Monday, July 5, 2021

Phir Wohi Raat (1980)

... aka: Same Night Again

Directed by:
Danny Denzongpa

As much as I'd like to review more Bollywood horrors here, the whole experience usually feels less like watching a movie and more like I've suddenly become immersed in an elaborate grad school thesis project from hell from which there is no escape. By the time it takes to actually watch the movie (avg. running time is usually about two-and-a-half hours) and then try to make enough sense out of all the subplots and various other convoluted claptrap I've just seen to write a coherent review, I realize that half the day has already passed me by. And then I realize I could have watched two or three other movies and written them up in about the same amount of time and wonder, "Is this really the best use of my time here?" So while I'll continue to occasionally view Indian horror flicks, I probably won't be doing them with the same regularity I do films from other countries. After all, reclaiming one's sanity doesn't just happen overnight.

Orphaned Asha Verma (Kim) has a recurring nightmare about her insane auntie (Shashikala) trying to strangle her, which doesn't endear her any to her college chums at her college boarding house as she's always waking up screaming in the middle of the night. Compassionate head nun Ms. D'Souza (Lalita Pawar) recommends she go see a doctor. Asha's perky roommate, Shobha (Aruna Irani), agrees to take her. Little do they realize, Asha is already seeing psychiatrist Dr. Vijay (Rajesh Khanna)... in more ways than one. The two are in love but she's resistant to take things further until she's mentally healed and stops having the bad dreams. Dr. Vijay hooks her up to some hypnosis machine and she then flashes back to her traumatic childhood. Asha grew up in a remote country mansion surrounded by dense forest and filled with antiques, along with her widowed mother and aunt. The aunt went crazy and had to be locked up in the attic. During a thunderstorm, she escaped, snuck into her sister's bedroom and strangled her to death. Little Asha witnessed the whole thing. The aunt was then sent off to live out the rest of her days in a mental asylum, where she passed away. Well, supposedly.

Asha is being bullied by some of the other girls, who taunt her, try to scare her and even get their parents, who threaten to pull their children out of the school, involved in attempting to get her expelled. She's driven to suicidal thoughts and tries to stay awake so she won't get into any more trouble. When that fails, Asha attempts to run away, but is found. She and Shobha (who left the school to find her) are then taken before the disciplinary board and both end up expelled.

Our anguished heroine decides she wants to return to her childhood home to face her fears head on while they appeal the administrator's decision to get back into school. Dr. Vijay and Shobha accompany her. All this time, the mansion has been under the care of groundskeeper Vishwanath (A. K. Hangal) and his immature and obnoxious adult daughter Souri (Tamanna), who has a tendency to play with her cat all day instead of work. Souri starts exhibiting other strange behavior, like breaking windows with her slingshot, taking special interest in a safe filled with the late mother's valuable jewelry and sneaking into the aunt's bedroom to play the piano late at night. All of that appears calculated specifically to drive Asha over the edge.

Asha then starts seeing another facially-scarred woman (not her aunt) lurking around the mansion grounds late at night. Due to her worsening health, Vijay calls in a favor and has Dr. Desai (Om Shivpuri), "the best psychiatrist in India," take a look at her. He deems her perfectly healthy and says her hallucinations will stop with adequate sleep and activities to keep her mind off things. Asha's newly-married cousin, Ashok (played by the director), who's been away in America for a number of years, shows up just in time for her birthday. They decide to throw Asha a lavish party at the mansion. Things go well until the scar-faced woman (Madhu Malhotra) shows up and Asha stabs her to death while the guests sing the Happy Birthday song to her and blood splashes all over her cake! The scarred woman, it turns out, is actually Ashok's wife! Asha is hauled off by the cops (led by Suresh Oberoi) and taken to court, where the judge deems her mentally unfit to stand trial. He then grants Ashok temporary rights to the mansion and all of its belongings.

No one believes Asha's story but, sensing something is up, Dr. Vijay starts investigating matters and uncovers an elaborate scheme that involves backstabbing, blackmail, false identities, murder, ghosts and, of course, the fight over an inheritance. An hour and a half into this, they also introduce a comic subplot involving Shobha's brother-in-law Krupachand Reswani (played by comedian Jagdeep, whose constant mugging / overacting is pretty astonishing); a ne'er do well drunk and gambling addict who has a dozen kids and blows all of his money at the racetrack. After he finds a letter that would incriminate several characters, he shows up at the mansion hoping to cash in.

There's also a vengeful black cat, a shootout with the cops, a very long fight scene (which is better choreographed than in several other Indian films I've seen), several pretty good / disorienting nightmare sequences and not one, not two, not three, but EIGHT long musical numbers, most of which are unfortunately sappy romantic songs. Lead characters are forgotten for long intervals and some of the plot threads get closed while others do not.

This typically schizo Indian film does the usual routine of covering about ten different genres (horror, action, comedy, mystery, crime, musical... I can go on!) over the course of two-and-a-half patience-testing hours, but there's some cool stuff in here, including great sets and outdoor filming locations, vibrant colors and a plot-twist midway through that, while completely absurd, is guaranteed to take you by surprise. Perhaps best of all is very fluid camerawork that would give a lot of the more renowned Italian directors a run for their money, with lots of good use made of Steadicam and cranes.

This film (and its soundtrack) were successful in India, which makes it a surprise that this was actor Denzongpa's only film as director. It's even more surprising that very pretty lead actress Kim (born Satyakim Yashpal) didn't have much of a career. Despite this and several of her subsequent films being big hits (she even headlined India's #1 box office draw for 1982 - Disco Dancer), she was relegated to smaller supporting parts afterward. That may have something to do with tabloid scandal about her off-screen relationship with the director, who was with another woman at the time. Beloved former child actress Irani, on the other hand, has had no issue whatsoever keeping her career going and has appeared in dozens of TV shows and well over 500 (!!) movies over the course of her career. And she's still going strong today!

Like most other Bollywood films, this was never released here in America, but has enjoyed wide distribution in its home country. There have been many VHS, VCD and DVD releases and well as many reissues of the soundtrack.


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