July 04, 2020
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Beta Ray Fantasms

Wildly original, far more entertaining than what passes off as A

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Beta Ray Fantasms
Beta Ray Fantasms

My Essential B Watches

  • Gunda: Immortal characters, rhyming lines and unexpected bursts of ultra-violence
  • Jaani Dushman, Ek Anokhi Kahani: Bunker-buster Manisha Koirala as an Anaconda-like snake dancing on hilltops and the mountain collapsing as a result, Akshay Kumar-Suniel Shetty as college students and Sonu Nigam’s girlie-screams of “Bhaiyya Bhaiyya”.
  • Teen Ikke: Had it been made in Europe, it would be as famous as La Strada. It’s Dali on celluloid, with “lota” dances, Clockwork Orange-inspired gangs of ruffians wearing party hats and masks, finger manipulation of nostrils and other such disturbing imagery.
  • Classic Dance of Love: Mithunda is Dr Acharya, a scientist-cum-monk, who falls in lust with Doli (Meghna Naidu). With deep lines like “You look sexy in my lungi”, “Yeh khoon nahin, mere krodh ka rang hai. Chatega ise?”


Some movies are born B. The shadow of the boom mic on the wall. The elbow of the clapper boy protruding in from the side. Characters speaking into the camera to announce their evil schemes. The blouse being worn by a female character in the first scene reappearing on another near the climax. The tooth of the vampire coming off but the camera rolling on. A fly sits on the lens and even then the director does not say ‘Cut’. Same anonymous actor playing multiple characters, not as an artistic gesture, but as a cost-cutting measure.

Some movies become B despite having A-stars. The mind-numbing “Aaya aaya Toofan, bhaga bhaga Shaitaan” of Amitabh Bachchan’s Toofan. Rajesh Khanna’s bra-fuelled serial-killer rampage of Red Rose. Kamalahaasan’s rapacious wrath of Pyasa Shaitaan. Dev Anand rapping in Mr Prime Minister. Every Mithunda movie made in Ooty, from the mid-’90s to its end, where the only suspense was whether his sister would be off-ed before or after the interval.

And some movies have B-ness thrust upon them, even with their rather mainstream intentions. The “so-bad-they-are-good”s. Sushmita Sen’s eye-rolling, hair-flinging, scenery-chewing Noch loon teri aankhein, kaat loon teri jeebh madness of Chingari or the physics-laws-bending heist of the wantonly-wannabe Players or the tubelights-passing-off-as-light-sabres jousting of Love Story 2050 or virtually every Bengali movie of the legendary Sukhen Das, where, afflicted with poverty, tuberculosis and overacting, he would weep copiously over the kidney he sold to finance his reprobate younger brother’s education, the same brother who now beats him with a belt.

To be honest, I resent these labels. ‘B’ or ‘C’ or ‘D’. It seems derisive, as if these marvellous creations are somehow children of a lesser god. Whereas the truth is that they are often wildly original and infinitely more enjoyable than what passes off as A. For one, they go beyond the boy-meets-girl, boy-sings-with-girl, boy-gets-girl formula. Consider, for example, Wahan Ke Log, an extraordinary tale of alien-hunting, where Pradeep Kumar, who would put the Men In Black to shame in terms of size and suavity, investigates a series of bizarre crimes which may have been committed by death-ray-emitting two-plates-stuck-together alien crafts, working in collusion with a madman (played by the legendary Nisar Ahmed Ansari). How many mainstream movies in India venture into the risky territory of science fiction?

Or, for that matter, into spy thrillers? Yes, I know. You’ll say Saif Ali Khan’s Agent Vinod. Is that not mainstream enough, you ask. This film, of course, is a ‘homage’ to an older movie, one considered B-grade, whose name was...drumroll...Agent Vinod, with the titular character played by Mahendra Sandhu, who possessed “lomri ka dimaag, sher ka jigar” and awesome gadgets (which include anally intrusive cacti and backfiring guns). He, however, was not the only secret agent from the B-genre who romped through the psychedelic world of international intrigue. There was Mr Bond played by Akshay Kumar who would rip his shirt off or drop his trousers to exhibit the heat he carried, but never compromise the integrity of the nation, even when being attacked from all sides by a bevy of bikini-clad beauties. Not to forget Major Dharam Singh (played by Dharmendra) of Tahalka who assembled a cross-dressing team of crack commandos, one of whom also had a disposable leg, in order to launch a secret guerrilla operation in the kingdom of Dongri-La, ruled by a mad dictator who worked himself into a frenzy chanting Shamoshasha and used mind control drugs to capture beauties, to be then used for his personal pleasure or as sources for tradeable organs. And finally, my favourite, Gunmaster G9 (played by Prabhuji Mithun-da) of Suraksha and Wardaat who destroyed the Shiv Shakti Organisation and its army of bionic men and locusts.

That’s not all. Lower-alphabet movies have spanned medical thrillers like Diya Aur Toofan, in which Kader Khan as the doctor does brain surgery transplanting Mithunda’s brain inside heroine Madhoo’s; serial killer dramas like Red Rose, where Rajesh Khanna’s black-goggled psycho killer character and the film’s Truffaut-inspired use of still photography together made Norman Bates of Pyscho look as harmless as A.K. Hangal.

Violations by trees, black magic or psychosexual levitation, B-grade films were never low on concept.

And, of course, horror. As a matter of fact, it is in the genre of horror that so-called C movies have come into their own. While the Ramsay brothers are a household name, with Purana Mandir and Samri and Dahsat crossing almost into the mainstream, it is the other masters of horror, no less significant, that have not gotten the attention they deserve. Geniuses like Harinam Singh, creator of such classics like Shaitaani Dracula and Khooni Dracula whose persistent motifs include the director playing a character from the working class who gets ravished by upper-crust ladies, and the mythical Joginder, whose oeuvre included the cerebral Adamkhor Haseena and Pyasa Shaitaan, captured concepts as varied as violations by trees, pyschosexual levitation, black magic, bathing while fully clothed and demonic possession. Characterised by an almost Dadaist assortment of sequences with absolutely no relation to one another, Joginder’s films represented the high noon of ‘B-grade’ art. The tragedy is that he and the Ramsays never received the international attention they deserved, the kind that the Argentos and the Fulcis and the whole Giallo genre got.

Even when these non-mainstream directors handled conventional genres like masala action, they brought something new to the table. Like Kanti Shah whose revenge-dramas Loha and Gunda with dialogues like “Jahaan nimboo naheen ghusta wahaan nariyal ghused dete hain (where the lemon does not enter, I insert the coconut)” raised the bar of machoness of the blood-flows-like-tomato-sauce flick, in the same influential way that Sergio Leone (not a relative of Sunny Leone) defined the Spaghetti Western.

Novelty. Originality. And, most importantly, undiluted entertainment. That is their legacy. If the story of the celluloid journey that began with Raja Harishchandra has to be told, the contribution of the B and C-grader to the narrative cannot be forgotten.

(Arnab Ray is the author of The Mine and May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss. He blogs at http://greatbong.net and tweets from @greatbong.)

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