Screen

Maha Badmaash

I’ve been watching Bond movies since seeing No Time to Die in the theater—I ACTUALLY WENT TO THE MOVIES!!!—so it’s time to bring another Indian spy-ish film to the Gutter. I say “-ish” because, as previously discussed, the formulas of popular Hindi cinema generally don’t allow for the ethical murkiness of Bond-flavored heroics or even the more realistic damage to human health and happiness by national governments undertaking serious espionage.

Maha Badmaash (1977) kicks off in Sudan, where a villain seen only from the shoulders down, sitting in a fancy chair and stroking a black cat, and his henchman Momba try to make Nathani draw a map to…well, that’s unknown as of yet, but we know it’s important, because the would-be cartographer retorts that dying for his country is every Indian’s right. The villain threatens to torture the Nathani’s daughter, Pinky (played by one of my very favorites of this or any era, Neetu Singh), so he caves. As he sketches a drawing of a temple and narrating the path to a secret chamber, his conscience appears before him, accusing him of selling his principles just to save his daughter. 

Back in Bombay, the police are given a report from Interpol about the notorious international criminal Mogambo. His usual M. O. is to hook up with local thugs to carry out his plans, because he can escape even if police get tied up catching the local criminals. And lots of Mumbai criminals have been going missing, so that can only mean one thing. 

In a blue-tinted lair, Mogambo insists that Pinky find a man named Ratan (Vinod Khanna, another of my favorites), the owner of the Flush Club. [Here I will admit that the club’s name is always spoken in English, and I cannot tell if the actors are saying Flush, Flash, or Flesh, any of which make about equal sense.] Pinky resists, but they threaten her with her father’s life. Mogambo is very good at motivating his staff!

Ratan’s cub is one of those film interiors that uses ancient Egypt as its main inspiration, and I love it.

Ratan himself looks the part of a suave spy. Momba and Pinky make themselves quite unforgettable at the club: Momba cheats at cards and gets in a fight with Ratan, and then Pinky approaches Ratan with a job that he refuses. She doesn’t give up easily and makes her way into his house, awaiting him in a very scandalous bubble bath.

Ratan’s still not interested—at least until she reveals a photograph of him in the scuffle with Momba, which would be no big deal, except that after Ratan left his club, Momba was killed by someone else! The phone rings, and an ominous voice asks Ratan how he likes the picture. Not wanting a death on his hands, Ratan agrees to go with Pinky to the source of the voice.

The job Ratan cannot refuse is still a secret. Mogambo says he’ll have to train for a month, but he’ll get over a million rupees for doing it and be put up in the Hilton. Ratan admits Mogambo is the smartest of the players he’s met so far and that he’ll do as he’s told. 

More on this in a second.

As Ratan checks in to the hotel, he is followed by a woman in green shorts overalls who calls in his arrival to Mogambo…whose face the camera finally reveals! Frankly he isn’t as intimidating as one would hope, and his voice doesn’t quite sound like the one we’ve heard before.

Mogambo #1

We also discover that Pinky has a look-alike named Seema (also played by Neetu Singh), who differs only in having blue eyes. The man we just saw as Mogambo tells Seema he has a scheme to replace Pinky with her (wearing contacts). But who is this man, why does he seem to have Mogambo’s hat and cane, and what is his scheme?!?

As Ratan begins his training, Pinky meets him to another man who has Mogambo’s hat and cane! This one is named Mike, manages the Hilton Hotel where everyone is staying, and refers to Mogambo in third person! And also doesn’t sound like the faceless version! And seems to be in a rather close relationship with Pinky!   

Mike, aka Mogambo #2

Our first Mogambo (for the sake of simplicity, let’s call him #1) is seen with Seema, watching a surreptitiously recorded video of Pinky and Mike. This is creepy, but it’s part of training Seema to infiltrate whatever Pinky is doing. We still don’t know why she’s doing it, other than that Mogambo #1 declares it necessary. They make the switch in broad daylight, running real-Pinky’s car off the road.

Mike finds Seema-Pinky and brings her back to Mogambo, who questions her extensively. When she first sees Ratan, he wonders if she still finds him handsome; Seema-Pinky hasn’t been filled in on how hard Pinky-Pinky flirted. Meanwhile, Pinky-Pinky is back in the clutches of Mogambo #1, who questions her about why she’s training Ratan and who she works for. She claims ignorance.  

Mike takes over Ratan’s training, and Mogambo orders him to subject Ratan to frigid temperatures because…again, reasons. This sequence lasts forever, with multiple views of Mike and a scientist monitoring meaningless dials as Ratan shivers harder and the fake frost grows in his hair. I do wonder why holding his breath for 15 minutes and sitting in -3 Celsius [* laughs in Midwesterner *] is important for whatever Ratan’s job will be, but I suppose time will tell. 

