Saturday, 8 May 2010

Purani Haveli (1989)

Purani Haveli is, even by the standards of Bollywood horror movies, a truly bizarre experience. This is the fourth of the Ramsay Brothers Bollywood horror films released by Mondo Macabro that I’ve seen, and it’s the strangest yet.

It has the same ingredients that the other Ramsay Brothers movies have, but the proportions of each ingredient vary from film to film. They all include horror, comedy and romance. And (naturally) singing and dancing. In Purani Haveli the comedy and the romance tend to predominate. The romantic sub-plot isn’t a sub-plot, it’s really the main plot. And it’s an outrageously melodramatic soap opera plot.

The basic plot outline is that a rich orphaned heiress named Anita lives with her aunt and uncle, and the aunt and uncle and scheming to marry her off to the aunt’s brother so they can get their hands on her money. While waiting for this marriage to take place the uncle has already come up with several plans to get hold of some of Anita’s money straight away, His latest plan is to purchase a run-down mansion in an isolated location. He persuades Anita to write a cheque to cover the purchase price, but in fact he persuades her to sign a cheque for double the amount he actually paid for the house.

The uncle sets off to take a look at his new acquisition, not realising that the building lies under a demonic curse. When he doesn’t return the entire family plus assorted hangers-on set off to find him. Which sets up the horror plot - a group of people stranded overnight in a house inhabited by murderous evil spirits.

Anita has threatened her aunt and uncle’s plans by falling in love with a handsome photographer. He ends up at the house as well. Meanwhile there’s an incredibly long comic sub-plot involving his assistant turning out to be an exact double of a famous bandit whose underlings are plotting to overthrow him as their chief.

When the horror element in the film finally kicks in it does so reasonably effectively. An unusual feature is the extensive use of Christian symbols to combat the monster. The horror works because the Ramsays use the method they use with every other element in their films - total excess. They throw in every horror movie cliche. You get shadows and fog, you get thunder and lightning, you get mysteriously slamming doors, statues coming to life. And you not only get all these things, you get them all in vast quantities. And surprisingly it works.

The mansion itself helps quite a bit. It’s a wonderful building, in a kind of Indian Gothic style. It looks like it was built specifically so that one day it would be used as a setting for horror movies. The iron statue is pretty cool as well.

The Ramsays liked to push the envelope a bit when it came to depicting on-screen sexuality. Purani Haveli includes an actual kiss, and a fairly passionate one. That doesn’t sound too risque, but by Bollywood standards it’s pretty daring.

There’s a definite camp quality to all the Ramay Brothers horror movies, but in Purani Haveli we’re moving into total extreme camp overload. It also has one feature I’ve really come to love in these movies - the most unlikely characters suddenly turn out to be awesomely devastating martial arts experts, just at the moment in the plot when an awesomely devastating martial arts expert is desperately needed. In this case the mild-mannered photographer easily deals with nearly a dozen goons who attack Anita, in a fight scene that combines frenetic action with touches of slapstick.

The acting is reasonably solid. Amita Nangia as Anita is likeable and attractive. The standout performance comes from Neelam Mehra as her wicked aunt Seema. She’s one of the all-time classic evil bitch from hell screen villainesses. She’s clearly having a great time with the role and she’s tremendous fun.

Mondo Macabro have come up with an outstanding print of this movie. It looks absolutely gorgeous, crystal clear and with with unbelievably lush colours,

The problems that a western audience is likely to have with this movie are the very long running time, the singing and dancing and the overly lengthy and rather painful comic interludes. Personally I think the singing and dancing part makes the movie even more delightfully camp that it would have ben already. And although it’s a long movie it has a lot of entertainment packed into it.

It’s not quite as good as Purana Mandir, which used the same basic template to slightly better effect, but it’s still highly enjoyable and it does have a great villainess.