Hera Pheri (1976) does weird things to my sense of time. It is so up my alley that I have rewatched it repeatedly while also wishing it were still out there waiting to be discovered anew. I want to keep it in a perpetual state of having been just begun, so that I am aware of how amazing it is yet still have more pure joy to experience.
Comedy in translation is a tricky thing. The spirit of wordplay doesn’t consistently make it past the subtitling unscathed, and cultural references, including fish out of water, family patterns, and other stereotypes don’t always resonate outside of their homes. Hera Pheri, with its blend of buddy antics, contrasting characters, physical humor, and long cons against the rich, flies directly from 1976 Bombay to my living room in Illinois in 2023—and I reckon it would land almost as well even if you know nothing about India or its movies.
From the get-go, this film stays true to its title—which translates to something like monkey business or foul play—and barely lets up. The story featured Ajay played by Vinod Khanna, one of my favorites from this era, who left Bombay cinema at the height of his fame to be a part of the Osho compound in Oregon, though I couldn’t spot him in the footage in the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country, and Vijay, played by superstar Amitabh Bachchan. From the moment we meet them, they are up to mild forms of no good, swindling gamblers at a casino who themselves seem fairly shifty.
We learn that Ajay is an orphan twice over—surely there is no more heart-tugging backstory for a Hindi film hero, and I think the film wants us to enjoy how ridiculous this is, in an Importance of Being Earnest sort of way—and Vijay rescues him from wandering in front of a train, at which point they bond as congenial and endearing BFFs. Vijay drinks too much and Ajay prays too much, but they make it work, with Ajay acting as caretaker when Vijay can’t make it out of bed in the morning to have a cup of tea.
Both leads have appeared here on the Gutter in films where they had the moral high ground. Khanna appears in the investigation-ish films Maha Badmaash and Elaan and Bachchan as the cop in the Face/Off remake Aks. But in Hera Pheri they’re in the middle: not as bad as the people they try to steal from and definitely not as bad as the mysterious man who murdered Vijay’s father. Despite their trauma bonding, they are not as tragically afflicted as Vijay’s mom’s shock-induced illness or as the father who had to sell Ajay off as a child to pay for his wife’s medicine but she died anyway (this is a ??? detail that I hope makes more sense in Hindi).
In the course of their various shenanigans, they run across the police commissioner (stalwart and reassuring presence Shreeram Lagoo) and various members of a criminal gang headed by PK and Sherry (Pinchoo Kapoor and Mohan Sherry; I choose to think of this nominative determinism as part of the film’s comedy rather than authorial laziness). I have seen this film multiple times and still couldn’t tell you what exactly Ajay and Vijay’s plans are, but this ignorance does not diminish my enjoyment of the film in any way.
Writers Vijay Kaul and Satish Bhatnagar give their leads great material to work with, and Bachchan and Khanna know exactly what to do with it. The actors have compatible but not identical brands of machismo, both of them utterly at home with this blend of action, comedy, and pathos. I completely buy their friendship, especially from Khanna, who doesn’t usually get to be a sweet and gentle soul. Both are vulnerable in this relationship, and the script really lays into that openness, using it to strain their bond, turning them from allies into enemies. In their biggest argument, Ajay storms off and Vijay remains in a bar, drinking sadly and reminiscing about their good days.
I do prefer the comic moments, though, and there are some great nonverbals and facial expressions as they work on their cons, particularly in the song, “Darbar Mein Uperwale Ke,” as they infiltrate a treasure trove in disguises. This film is full of evidence of why these two actors had the stardom they did, and they seem to love to perform exactly what is asked of them.
The exception to all this momentum is, unfortunately, the two women leads, who fall flat. Sulakshana Pandit as Asha, Ajay’s love interest who is also the sister of the police commissioner, is generally capable in the other films I’ve seen her in, and the doe-eyed sweetness of Asha makes a logical fit for Ajay’s wholesomeness. But even an emotional song and some arguments with Ajay when he aligns himself with the villains don’t build up to anything, and I really didn’t care whether they resolved their relationship or not (even though I assumed they would). She seems to be in the film mostly to provide him something to be heroic about, an imperiled sexy lamp. Saira Banu as Kiran, a member of the criminal cohort who falls for Vijay, has a more interesting role on paper, but there’s something off about her performance style to me here, as though she is in a different film from everyone else in the sprawling cast. I do appreciate that she states her emotions bluntly instead of being manipulative and wiles-y, but she doesn’t have much to do and doesn’t do much with it.
