In the world of underappreciated Indian films, Youtube spelunking often leads to treasures. Years ago, while looking for cabaret songs by one of my favorite 1970s and 80s stars (Rekha, seen frequently on The Gutter), I happened across a number from Chehre Pe Chehra, an adaptation of…. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which, if you ask me, had probably always needed one. I haven’t read the original, but the whole concept seems so well-suited to mainstream Hindi cinema treatment: a cautionary tale about being your own cackling villain or long-lost badly-behaved sibling!
In reading up on the original source material, I realized that the story is so ingrained in mainstream western culture that many of us now don’t think about the story as a mystery, which of course it must have been originally—no one knows who this horrible Mr. Hyde is. For modern readers and viewers, the appeal is more in watching the dual natures of this person duke it out for control.
Hindi cinema’s love of brothers, particularly twins, is vast, and Stevenson’s story is an interesting tweak of that element. Film plots about two two distinct but deeply connected personalities usually involve two people who have been separated by politics, villainy, or misfortune, an analogy to the violent upheaval of the Partition of India and Pakistan by Britain in 1947. Chehre Pe Chehra (1981) is a fascinating inversion: one person fracturing into two. To me, this could be read as commentary on contemporary choices or events that threaten the identity and functionality of Indian masculinity, embodied at arm’s length in an atypical male lead (more on that in a minute)—or even just a general hand-wringing about “What have we become?”, a concern that frankly still resonates too well in the world’s biggest democracies (as I write this, photos of monstrous right-wing M*di and Tr*mp embracing are in the news). Rational progress, represented by Wilson’s scientific profession, is no longer the certain shining light it was for heroes in films from the first decades of India’s independence. A main character is called “Wilson” caught my attention too; there are very few lead men characters played by an Indian actor with a name this Anglo (whereas Portuguese names are common among characters depicted as Christian or living in Goa—Anthonys and D’Souzas abound). I wonder if the filmmakers intended it to underscore Wilson as a cautionary symbol of western interference, someone without the necessary cultural moral compass to steer his scientific work in a helpful, appropriate direction.
Inhabiting these two endangered natures is Sanjeev Kumar, an actor that many Hindi cinema fans revere for nuanced portrayals in thoughtful dramas. This particular performance…is not one of those. The friend with whom I first watched this film describes it as “ACT!ING!” As the good Dr. Wilson and the evil Mr. Blackstone, Kumar gets to be both self-righteous and bananas, and I genuinely enjoy it. Dr. Wilson is a surgeon who also experiments in his lab to make a formula to isolate the evil aspects of a human and then tests it out on himself with the expected fantastic results.
Mr. Blackstone—whom my friend and I both thought was named “Black Stew” at first, such is Kumar’s enthusiastic but weird pronunciation—initially appears just to be a slightly uglier, wilder version of Wilson, including green fingernails, a pompadour, and a curious fashion sense (complete with the telltale cane).
Who is this Dr. Wilson who is able to so thoroughly inhabit such a disgusting facet of himself? He’s not exactly the upstanding fellow often seen as Bollywood heroes. He works hard as a surgeon and pharmaceutical researcher and probably means well towards humankind, but he’s not at all perfect: he constantly misses appointments with friends, his parents are dead (“To lose one parent, Dr. Wilson, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness” is very relevant to Hindi cinema) and, most unsettling, he’s an atheist. This sets up some juicy sniping between Wilson and his friend David about the hubris of Wilson’s theory that science can reshape and control humans’ complicated natures.
One night, Wilson runs into dancer (and possibly sex worker) Daisy (Rekha), who convinces him to come back to her house to treat a bruise she has received at the hands of someone who doesn’t approve of her line of work. He follows her to her bedroom, where she neatly de-robes from her dancing outfit and slips under the covers…and they smooch!
