Glam from the Ranch: Betaab (1983)

Even though Betaab seems to have been massively popular at the time ... I've never heard anyone recommend it or discuss it by name. So maybe we should talk about what makes this film stick out from its peers ... even 30+ years later.

The gist: 

Separated childhood friends Sunny and Roma (Sunny Deol and Amrita Singh) meet again as adults in ***Betaab Valley, when Roma returns for holiday . He's a devil-may-care rancher, she's a devilish heiress.

He realizes who she is.

She has no idea who he is. But, of course, she takes an immediate dislike to his impertinent ways.

They bicker and almost kill one another and she deliberately destroys all the out-buildings on his farm.

luckily, she didn't get the waterslide

'Course, when Roma's found out, she's also "forced" to stay on the farm to repair the damage and by extension, get to know her childhood friend all over again.

not the way to rebuild a chicken-coop, darlin'

Fortunately, Sunny's Ma (Nirupa Roy) is off looking for farm equipment or something, and has no idea how scandalous the situation at the farm is quickly becoming. (Note: I know I've seen this gimmick before in a Hollywood movie, but I just can't remember where. Maybe some screwball comedy ... seems like something Katherine Hepburn would have to do.)

By the time she finally figures out who he is and is de-thorned enough to commence embracing, Big Daddy shows up and objects to the snuggles. (I know this is a Tennessee Williams thing but I can't help using it to describe Shammi Kapoor characters.)

Turns out, the two families have a messy history (duh). Scenes from The Man From Snowy River (released just a year earlier) may be invoked. Etc. Etc.

The audience bait:

This film contains two kissing scenes (without much fanfare), a snake-bite/poison removal orgasm (as if nagin symbolism ever needs any help) ...

just when you think you've seen it all

... gorgeous Kashmiri locations ...

... a castle and a strange art-museum-inspired gazebo ...

I  am in love with this monstrosity. 

... a well-paced script from Javed Akhtar, and A LOT of Sunny Deol.

(Like there's chest hair coming out of the seams, and maybe check your viewing device for stray fur balls at interval). Luckily, this is taazi roti-Sunny, just out of the film industry oven, and relatively free of the stiff mannerisms of his later days. [Or romances with co-stars a third of his age: *ahem* I Love NY.] The director did everything he could to exploit the family genes, it seems to me. Sunny is really the sexualized debutante in this production, and groomed bachpan-se, too. You can tell just by his frequently donned short-shorts, signature Deol wear that could only be more of a tradition if they weren't so much shorts as a robe or a blacksmith's skirt. A smart business move, as he was the star kid from a massively publicized family scandal, and people were more likely to be heading to the theatre to see Sunny, Dharmendra ka bacha, than a potentially disposable new starlet. (I mean did anyone see Heropanti for a better reason?) Still, he's not just a pretty face, either. His horsemanship is to be envied, and his comedic timing is pretty good, with the exception of some poorly-advised fake laughter.

glam but not so glam as you'd expect

Amrita Singh clocks in a debut performance as the heroine. Though she's rough around the edges (especially in her early dialogue delivery) you can't quite look away from her theatrics. My favorite thing about her is that she's believably vicious. Something about the look in her eyes and her cat-like way of lunging makes her scarier than the average romantic lead. Hema could use a whip, and I hear Amrita gets one of her own in Mard, but I don't really think she needs anything but her finger nails do to serious damage. That is, until she sheds some of them in the second half. If you like Bollywood heroines to be more riot grrrl than girl-next-door, you'll probably like her. Frivolous though it may be, I also have to mention that she wears the hell out of a pair of trousers...the staple of her wardrobe throughout the film (she never switches to saris). Also, Amrita was one of the best things about the recent 2 States (2014) for me, so it was fun to see how she got her start.

The well-matched physicality and athleticism of these two leads certainly must have contributed to the film's success. When they're not riding bucking horses, tumbling in the grass or hay or in the water or in the mountains, they're jumping off of roofs, throwing chickens, catching chickens, and playing chicken on the road ... jeep vs. truck vs. hairpin curves.

Really, some of the action made me nervous, especially the dubious horse stunts. I'm not sure how much of it was stunt-double work, either, which points to either excellent framing and choreography, or terrible safety practices.

Pretty sure that's actually Sunny. Mithun did a similar stunt the year before in Aamne Samne, clearly Bollywood was obsessed with Raiders of the Lost Ark (can you blame them?). 
If you're looking for '70s standbys, you will find Prem Chopra and Nirupa Roy once again in comfortable roles (though leaning more toward portrait than caricature, here) as villain and matriarch. It also occurs to me that they had 2-3 x longer careers in same-same supporting roles than Sunny had in the lead ... but maybe that's to be expected. Shammi Kapoor brings a human sparkle to the alternately gruff and benevolent crorepati.

