero that is uniquely his own, for better or for worse, but that mold was still far off when he appeared in Chandra Mukhi. His man-child demeanor makes a lot of sense here, and he dances and generally carries himself in ways that combine a kid’s energy and exuberance with an adult’s responsibilities. Grandpa is played by veteran actor Pran, whose long career transitioned from hero to sneering villain to powerful character actor. Pran’s presence is too big to be contained by that term; he’s an industry go-to for a wise elder or semi-retired fierce protector, and here he adds a sort of endearing cuddly side that I haven’t seen much of. The never-ending parade of villains in this film is also completely on point: some of these actors are doing the kind of routine they usually do, but there are just so many of them that the overall effect is really entertaining.
With the combination of these performances, the writers and crew having fun with fantasy elements, and a story with a female lead who drives and contributes equally to the plot, Chandra Mukhi’s holds up as an interesting, unusual experiment. You can catch the stars of Chandra Mukhi in other films on Netflix (with subtitles). Sridevi has a multigenerational double role in Khuda Gawah (1992), a film full of great fur coats and lots of shouting. There are several Salman Khan films available, but of them I would only recommend the effective romance Maine Pyaar Kiya (1989).