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Bollywood B-Movie Espionage Delight: Elaan

Elaan may be the most fantastic and under-appreciated movie of 1971. It’s exactly the kind of film I live in fear of running out of someday: loony, exuberant, stylish, exciting, and fun. It might not exactly count as an example of standard Hindi cinema mix of action, comedy, and emotion because, despite a murdered father and a convincing love story, it doesn’t worry too much about the heart. It also lacks any notable moral stance or philosophical lesson about parents, patriotism, or poverty. Fortunately, it has many of my favorite features of 1970s masala films: espionage, action, sparkles, wild decor, and a disregard for science. It’s delightful.

Naresh (Vinod Mehra, last seen on The Gutter as one of the snake-prey doofuses in Nagin) is a newspaper photojournalist-turned-spy who works for the father of his lady love Mala (Rekha, also one of the stars of that film). At the boss’s request, Naresh goes on the trail of a missing colleague, Shyam. Dismissing the idea of Shyam disappearing into a haunted house, they decide some more mundane evil must be at play. Naresh is all set to go but Mala complains that he has to come with her on a picnic tomorrow because her friends are demanding to meet him. The boss is quite aware of what kind of movie he’s in and is glad to give Naresh an extra day to have a fun musical number in a park, with a parade of backing dancers in psychedelic tunics and candy-colored bell bottoms.

Shyam (played by the actor who in my opinion is Bollywood’s best comic sidekick of all time, Rajendra Nath), wearing a very fake-looking mustache, is hard at work under cover at a poolside bar, apparently being surveilled much more than he is surveilling. They reach the haunted island from which no one ever returns and are quickly imprisoned and tortured. The torture device is worth noting: they’re belted to spinning pillars and flooded with colored lights, which seems to render them disoriented rather than talkative.This yields nothing but true answers from our journalists, and the film cuts to a fabulous song featuring legendary dancer Helen as Lily, dressed first as a matador and then a Swiss miss in a mathematical apron, singing about how she’s 8 + 8 + 2 years old and ready for love. It’s a bit like “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” if the gazebo were exploded into a mirrored nightclub and filled with stoned extras.

Naresh leaves Shyam to distract the party guests and goes exploring, quickly finding one of those hangar-type rooms full of guys in hard hats, guns, and crates of gold. He is spotted and locked up in a jail with Ramsingh (Vinod Khanna) and an ailing scientist.When you meet a scientist in a movie like this, you can be sure he’ll know something important, and lo: the villains imprisoned him when he refused to give up his top atomic research project, a ring that turns people invisible only in the following conditions:

The scientist gives Naresh the ring, bidding him to use it to aid humanity. And in the nick of time, too: about to face a firing squad, Naresh asks to leave the world as naked as the day he was born and vanishes. A great series of antics with invisible Naresh follows as the journalists escape: rustling plants indicate his path, motorcycles drive on their own, and guards are strangled by nothing.

Back on land, Naresh and Shyam help the police figure it who assassinated Mala’s father (it was the gang, of course), but Mala is a step ahead: she has joined the Central Bureau of Investigation, been given a watch with a transmitter, and is out for revenge. 

Of course, the moment your girlfriend joins the resistance, it’s time to go undercover to another nightclub to see Lily again. This one is cave-like with fluorescent skulls and snakes and little pigs holding candy canes. (I’ve seen this club in other movies, so I assume it’s a real place that the filmmakers happened to use in the run-up to Christmas.)

Lily and Ramsingh are tasked with finding the ring, and super agent Miss Mary from Delhi joins the gang with some counterfeiting machinery. From there, any plot summary would get spoiler-y, but rest assured there is more dancing, more fighting, and more invisibility ahead.

Straight talk: there are a lot of fun details in Elaan, but the number one feature of it is the atomic invisibility ring. This is exactly the flavor of creativity I like and that merits this film’s appearance on The Gutter. I like that invisibility is treated as unquestionably scientific rather than a superpower, and I love the extra step of weirdness involved in users having to hold the ring in their mouths and be naked for it to work. Other than the potential hilarity of people having to strip to escape or to reappear inconveniently unclothed, there’s no reason for this detail, but it gives the story that much more complexity. It lets the narrative switch from regular dialogue to voice over when Naresh is unobserved. It makes an appearance in a song with Mala (who knows about its powers), and watching Rekha flirt with an invisible target is a treat. The covers on the bed are pulled back and pillows tossed around, but Naresh materializes before touching her, keeping the number playful rather than creepy. There’s a cute sequence when Naresh has to steal clothes from a busy city shop before he can reappear. None of this is necessary, but there’s so much more goofiness and glee because of the ring than there would have been without a similar device.

Another strength of Elaan is its superb cast. Chief villain Verma (Madan Puri, left in the photo above and brother of Temple of Doom villain Amrish Puri) can do this kind of thing in his sleep but seems to be having a grand time, especially in a rare comic sequence when he thinks he has the powers of the ring but doesn’t. Sub-baddie Vinod Khanna, an actor who got his start as a villain before becoming a major heartthrob, snarls deliciously and makes a great romantic pair with Helen, who has a full role here instead of just dancing. I love it when films un-pigeon hole performers of her caliber. Bollywood fight director Shetty, who here plays the torture czar, also gets a lot more lines and action than his usual turn as a one-scene heavy.

There is nothing not to love about this movie, and there is never a dull moment. Likable, competent hero. Charming, stylish, confident heroine with her own story, decisions, and tasks to accomplish. Lots of bad guys, including one who abandon prior alliances to get what he wants. Eye candy for everyone. Lots of lewks.
 
Silly pseudo-science. Fights that crash through props. Fabulous songs and background score. Lots of booze. And the lair! At first it seems like a standard decadent mansion, bedecked as it is with all manner of gaudy art and furnishings, but all this froo-froo is staffed by zoned-out white ladies and connected, no doubt by underground passageways, to a command center full of bleep-bloop communications equipment, secret entrances, and torture devices. In addition to the spinning poles mentioned earlier, there are menacing pincers that can give a nasty shock.

It’s just all so very, very fun. Starting even with its opening credits, in which Rekha screams for about three minutes straight as her out-of-control horse races down the beach and the geometry of images and text changes endlessly, Elaan is a rollicking good time.

Apparently director K. Ramanlal never made another film, instead returning to his multi-decade career as camera crew. This is a huge shame. Elaan is gleeful and exciting. It has great visual interest, a crisp pace, lively performances, and groovy music. Elaan is streaming with subtitles on Netflix and for rent on Youtube for $1.99Drink up!

~~~

Beth Watkins learned all her dance moves from Helen.

 

 

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