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Monday, 17 March 2014

Hisss (2010)

Director: Jennifer Lynch
Stars: Mallika Sherawat, Irrfan Khan, Jeff Doucette, Divya Dutta, Raman Trika, Mahmood Babai and Laxmi Bai
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
It's a little depressing that, until this film, my only experience of Jennifer Chambers Lynch's directorial talent was from an episode of Warehouse 13, especially given that she began learning her trade on the sets of her father, David Lynch, as far back as being a PA on 1986's Blue Velvet. Her debut as a director, Boxing Helena, based on her own script, was an unmitigated disaster, if the press and legal activity are to be trusted, and it took fifteen years for her to take a second shot. Perhaps because Surveillance was well received, albeit with many detractors, she was soon attached to Nagin in 2008 as both writer and director. It's an unusual movie about a nagin, or snake woman, that would be shot in five languages in India with a mostly native cast, Jeff Doucette the notable exception. It finally saw release in 2010 under the horrendous title of Hisss, but in nowhere near the form that Lynch wanted. Far better received was a documentary by Penny Vozniak, Despite the Gods, about Lynch's uphill struggle to make the film.

I haven't seen Despite the Gods yet, but I have seen the trailer and read the press kit and it looks like a fascinating journey through the deterioration of a project 'doomed from the start' with a subject who is 'the kind of natural performer documakers dream of'. There's no doubt that any film would suffer from what Hisss experienced (a technician strike and a cyclone, for starters), but the biggest reason for the mess it became is surely the clash between western and Indian styles of filmmaking that led to Lynch's part in proceedings deteriorating from director to cheerleader. Of course, none of these can be used as an excuse; the film is what it is and it has to stand on its own merits. What it turned out to be is an odd picture indeed, an insubstantial and convenient set of B movie clichés elevated by scenes of cinematic bliss, especially in its many outdoor scenes of ethereal beauty. Shots in the jungle feel like meditative art but scenes in the city are more like routine, lowest common denominator stuff.

We begin with a prologue that's edited like a trailer, with many moments to draw us in, but also lots of fades, hints and soaring music. We're in ancient India, 'a time when legends were created to explain the unknown', with a overblown narration to fill western audiences in on the 'shapeshifting cobra goddess, the nagin' and telegraph the entire plot, because we just know that this is going to become one of the sort of lessons that the ignorant are ever doomed to repeat. The key here is the naagmani, 'a stone of immortality' carried within the nagin, which is bound to cause trouble. Naturally, the narrator explains how and why because we're surely too dense to figure it out. 'Many a man out of sickness or greed has tried to otain the naagmani by holding her lover for ransom, ignorant of the vengeance she would bring to both guilty and innocent.' Ah yes. That trouble. 'For then it is learned that only gods have the power to give or take, to create or destroy.' Can we guess where this is going after five minutes?
Enter George States, an obnoxious American with stage three brain cancer and six months to live, who has hired a trio of guides to find him the nagin and her mate in the Ghats Jungle. He's not a subtle man, as his opening lines suggest: 'I may have brain cancer but I can still piss like a racehorse. Up and at 'em, dotheads, it's snake huntin' time.' It's no surprise to find him killing an unwilling assistant and making faces at the captured nag in its tank. So far, so awful, a blatant bunch of clichés and unimpressive CGI; the snakes look pretty good up close but pretty terrible waving around in the distance. Doucette makes a memorable villain, but he's as blatant as blatant can be, apparently doing everything he can to make sure that we can't possibly find a single shred of sympathy for his condition. Meanwhile back in town, police inspector Vinkram Gupta prepares to go to work, even though his wife's locked in the bathroom losing their baby. He underwhelms from moment one, both as an actor and a character.