Annu Kapoor also shows up for a welcome and touching role as the family nauker; a self-described "chhota aadmi" who still manages to help his favorite rude heiress out in a time of need.

But by far the best supporting performance came in from the anipal actor ... a yellow lab with remarkable dishooming abilities (canine-fu?) and amazing restorative powers. (People never recover from GSWs in Hindi films, but thankfully, nobody seemed to tell the dog that rule.)

"Here comes the dog, strong and brave!"

The sum of its parts: 

"You gave each other a pledge? Unheard of, absurd." 

Values-wise, I appreciated the attitude towards parental authority in this film. As far as I can tell, Roma doesn't spend any time feeling guilty about her father's disapproval of her romantic choice, and neither Roma nor Sunny put up with patriarchal abuse. Worlds away from DDLJ, thank God.

Sunny does cook up a bit of a taming of the shrew project for Roma, but it hangs more upon natural consequences than his will to dominate. He just wants his friend/sweetheart back, which is about as innocuous as it gets. And even when she's a bit tamed, she doesn't lose her edge entirely, or give up her ability to make decisions for herself.

So, ok, this film doesn't do anything new, but perhaps that's too much to ask of a star-launching vehicle. Even so, it's pleasant-viewing, with few of the usual wasted scenes, and creative wide-shot cinematography. You may or may not like the six R.D. Burman songs... for me they were just so-so. Still, Betaab has the gleam of new talent and the support of the old, and enough is as good as a feast. And the dog, did I mention the dog?

The rationale:

I know some of you are thinking, BUT WHY? Recently, when a former prof of mine compared Sunny's career in the 80s to some commercial (but critically ignored) mass hits of the 50s, I had to laugh. But I realized I couldn't in good conscience continue to giggle about Sunny without experiencing the height of his stardom for myself. Now that I have, well, I wouldn't mind seeing more ... maybe even films that better fit the "obscure" half of the "obscure hit" equation.. But I draw the line at ... No, actually, I have no idea where I draw the line anymore with Hindi films. The minute I draw one, I resent it and immediately want to see the other side. All you have to do to get me to try a new category I have vowed not to watch is to talk it up while I talk it down. Eventually, the curiosity will get the better of me.

***Did you know that the Kashmiri valley was named after the film, not the other way around? Thanks, A.B.! That's going to end up in my South Asian geography unit next year, I can tell you that.

Note: I saw this on a whim, so pardon any mistakes in details from a lack of subtitles (though the Hindi is easy to follow and anyhow, you really don't need to understand the dialogue to understand this film) and the sub-par cropped screen caps.


  1. :) I was a bit too young (though I seemed to like the older heroes well enough!) but I remember my sister lusting after Sunny Deol after this film. I have a vague idea that the film was originally meant to star another star-kid before Amrita was signed on. I can't remember, though.

    And yes, Sunny, before he became so bloody typecast (and stiff - you're right) had some really decent films; he had an innocence to all that macho-ness that made him vulnerable - and therefore. very likeable.

    You've made me want to rewatch Betaab, though. :)

    1. "Innocence to the macho-ness" ... exactly. I was honestly shocked to see him this way ... this was a performance to be proud of ... and so natural. You should totally rewatch, at least watch some of the frolicking songs or the screwball-comedy-esque scenes.

      I love that you were the right age for Amitabh but not Sunny. That describes my childhood crushes, too. When people my age were into the Backstreet Boys, etc., I was interested in Colin Clive and Joseph Cotten.

    2. Heh heh. :) I was well aware of the irony when I said that as well. Somehow, all my crushes were years and years older. I mean I was crushing on Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones - and this was when I was in school! (While my friends were having massive crushes on Kumar Gaurav.)

      By the way, watched Betaab again today while ironing what seemed to be a mountain of clothes. Nice to go back to more innocent times. :)Thanks for reminding me of it.

  2. p.s. I want Sunny's house. Especially with that slide into the stream behind. I remember saying that when I first watched it too!

    1. Anu, I TOTALLY agree on Sunny's house. If I had seen this movie as a child, I would have lumped it in with wilderness fantasies like Swiss Family Robinson or Swallows and Amazons or something. One never quite grows out of the need for treehouse.

      Yes, I have been in love with everything and everyone obscure my whole life (whether it was books or movies or music). Now, I just lead with "I know I'm probably the only one who is fanatical or even knows about this ... and I apologize for its irrelevance to you in advance."

      SO glad you returned to Betaab. This was definitely one of my favorite Hindi films of last year's bunch... along with Nikaah and some Manoj Kumar, lol.

    2. Not that Harrison Ford is obscure. And I also would've agreed with you about him back when I first encountered Indiana Jones at age 8ish.


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