Glam from the Attic: Jaal (1986)

Poking around the filmi attic, trying on lots of dusty things that might not have made it out of the 80's. 

It's been a busy week or so up Filmi-Contrast way--although I was mostly busy being ill, not sleeping, and trying to avoid work--so more movie time was possible than usual. I could blog about some of the serious films I saw this week--Shatranj ke Khilari (1977), or Garam Hawa (1973), or even some of the more recent films, Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye! (2008) and Luck by Chance (2009). But who am I kidding, I *almost* never blog about recent films. And as far as serious films go, I'm still trying to recover from the post-parallel cinema emotional slump. So, I'm just going to wallow in the bright point of my week: Jaal (1986). Emphasis on bright, or similar adjectives. (Flashy, garish, eye-searing will also be accepted.)

This film starts out in familiar territory for masala buffs. A sickly convict is being released from Central Jail (good ol' Central Jail facade, how curious I am why no one was able to escape over you during the course of their ALWAYs unfair and overlong sentence). Cut to a tinsel-trimmed brothel, and the requisite cynical courtesan song about the brevity of love and the victory of wealth.

But of course, when the courtesan in question is Rekha, we KNOW she's got a backstory. The convict (Vinod Mehra) seems to think so too, as he stumbles in, begging an audience.

The courtesan, Meenabai, does recognize him, and tries to have him thrown out. Of course, when filmi characters SAY they are on their last breath(s) you should believe them. The convict collapses on her floor, of course, and non-heartless Meenabai relents and calls for a doctor. But it's too late. Right after whispering something in her ear, the man breathes his last.

Cut to a village scene. The crowd, led by a plucky woman (Tanuja) are demanding their water rights from the local Thakur's goondas. And who steps in but the plucky woman's strutting son, Shankar (Mithun Chakraborty).

Of course, a fight ensues, in which Mithun (curiouser and curiouser) seems to utilize a magic pelvic thrust, stunning his attackers from a distance. I might not have believed it, except, those hips trained at the disco, and therefore anything might be possible. Because Shankar is a classic masala hero, we soon learn that he is an A student, a sacrificial son, but also a bit of a scamp. He soon gets into  trouble with a trio of rich students at school--in which he proves the old adage, "I might not have started the fight, but I can end it."

"Look at us! The pixellation can't even handle our thighs right now." 

Through a basketball dance (I can't believe I just wrote that), moon boots that can ACTUALLY be used to propel one into space, and naughty use of basketball hoop . . . Shankar defeats and shames the priggish and destructive students. This sequence aptly echoes the ethics of the film as a whole: Don't be a jerk. Oh yeah, unless someone else was a jerk first. Then, by all means, RUIN THEM.

Unfortunately, all is not well, elsewhere. Maa is potentially dying of asthma unless she (A) gets expensive medicines, and (B) stops cooking over the hot stove. Luckily, on the other side of town, Meenabai the courtesan has literally burned down her kotha, and is about to embark a new business: Vengeance. And what do new businesses need? Employees.

Of course, the only things made clear about the vengeance business at this point are are the target: Thakur Sahib, and the employee/arm of justice: Shankar. As soon as she can coax/manipulate the nominally honest fellow into the job, that is.

After giving him a lesson or two in worldly pragmatism, Meenabai convinces Shankar to become her spy in the aformentioned evil Thakur's mansion. This prompted much joy on my part. Yay! People doing dishonest things for good purposes! Mithun and Rekha working together! Mithun as a spy again!

It doesn't really matter that Meenabai's plan seems to mostly consist of scaring crusty old men into having heart attacks (literally)  . . .

 . . . and turning Shankar onto the scent of the mystery of his own father's disappearance/death.

Of course, along the way Shankar must strut down some romantic rabbit trails. For WHO returns home from college but Mean Girl in mini-skirt (Moon Moon Sen) and Sympathetic Girl in sari (Mandakini) from the brouhaha on the basketball court earlier. Turns out that mean girl, Sunita, is the Thakur's daughter (and of course still has it out for Shankar) and sympathetic girl, Madhu, is her live-in servant/companion . . .

 . . . the daughter of a gypsy-esque couple that serve the Thakur loyally, have been publically shamed by Shankar [awkward], and undeniably throw a good party.

Of course, both girls proceed to fall for Shankar, but Shankar only has eyes for Madhu.

