Screen

Queen of Beauty, King of Thieves

I don’t know if the people responsible for this film were trying to make a throwback to the 1970s, but that’s sure how Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja seems to me. That they succeeded is one of the highest cinematic compliments I can give. Plot intricacies, big dramas and ironies, heart-squishing emotions, appropriate acting, fun songs, humor, plenty to look at, and a heartfelt sense of ‘WHEEEEE!” underscoring pretty much everything in the film make RKRCKR one of the best Hindi films of the 1990s I’ve seen. Admittedly I may have a special place in my heart for these genre misfits, but to me this film is fantastic. It tanked badly at its release in 1993, but when have we at The Gutter ever cared about box office?

The Plot 

This story was dreamed up by Javed Akhtar, a legendary writer in Hindi cinema (seen on The Gutter in Shaan). Akhtar is responsible for the screenplays and/or lyrics in a slew of Hindi cinema’s most beloved films, and he is absolutely the right person to create a world of torn and mended relationships, generational revenge, and criminals with hearts of gold. 

The Leads 

Simmi (Sridevi) was orphaned as a child when her father was killed by arch-villain Jugran (Anupam Kher) and her mother had a breakdown upon seeing his corpse. In the orphanage, she is befriended by Ramesh (Anil Kapoor), whose father, a customs officer investigating diamond smuggling, was also killed by Jugran. Ramesh is old enough to recognize his mother, sister, and brother (Ravi, a police officer played by Jackie Shroff when grown), but it takes awhile for him to encounter them. Fortunately, dad had given both brothers a special token, a lock and key, cementing their brotherhood by saying each was useless without the other. (And the sister…well who cares about girls, I guess?) As adults, Simmi and Ramesh meet again, this time under the new names Seema and Romeo. Jugran, meanwhile, has been pretending to be his own twin brother, the upstanding Manmohan, whom in reality he long ago killed, as a cover for his nefarious deeds. All of these threads come together exactly as you assume they would, with no one recognizing each other at first and all having their own reasons to use each other to get to Jugran.

Stars Sridevi and Anil Kapoor both debuted as leads in Hindi films during the peak of the masala era, so it’s easy to assume that as young performers they were heavily influenced by this type of filmmaking and knew how to bring the right spirit to their roles. Sridevi is empathetic, intrepid, and funny as a thief and self-proclaimed “queen of beauty” in “the fashion and modeling world.” (Why does she not include “music” among her credits when all we see her do is dance and sing—and, more importantly, act—rather than go to photo shoots?) Sridevi is really funny. Yes, she bugs out her eyes a lot, but somehow it works, I think because her character is portrayed as so competent, mature, and relatively complex. Her comedy is also usually part of a con, meaning that she’s doing it as part of a way to one-up somebody—so she only seems cutesy and ditzy.

Anil Kapoor is smooth, tough, and clever as safe-cracker Ramesh, aka, Romeo. Their chemistry is funny and affectionate and steamy, which is a fairly rare combination in Hindi cinema, where romantic pairs are not always given the chance to try comic scenes or lighter notes of emotion. Both of these actors give their characters a sadness befitting their backstories. The demonstrate how the characters are in tune with their inner mushiness, and their reunion, which is surprisingly early in the film, is very sweet. Seema and Romeo mean the world to each other, and the fact that they can join forces in a common cause is just icing on the cake.

Anupam Kher is not my favorite villain actor of this era, but I like what he did with Jugran. I also really like what he was given to work with—as usual, it pays to have such an expert doing the script—and he plays Jugran’s eccentricities just this side of ridiculous, leaving him weird and unhinged, but not completely laughable. For example, Jugran has a thing for turtles, so much so that one of the bars in his glitzy lair has turtles painted on the walls. Jugran also dresses like an overly fussy symphony conductor, waving around a baton, and, like many of the best villains, he has a multi-purpose catchphrase, “shaitan ki kasam” (“I swear by Satan”), which he uses at every opportunity.

The remaining cast is pretty fun too. Jackie Shroff, another significant leading man of the era, is surprisingly dull but sufficiently likable as Ravi, and he gets in a good moment of OTT acting when he shares with Romeo the truth of their tie to Jugran.