Fortunately, it's at this point that we start to see some interesting visuals. While the townsfolk of Naichi celebrate Holi, the beginning of spring, by spraying paint everywhere and dancing in the multicoloured chaos, the nagin turns into a woman. Her transformation is far better than the dancing CGI snakes could ever have suggested, morphing through both physical and CGI effects. She sprouts legs like a crocodile, then contorts into a woman in a snakeskin suit, with excellent contact lenses and a wild flicking tongue, finally emerging as a beautiful and naked Indian woman, who swallows crocodile eggs whole just like a snake. The actress is Mallika Sherawat, a Bollywood star known both for her bold characters on screen and her bold ambition to break beyond India's borders by appearing in the Chinese film, The Myth, and the American Politics of Love, even a Bruno Mars music video. The choral accompaniment hints at what Lynch may have aimed for with her 'admiration of sensual, sexual female bravery'.

These outdoor scenes in the Ghats Jungle are impressive, artistically shot and beautifully framed in well selected locations. They jar with the rest, which is maybe the point, the city perhaps being seen by this goddess as an unwelcome encroachment on nature. Their clash is reflected in the lead characters: the routine cop in his routine office, the emphatically unlikeable villain in his empty warehouse lair and the sensual goddess finding her way slowly towards civilisation. Even when she gets there, she's the point of attention. There's a wonderful scene where she strips off and climbs a lamppost to sleep by the light; it begins like soft porn but doesn't end that way. It's beautifully shot and a credit to the film, just like her first scene in the city, where she falls under the spell of a snakecharmer, her undulations matching his. Of course, they have to lower the tone, by having a pair of pissant rapists entice her into their house to have their wicked ways with her, only for the tables to be turned precisely how you might expect.
The portrayal of the Indian characters, which is to say almost all of them, feels poor to me, not only one dimensional but stereotypical. The only exception is the cop, who has potential but is so underplayed by Irrfan Khan that he's lost in the background, inconsequential in a film about female power. He's another established Bollywood actor who has spread his wings further afield, playing major roles in films as well known as Slumdog Millionaire, The Amazing Spider-Man and Life of Pi. His admirable restraint is sadly not mirrored in the supporting cast, especially his new partner, Navin, who is an annoying stereotype, incessantly jabbering in polite, heavily accented English with a stupid grin on his face. We also see far more overt acting as a succession of vile men rape, beat and abuse women, then receive their violent reward at the metaphorical hands of the nagin. The recurrent theme seems to be that all Indian men want either sex or money by force, except the cop, who doesn't feel like an Indian character.

Another recurrent theme is surely closer to what Lynch aimed for, namely the empowerment of women. Beyond the all-powerful monster of the film being a goddess, she manifests for much of it as a beautiful young lady, clearly the personification of beauty with power. There's a particular abiding visual of the burqa clad nagin chasing the snake charmer through the streets of Naichi. It feels like the epitome of female empowerment, with the nagin caught frequently in slow motion in what could only be described as superhero poses. Even Insp Gupta's mother-in-law, for most of the film a bizarre character who can't acknowledge him as anything but an ugly woman who nobody will look at, eventually finds a purpose in an important way that grants her power too. It's a strange shift for her, given that she's presumably the comic relief of the piece, somewhat like a bloated Roman senator played by John Belushi in drag, but it underlines the power of the goddess and by extension the power of women.

There's a potentially great film in here, but it's buried so deeply that we're only given periodic hints at its wonder. What sits on the surface is a film so annoyingly routine that we keep wanting to give up on it, only to be drawn back in by another blissful visual treat. If only the story hadn't been so incessantly convenient. Guess who ends up with the nagin after she's reported to the cops as 'very distressed'? He takes her home so that his mourning wife can take care of her as therapy for both of them. Now guess whose mother worships the snake goddess, praying to her for grandchildren. Isn't it convenient how all these plot strands coalesce in one household? I wonder what would have happened if Lynch had kept the power to make the film she wanted. Maybe that will come clear when we finally get to see Despite the Gods and gain a better idea of the balance between Lynch's obvious strengths and weaknesses. In the meantime, this picture is best approached with all due caution. You know, like a nagin.

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