I couldn’t believe it! Wilson proceeds to give David some line about how he shouldn’t refuse if his patients feel better in his presence, to which David replies “Come on, shut up, buddy.” At the end of the film, it seems that the whole town is sad about what Wilson has done to himself, but I have no idea why. He doesn’t seem notably likable—and more importantly, it doesn’t seem like his bad sides were ever all that deeply buried or under control. Wilson is a lot more id than the average film hero.
The rest of the story unfolds as expected. Wilson tries to balance his time as Blackstone, but the evil gains more and more power. The makeup and wardrobe crew deserve lots of points for how well they physically depict Blackstone’s increasing badness—he gets uglier and wilder by the day. His hair gets bigger, his eyebrows shaggier, his teeth more raggedy and fang-like, his skin greener and more mottled.
Kumar ups the deep, raspy voice as his monstrosity increases, and, when he isn’t ACT!ING!, it’s a fairly effective, if silly, performance. I know I’m being a little hard on him, but this isn’t the first time I’ve seen him devour the scenery. But it’s probably hard to refrain from histrionics when you have to strangle yourself in a good-vs-evil, man-vs-self smackdown (see part of this sequence it at about 1 hour 25 minutes here).
Instead, I should be grateful for his hamminess. Chehre Pe Chehra offers several top-notch freakouts full of dramatics, and, along with Rekha’s saucy dancing, they’re the best part of the film. If Kumar and the makeup people hadn’t gone all out, this movie wouldn’t be half as good.
Most of Blackstone’s victims are all either women or people connected to the women in his life, which indicates a frowning attitude towards sexuality and props up Bollywood-typical gender-specific results of certain behaviors. For example, you can guess that the woman who kisses other people’s fiancés and lets audience members unzip her dress and wiggles out of it on stage is also the monster’s target of violence.
Blackstone is just as fond of Daisy as Wilson was, and her cabaret is the first place he goes when he transforms. Daisy, wisely, is horrified and seeks help from her friend Dr. Wilson. Hindi Movie Irony Bell goes CLANG!
Poor Daisy also has romantic intentions towards Dr. Wilson, but unfortunately confiding in him seems to threaten Blackstone too much for comfort. As for Wilson’s socially acceptable romance, his fiancée Diana doesn’t do much other than cry and shriek. He all but abandons her when cavorting as Blackstone. After realizing that violence, blood, and lusty situations set off his transformation into Blackstone, he eventually tries to seek a cure in her good and innocent presence. We know how that will go.
The mystery aspect is handled by an admirable triumvirate of Bollywood stalwarts: Wilson’s friends David (Vinod Mehra), Dr. Sinha (Shatrughan Sinha), and Carlos (Amjad Khan), who even bring in the cops to help figure out who killed the victims. Khan, an excellent actor best remembered as the villain of the century in the classic film Sholay,is really endearing as a cuddly, pitiable blind patient of Wilson’s who becomes bonded to Blackstone by a tragic event.
Despite the big cast, most of the film’s energy is spent on Kumar’s various performances. This might keep plot threads from getting too messy, but it also makes the film less relatable than it could have been. Providing Wilson with a family context would have given him a depth that the lone scientist lacked and provided emotional energy to his descent and eventual loss. As is, the ending felt chilly, a church full of people trying to get me to mourn the demise of someone who had long ago proved himself a less than ideal individual and community member. The image of Wilson as a bit of an interloper or dangerous misfit is hard to ignore.
Curiously, the conventions and constrictions of Victorian Britain in the original are not conspicuously drawn on or played off of in this transplant, and I’m kind of surprised there wasn’t an overbearing mother who tried to mold Wilson into a marriage he didn’t want or a wife who nagged him about duties to home and hearth, just to give his Hyde-self something to rejoice in abandoning. Those omissions probably saved the film from going overboard, and, except for the solitude of Wilson, the resulting project is generally satisfying in how it meets most of the marks you’d expect of a 70s Bollywood take on the idea of “the villain within.”
To end, here is the filmmaker’s message for us all. Friends, go forth and defeat your inner evil!
Chehre Pe Chehra is on Youtube with English subtitles.
Beth Watkins does not advise drinking smoking formulas out of beakers.