So much care is taken on comedy and back story for other people that the underwritten women leads really stick out. I could have done without these tracks entirely, even when Kiran proves herself useful to aligning puzzle pieces in ramp-up to the finale. The fact that I like this film despite its disregard for roles for women testifies to how great it is otherwise. I get so swept up in the silliness that I am inspired to overlook this lazy bump in its trajectory. I almost wonder if the romances are shoehorned in as part of a cinematic queer panic: the affection between the two men leads is so palpable and so affecting, and the world they inhabit so male, that their heterosexuality had to be made perfunctorily explicit.
If you are new to 1970s mainstream Hindi cinema, Hera Pheri offers a fantastic tour of some of the standard elements. The villains include a henchman named Tiger with a bizarre fake eye, whom Ajay fells instantly while wearing peach plaid bell bottoms.
A rogue’s gallery of character actors parades throughout the film, with one of them returning in the finale in a most unexpected way. Set design is where this film really lets loose, and luckily for me, that’s my preferred flavor of excess. A casino full of gilded plaster froofroo and giant playing cards also contains a light-up bar and bouquet of groovy pendant lamps.
And a villain lair is decorated with hundreds of images of the god Shiva from the nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site on Elephanta Island.
My favorite staircase AND my favorite domestic interior appear (pictured in the collage above). Both of these spaces turn up in multiple films, and I don’t know if that means they are sets that a studio invested in or if they’re real buildings whose owners enjoyed a side hustle in location filming. These are not the most flamboyant spaces you’ll see from the 1970s, but they offer dizzying camera angles and pattern mixing.
With the exception of the irrelevant romantic leads, everyone in this film is doing exactly what is called for—and how! (And if I can muster some charitable attitude, even Pandit and Banu are doing what the script asks of them. It just asks for, and provides, so little.) Director Prakash Mehra is someone whose work I need to see more of, especially because of his role in creating India’s genre-bending masala cinema I love so much. Just a few years prior he directed Bachchan in Zanjeer, the film that launched the actor into superstardom and created his most famous persona, that of the angry young man who battles corrupt and indifferent systems for justice (often an informal but visceral version). Elements of Zanjeer, like murdered parents and vengeance, are present in Hera Pheri too, but the latter is much more interested in interpersonal relationships and making the most of the love humans have for each other. For all its romping action and double-crosses, at its heart, this is a film about friendship and trust—which, now that I think about it, is also true of India’s latest global phenomenon RRR. I don’t know about you, but in the bleakness of the 2020s, I will take all of that I can get.
Hera Pheri is streaming for free with English subtitles on Youtube and Tubi.
Beth Watkins’ villain lair will be filled with froofroo. Villainous froofroo.
I adore this film! I still vividly remember my first time watching it as a kid (our public library had it on VHS) and being shocked to learn during the opening credits that Vinod and Amitabh were in cahoots : D So bromantical! I actually enjoy Saira, but she’s an acquired taste even under the kindest of circumstances. One of my top comfort movies, “Haath Ki Safaai,” was directed by Prakash Mehra as well. It’s a lesser-light Salim-Javed script and also features Vinod K. and his extraordinary swagger.
P. S.: you have unintentionally but adorably half-translated “Maha Badmaash” as “Maha Badman”!
HA that’s a great typo! I will fix it 🙂
By the way–and I had asked Pitu to forward you this question, but am not certain if she has yet–is there some way to get notifications only of your “Cultural Gutter” posts? Or do you perhaps write on a particular schedule here so that I would know when to check back? I am reluctant to subscribe to updates for the site as a whole as I will certainly not have time to keep up with all of the posts.
She did, and I answered there but it’s easy to repeat here. I am not aware of a way to subscribe to just mine but I publish essentially every 8 weeks on Thursday. This link will always take you to my posts: https://culturalgutter.com/author/bethlovesbollywood/
Ack, I must have missed seeing that on YouTube! Thank you!