Back in captivity with a smaller bandage on her head, actual Pinky discovers that one of the people holding her is her long-lost mother and that she has a twin as well. I don’t know why this wasn’t set up with a flashback to the girls’ childhood, but instead her mother just says her husband divorced her and moved with Pinky to Africa. Pinky refuses to believe it and stomps off, claiming she has no family. This is exactly what the long-lost family member who grew up estranged would say. 

Pinky gets the whole story of her childhood from her mother. Mogambo #1 turns out to be Ajit Saxena, a friend of Pinky and Seema’s father. He claims it’s his duty as Nathani’s friend to help out the family. Pinky says the only thing she knows about Mogambo is that he has a walking stick just like Ajit’s, at which point I shout THANK YOU, PINKY at the screen, glad that we are acknowledging this surfeit of canes. She narrates that Mogambo wants Nathani to make a map, but neither she nor anyone else knows why or of what. 

While continuing his pool training with Seema-Pinky, Ratan pulls her into the water and one of her dark contacts comes out! He calls her bluff. Claiming they’re both Mogambo’s prisoners, he offers to work with her—or else he’ll tell Mike about her blue eyes. Fortunately, Seema-Pinky has been ordered to be Ratan’s constant babysitter, so when Mike tries to smarm all over her (something Seema was ok with but Pinky is not), Ratan is conveniently nearby to interrupt.

Somehow this bothers Mogambo, who lectures Mike about being a controlling creep. Mike is very unhappy about this disrespect from Mogambo and swears he’ll show him what’s what. 

While searching Mike’s hotel, the police come across Ratan and remember that he’s still a likely candidate for Momba’s murder a few weeks ago. Mogambo finds out and calls Mike at the police station, insisting that Ratan must not be detained. From an inner sanctum emerges a man with a cane…Ajit, who turns out to be the police commissioner! And Ratan…turns out to be working for the police!!! I was genuinely surprised by this, even though I shouldn’t have been, given how the concept of film heroes usually works in this era. The casting of Vinod Khanna in this role was clever, because he was known for playing villains early in his career; his switch to being a hero had occurred by the time Maha Badmaash released, but I suspect the makers were counting on audiences to remember his earlier work when watching the first 90 minutes of this film. What also surprised me is that this conversation happened in a room with only saloon-style knee-to-shoulder-height swinging doors between it and the area where Mike was waiting, so surely he heard this whole exchange?!? 

Sure enough, Mogambo questions Ratan about this and orders him to kill Ajit. The next day, Ratan becomes a sniper and kills Ajit.

Seema is furious at this change of character, but Ratan convinces her that it was necessary in order to protect them and their loved ones. Yet another man appears with the same walking stick; this one is Mr. Dindayal, the owner of the Hilton. The hotel guests gather to celebrate the death of the police commissioner. Mr. Dindayal’s daughter Reena thinks she recognizes Seema despite everyone insisting it’s Pinky, saying that she can recognize the person’s true nature. Reena then helpfully launches into a song with lyrics about how appearances can be deceiving as Ratan tries to use his verses of the song to explain to her that she’s incorrect. I love when films give us entire songs with lyrics that work on their own poetically but also unfold plot elements with specificity, especially, as in this one, when onlookers benignly enjoy the performance without any idea of what the singers are trying to communicate. 

Unfortunately for everyone, Reena is in love with Mike and explains to him that her friend Seema sure looks a lot like this Pinky she just met. She even has a photo of Seema from their college days together and spills enough info that Mike goes directly to the house where Pinky is hiding with her mother. Mike is stunned by the resemblance (even noting their voices are the same, a detail I love) and threatens the mother enough that Pinky agrees to…go undercover as herself? 

Mr. Dindayal explains to Ratan and Seema-Pinky the importance of the location that Nathani sketched way back in the opening scenes: an old fort containing a secret laboratory that holds a FORMULA! “A formula?!?” asks Ratan, mirroring my thoughts. According to the subtitles, this formula will make its holder the most successful country; I am a seasoned student of 1970s masala films and have no real idea what this means. Is it a chemical weapon? Amazing fertilizer that has no dangerous runoff or fumes? A way to prevent drought? 

Mr. Dindayal is correct.

Ratan and Seema-Pinky set off on Mr. Dindayal’s mission, sharing a quick kiss before they part. Ratan is set to invade the fort, while Seema-Pinky takes the place of one of the guards, but Mike sneaks up and replaces Seema-Pinky with real Pinky. Ratan’s training is put to good use as he scubas through a river and then enters a tunnel through chemical cold storage. Something important happens in the cold room eventually, but he’s in there for far, far less time than the ice training sequence earlier in the film lasted. I’m pleased to see Ratan wearing his lab technician disguise mask over his nose and mouth in a way that prevents identification and meets 2021 standards.