There is little I find more satisfying in a film like this than actors who are so overwhelmed with melodrama that they have to grasp furniture or walls for support. 

Bob Christo, one of the great “who’s this random white dude” actors of Indian cinema, is on hand as a cheesy business associate of Jugran. Christo had the kind of beefy build that meant it was very unlikely that most heroes could have beaten him up, so it was all the more impressive and when they did (even though they almost always did), and he had a full career of being the loser in hero-building physical confrontations. I couldn’t get a passable screencap of it, but in the fight scene, he bursts through a stack of cardboard boxes sounding for all the world like a kid making noises for a toy T-rex. RAWR! STOMP! This happens on screen in less time than I’ve taken to describe it, but it’s still a gem of a moment.

If you need some escapist reading during the long winter ahead of us, his autobiography Flashback: My Life and Times in Bollywood and Beyond, is a fascinating look at an international life and seizing opportunities.

Even odious comic relief Johnny Lever is in top form. As a cop who works with Ravi, his main task is to be shown in the proximity of movie ephemera and imitating the stars depicted.

The Pigeon

Jango the pigeon is incredible—and seriously short-changed by not getting the standard appellation “Wonder Bird” like the falcon Sheroo we discussed earlier in the year). He can carry messages, steal diamonds, memorize license plates and then repeat them to humans by pecking at numbers on a table, attack villains, and save his people from certain death as Jugran dangles them over a vat of acid. He even has appropriate theme music, a little flute-y line that accompanies his feats. (Romeo also has other birds, including ones named after famous Bollywood villains, but they are shown only in passing.) While rewatching RKRCKR to write this piece, I noticed that child Simmi and Rajesh happily run through the flock of pigeons that famously throngs a plaza in the Bombay seafront. That’s the kind of film this is: everything is connected. 

The Songs

The Laxmikant-Pyarelal songs are impressive, perhaps more visually than musically, but still. To name but a few enticements: Sridevi falls out of a cake before singing with four other versions of herself, none of which are repeated in the song’s many costume changes. Seema’s introduction song is, “Main Hoon Roop Ki Rani” (start at 37:20 here). Anil shakes a black pleather trouser-clad leg rather impressively in Ramesh’s introduction song (“Romeo Naam Mera”). Both leads do some romancing in the rain, thereby presenting an excuse for a wet sari (“Jaanewale Zara Ruk Ja”). And there’s a giant golden Egyptian set for an angry dance of revenge (“Dushman Dil Ka”), in which Sridevi pouts and stomps impressively. I especially love the rap under the titles, which mixes up visual elements from throughout the film into a James Bond-like song with lots of backlighting of women in spandex leaping around. There is a song sequence in this film that has both blackface and East Asian visual stereotyping played for comedy during an otherwise interesting number highlighting the use of magic by the two thieves, and I dearly hope that it will be cut from any subsequent releases.  (Currently, many of these songs are not on Youtube in standalone uploads, but you can find them by skimming through uploads of the entire film).

The Costumes

This isn’t at all a scary movie, but it does have a Halloween store’s worth of outfits. Centering a film on two thieves who pull cons and perform large stage numbers is a great excuse to let the wardrobe department run wild. But let’s show, not tell. 

The Lair

You know how I love villain lairs (see my piece on Bollywood songs in lairs on The Gutter from a few years ago), and RKRCKR does not disappoint. Jugran really has two: as Manmohan, he has a glitzy mansion, but as Jugran he has something more in line with truly evil purposes. It’s very hard to see in these pictures, but there is a long striped tunnel whose mouth at one end includes a ring of little flames (maybe evoking a  Nataraja statue?) and the other a gaudily decorated dressing room in which his big black cape hangs. The main room appears to be this multi-story wonder that includes light-up stairs, horse busts, red waterfalls, and female guards in silver headbands and go-go boots. Unfortunately, there is no death trap; Jugran’s method of dealing with those who disappoint him is much more direct.

Watch It!

Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja is available  with English subtitles at this link. (As of this posting, it is also streaming on Amazon in some countries, though not the US.)

~~~

Beth Watkins, overcome by melodrama, supports herself by turning to a wall painted with sparkly turtle murals.

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