There's not much to get past initially--both have been making serious eye contact since the first time their cars ran into one another (how romantic). Another meet cute by a forest waterfall seals the deal. (OK, he was stalking her, but whatevs. Who bathes in a waterfall if they don't want to be seen?)

Oye Kya Cheez is right! 

He sings a lengthy tribute song to her in the forest . . . in which he can't seem to decide if she looks better as a peacock or a mermaid. But no matter. She's cute and he's cute and she saves him from Sunita's laxative prank. It's love.

Very sensible, these two are. 

Such a smoothly paved courtship is an offense to the Muses of Story themselves, so of course Sunita has to go and fall in love with Shankar, too . . . thereby activating Madhu's inner nobility.

Unfortunately [and in keeping with the general theme of doing something bad to achieve something good] Madhu chooses to announce that she's about to become a dancer at the local skeevy club, a move that *apparently* is shaming to her family and inconsistent with her romantic promises to Shankar.

But I'm not going to complain about the shaky logic to this, because we get a bewafai song out of the deal, and a tearful family conversation after the fact. [Her mother actually realizes the real reason her daughter is acting out of character and makes both her daughter, husband, and Sunita, accidentally, see sense. Amazing stuff for formulaic masala.]

Poor Sunita. Didn't you know that the girl who wears mini-skirts never wins?

I was really hoping that misunderstanding wouldn't take up the rest of the film, and thank the filmi gods, a woman intervened again and made my prayer come true.

Of course, the mystery of Jeetendra's special appearance in the film's credits, Meenabai's past, and Shankar's father's false imprisonment must all be solved. The key question isn't so much "Who really killed the Thakur's brother?" but "Why?" And was Shankar's father truly *gasp* having an affair with Meenabai all those years ago? Do the moon boots forebode other inexplicable American pop-music references to come? And will Meenabai finally get that lovely revenge she's been waiting for?

Jaal is a confusing and sometimes disturbing mix of the rural and urban. Without regard for logical constraints of time or distance, the movie paints a world of rural South Indian plantations, modern universities, feudal-y water wars, family feuds, kothas and clubs. Yes. All those things are apparently within walking-distance in this filmi location. In response I can only say:
A. Now I know where Karan Johar and company got their creative understanding of geography . . .
B. Sign me up for the next bus tour!

[Note: I also have the nagging feeling that this was a remake. It's not that I don't believe the writers could be original, but certain plot choices were so definite in their importance, and yet so vague in their actual realization . . . that I got the feeling the filmmakers were following someone else's blueprint. Maybe it's just a rehashing of familiar elements, and thus the deja vu, I dunno. You tell me!]

That's what I thought, too, Shankar. 

Jaal gets a lot of things right, though. With the exception of the usual overdose of unfunny humor and some grating violence, it moves pretty fast. Even if the mystery isn't all that mysterious, the plot progression is a lot more convoluted than the standard masala flick . . . with the enigmatic woman trope and use of successive flashbacks adding quite a bit of entertainment value. And as much as I might have initially picked this film for the Mithun factor, the female roles are by far the most interesting aspect of the film.

There are five females with significant roles by my count, and four of those women demonstrate cunning and quick reaction time, push the story forward, and at points even get to take part in the action. One could make the usual arguments about their agency being betrayed by the end, but at least in the case of Meenabai, I have few complaints. This story is really about her, her trials and travails and quest for justice . . . and all the men are mostly there to have feelings and populate the action sequences.

Even Mithun's character has little to do except stick to Meenabai's endgame. His successive realizations about the truth of his family's past and his eventual quest to right the multiplicity of wrongs that have been done is really nothing but the harvest Meenabai had planned for all along. Not to say that I didn't appreciate his role--it was believable and he did manage to take a straightforward character and create a Point A-Z arc.

Jaal is a little too choppy of a narrative to really become a lasting favorite, I think. The flow isn't quite right, despite the fact that all the elements of a mass entertainer are definitely there. But taken in smaller bites, there's a lot to love here. It also follows a lot of my personal masala requirements:
1. No prologue. Jumps right into the action.
2. Women join in the action, too.
3. People taking on a false identity (lying, manipulating, essentially joining the darkside temporarily) to serve a greater purpose.
4. No honor killings.
5. Doesn't take itself too seriously.