Ratan gets the file with the formula but hands it off to real Pinky, who races off with it. Reena, who is also there for ??? reasons, pursues her and manages to catch up with her, but they are surrounded by Mike’s goons. Soon everyone is in an empty gothic dining hall, some of them tied to pillars by Mike, others free to smash and bash in a rambling finale brawl. This includes Seema, Pinky, and Reena; women don’t usually get to be in on this kind of scene, and it’s a delight to watch. 

The first time I saw this film, a decade ago or so, I thought it was a bit of a damp squib. It has so many elements from the masala action formula that I love (and as are laid out so well by Friend of the Gutter Todd Stadtman in his book Funky Bollywood) but at the time I didn’t think it made good use of them. It is perhaps telling that the director R. G. Thaker has only this film to his credit, an extremely unusual feat for someone in the Hindi film industry. This was also writer team Faiz-Saleem’s first film, but they worked on 40-odd more, suggesting that producers liked their work well enough.

Looking back at my original notes, I agree that there isn’t a successful emotional heart to this story, but that doesn’t bother me on this viewing the way it did before. I’m satisfied by the rollicking action, infinite misdirected identities, and the specifics in how it details its masala ingredients. I’ve seen dozens of films made in this basic template, but I’ve never seen one that mentions perilous cartography, rape, parental love, and patriotism in the first five minutes! It’s quite possible some back stories were cut; the twins never get an emotional reunion, which is highly unusual, and Ratan has a sister who appears just for a few moments to announce a brief sob story and then eventually become a pawn in Mogambo’s game. And why and how were Nathani and Ajit friends? It doesn’t matter, but these do seem like missed opportunities.

One easy way to improve Maha Badmaash would be to cut out its racism, which is mostly concentrated on actors who appear in the Ugandan sequence. Despite the subtitles’ use of “negro,” I don’t know if the Hindi dialogue is referring to Africans or to Indians with darker skin than the lead characters have—or both. There’s at least one case of blackface; the main henchman in the opening scene, Momba, is in blackface so badly done that he appears green. Ratan also has a South Indian assistant who gets the unfortunate task of comic relief, including a track in which he pretends not to speak Hindi in order to pass Ratan a written message.  

Watching this film is a struggle only because of the not-great print and even worse audio (it has a jarring echo throughout), but when you can make out what’s going on, it’s all done sufficiently well. Vinod Khanna is in fine form swaggering around as the newest star in Mogambo’s hand-selected elite squad, Neetu Singh is having fun as twins, and the mountain of various bad guys all bring a little something to their various versions of evil. [Spoilers in the rest of this paragraph!] The eventual reveal of Mogambo’s identity made me slow clap; I genuinely did not see it coming, perhaps because of the ongoing low-grade confusion over at least three other people using Mogambo’s accessories. Fans of 1970s Hindi films will love this too, not the least because of what it brings to the brawl. 

The most notable strength of this film is how often Pinky comments on Ratan’s handsomeness. Sure, she’s just doing a job, but the language adds a nice Bond-appropriate bad-girl flair. This is the era of Hindi cinema that sees the breakdown of the old distinction between heroine, a good girl who rarely expresses sexuality, and vamp, who dances suggestively, flirts with hero and villain alike, and sometimes dies for such sins. Pinky’s flirtation with Ratan is also a handy recognition that people attracted to men are part of the audience too; the makers know that there’s no denying Vinod Khanna’s sex appeal. Why else would they dress him in tight black leather and tiny bathing suits?

The film does also have a proper vamp specialist in the iconic actress Bindu, who plays Reena, but curiously she doesn’t really do anything particularly bad other than sleep with Mike. She’s the most scantily clad of the women, but her most notable outfit is a glamorous Dallas-Cowboys -cheerleader-inspired outfit of a short royal purple jumpsuit and tall white boots. (If you’d like reference images, this page does nicely.) 

If you’re unfamiliar with Indian English, you may not know the word “timepass” (I sure didn’t before I started watching Indian films), a term applied to films, tv shows, etc. that make the time go by pleasantly enough but leave no particular impact. It can be used pejoratively, but in 2021, I’ve gained a more profound appreciation for productions that entertain. Maha Badmaash may not be one for the ages, but I really enjoyed it while it was on the screen. 

Maha Badmaash is available for free with English subtitles on Youtube.

~~~

Beth Watkins is known by her distinctive walking stick.

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