Readers of this website will hardly need a special occasion to watch a snake film, but since the Hindu festival celebrating snakes, Naag Panchami, generally falls around this time of year, I couldn’t resist. Snake movies are made by many different Indian film industries, and they tend to follow certain conventions, whether the film is a mainstream release made with robust budgets and popular actors (Aamir Khan, the star of India’s 2002 best foreign film Oscar contender Lagaan, did one earlier in his career) or a niche project aimed at more specific audiences.
Every snake film I’ve seen involves deities or religious practice in some way or other. Sometimes the inclusion of the divine is almost perfunctory, getting a passing mention as the source of a snake’s ability to shape-shift into a human, but in other films it’s at the very center of the story, with multiple scenes of worship, displays of the gods’ powers, or direct divine intervention. Once they have appeared, serpents are always integral to the resolution of the story or the restoration of order and morality. Some other snakes might be forces of greed or chaos, but in my experience these are usually the innocent puppets of some nasty human, who has wrongfully gained knowledge of how to control snakes and then harnessed their powers for their own evil-doing.
It’s been posed by people more knowledgeable about speculative fiction than I am that India has not developed a particularly robust SFF film catalog because the zillions (technical term) of stories in the Hindu myths already contain more fantastic heroes and mind-boggling deeds than even the country with the world’s biggest output of movies could ever depict on screen. Snake films, with their range of ties to religious stories and practice, might be evidence this argument. They’re full of shape-shifting, curses, revenge, magical gems, travel between earth and the heavens, and eyes that shoot lightning bolts.
Some of the commonalities of Indian snake films are outlined with great glee and detail by the Australian bloggers at Cinema Chaat in their “Filmi Snake Spotter’s Field Guide,” which makes a rigorous introduction to the type as well as a checklist of tropes to look for.
Still, there are wondrous variations within the snake-movie form. For example, venom burn holes in walls and those who harness its powers can separate their heads from their bodies in self-defense. Snakes can hurl themselves like darts through the air at their enemies, and they can grow to dozens of feet tall to rip up highways or devour humans. They can hammer panes of glass with their heads to escape from locked rooms. They very often love a dance-off, even if summoned to one against their will by the music of the been (you’ve heard this wind instrument if you’ve ever heard “snake charmer” music), and the sparklier their costume and accessories in the musical numbers, the better.
The Gutter’s very own Carol recently watched a film with me that involved the snakes coming to earth via a giant spaceship decorated with abstract fangs and glowing red eyes.
Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised to find snakes that time-travel or are secretly under-cover intelligence agents.
My personal favorite Indian snake film is the Hindi movie Nagin (1976), featuring a huge all-star cast and a story of revenge that kicks in almost immediately as a bunch of jerks with guns shoot an innocent snake, setting his partner off a killing spree.
Our snake heroine (let’s just call her the Nagin, played in her human form by the crackling Reena Roy) shape-shifts into various other women one at a time to lure the hunters to their demise, and it’s a joy to watch actors who usually play more mainstream heroines get to act with violence and lust, sometimes even fighting each other as the Nagin battles one of the women before taking her form.
Some of the women get two roles: one as herself and the other as the Nagin impersonating that character. The last heroine in the scheme, played by Rekha, switches from sweet, supportive, and very spouse-like to a vamp so evil she dances on (what she thinks is) her boyfriend’s corpse.
Nagin uses stock female character types (the rural innocent, the sophisticated seductress) and Bollywood’s standard forms of male-female interactions against the men. It’s delicious. I’m not sure I’d call Nagin a feminist story, but amazingly the woman who commits multiple murders is not demonized. She’s even given a chance to explain and express herself in the finale and then reunites with her love in the sky!
For example, with the man who pulled the trigger, the Nagin pretends to be a snake-charmer whose target turned on her and thanking him for saving her. Completely full of himself, he clutches her to him, and he leads her straight into his bedroom and closes the door. Within a few minutes of appearing, she’s managed to get him to voluntarily lock himself in his room with her and is able to finish him off. None of the male actors in Nagin are known for playing villains, so the script also makes people usually seen as heroes be vulnerable—and dead.
The next male character, who is a bit sexually forward, meets his end when the Nagin pretends to be his girlfriend and leaves him dead and pantsless at the foot of his bed. The atheist (Kabir Bedi, whom you might remember from Octopussy, Dynasty, and random episodes of things like Murder She Wrote and Knight Rider) is killed—as you knew he would be, because atheists never survive with their worldviews intact in 1970s mainstream Hindi films—when he is stripped of a protective holy amulet.
A single dad dies when the snake takes his child hostage. A romance certified with 60s and 70s Hindi cinema’s most approved method, a song sequence set in a sunny park full of flowers, turns lethal when the Nagin impersonates the woman.
The Nagin is conservative Bollywood’s worst fears about women: that they have strengths and goals of their own, they might put those goals above traditional duty to children or male partners, being affectionate towards them can make men stupid, and their expression of desire is downright deadly.
In this jam-packed film, we get many of the major points of serpent symbolism from various cultures: temptation and desire; venomous, vengeance-seeking and protection; plenty of death and rebirth (as the Nagin recurs repeatedly in new identities); the completion of a cycle, with the Nagin resuming her place with her partner; and a huge wardrobe full of 70s fashion skins to shed. Nagin isn’t the giddiest example of an Indian snake film—there’s not a standout snake dance (and believe me, India’s film choreographers can make some fantastic snake dances), and what it delivers in 70s finery it lacks in the more spangly, scaly wardrobes—but it has so much fun with the concept of shape-shifting, confused identity, ambition, and the ways society categorizes women.
Beth Watkins is the deadliest of the species.