Chances are, if you're a Mithun or Rekha fan, you've already seen this film. However, if you're just looking for Saturday evening film with something for everyone . . . with a lot of glitz and "what the hell were they thinking" moments  . . . along with some scary ladies lookin' fine and takin' names, look no further.


  1. I'm bad that way, but 80s masala left me cold. And any film with this starcast would have made me scratch it off my list. Your review made me want to watch it, with all the fascination of a chicken caught by a snake's gaze. I'm dithering between giving in and sourcing this, or averting my eyes from the trainwreck I'm sure will follow. :) Should I thank you?

    1. I'm so glad that this post engendered some conflicted feelings at least! Lol :) I know that's how I feel when anyone passionately recommends something from the 90's. I'm like "yeahhhhh, um, I'll consider it and maybe even give it the old college try . . . but don't hold your breath."

      I realized after watching this film, that even though my heart is in the 70's as a whole, when it comes to action heavy masala, I'm actually more likely to keep watching something for stylistic reasons at this point than any other reason. In this case, Jaal was worth finishing for me because of the female empowerment, the Mithun, and mostly, because it didn't feel like the DP fell asleep during shooting. It has valiant attempts at shot composition . . . the film isn't just an endless parade of over/over two shots and wide shots. Even an "attempt" like that goes a long way for me. As you pointed towards in your VK Murthy post, sometimes the cinematographer makes all the difference.

  2. I think the 90s as a whole had somewhat better movies (in percentages) than the 80s. You are making me very curious about this film, you know, and I did have a soft spot for Mithun even though I missed most of his films because he acted in some very bad ones.

    1. You're probably right about the 90's being objectively better, it's just that I usually have to put more effort towards watching a 90's film. I think that's just a personal thing--it reminds me of certain aspects of growing up in those years (and certain aspects of pop culture that I found annoying even then) that I don't necessarily want to think about, lol!

  3. Here is something that may totally surprise you. I am possibly, hold your breath, the only human being in this Godforsaken universe who has seen this movie more than some 30 odd times! Yes, you've read it right, I had the sheer tenacity to watch a movie like Jaal again and again and again, almost endlessly...

    Okay, before you start wondering if I was infected by some unknown Bollywood virus that made me brain-dead enough to develop the capacity to digest Jaal for hundreds of inglorious hours, or if you've started to suspect that I probably had a Ghajini-isque disease of very short memory losses that gave me this hideous ability to watch this flick over and over again, let me give you a little background story.

    I think, the year was 1987/88 when we first bought a National Panasonic G10 VCR and I was all of 12 years then. You must remember that it was the socialist era of Doordarshan as the only TV channel in India which only had a 3-hours-in-the-evening broadcasts that rendered our televisions useless for most part of the day. It was also the era of dozens of Video Tape (referred to as 'cassettes' mostly) libraries in middle class neighborhoods that rented out movies for as high as 30 Rs per day. My limited pocket money allowance meant that I could hardly rent 2-3 movies a month, which left me with an awful lot of free time, especially during annual summer holidays.

    The funny thing was that "Jaal" was the lone "cassette" that had come as a add on free gift with the Panasonic VCR, apart from an empty VHS tape known as the 'head cleaner'. Needless to say how that solves the mystery of my Jaal obsession. For God's sake, we lived in the entertainment starved socialist era when TV was a novelty and we had very long attention spans which gave us limitless capacity for repeat entertainment.

    P.S: After more than 25 years, tonight, I was somehow suddenly reminded of my Jaal years and so typed "moon boots Jaal" in the search engine query and Google uncle helped me crash land into your delightful little blog. Life in the times of internet brings together strange creatures on to the cyber firmament. Thank you for helping me relive those wonder years.

    1. Quite amusing anecdotes about Jaal. Even tho I grew up in the U.S., when I was a kid we didn't own very many VHS tapes (compared to most people I knew) so I sympathize with watching the same films OVER and OVER ad nauseum. Even films I didn't really like, just for the sake of some/any entertainment.

      I think it's funny that they were literally giving Jaal away with other purchases. I think it's worth slightly more than that, lol. It's got some quirks, but it really tries to do something different. It's not nearly as lazy as some masala I've seen from the period. And that moon boots scene is indeed, unforgettable. Glad it brought you back to good years, if not really good films!

  4. Very informative and nice post. I really like your posts and your style.
    Hindi Urdu Interviews


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