The Gleeful, Giddy Masala Romp of Teesri Aankh

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A woman tearfully leaves her newborn in the lap of a giant statue of Shiva during a thunderstorm and keels over dead. Hindu brothers are separated when one one falls into a raging river, presumed dead, but actually rescued and raised by a thief. Boys from good homes turn to stealing and debauchery, while the remaining son who truly is good is ostracized for a crime he didn’t commit. Grownups dress like Napoleon Dynamite, romances blossom, brothers (unknowingly) fight brothers, generations seek vengeance on one another, everyone happily participates in a song for Eid, and women have fight on a casino dance floor.

This is the kind of flat-out action-packed vintage Bollywood I love more than any other. It’s a fantastic example of the type of film called masala, the Hindi word for a spice mix used to describe the Hindi film industry’s popular (and often populist), exuberant, genre-blending musicals with big casts and complicated stories. Teesri Aankh (The Third Eye, 1982) has a lot of standard masala elements like separated families and divine intervention, but it starts most of them down a darker path than usual.

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Remember Plotto, the codification of pulp stories? 1970s and 80s Bollywood seems to have run by similar principles, though by the time star and character casts, music directors, and production designers got involved, there were surely more than Plotto’s 1,462 stories. A Bollywood Plotto ca. 1975 might have options like this:

One of the strengths of the masala recipe is that its ingredients can be selected and shuffled in infinite ways (I’d love to see a disco dancer and princess team up to fight drug smuggling around Egyptian monuments), and when a master chef is in charge, slight shifts in tone can cause great differences in overall feeling for audiences.

It wasn’t until I saw Teesri Aankh that I realized “…and the mother is EVIL!” could ever be an ingredient, but here it is.  In this film, Bollywood’s love of saintly mothers is flipped on its head when our central mom, devout as she may be, acts cruelly towards the oldest son, who is of course the baby from the temple. The adopted son is the only one who behaves ethically, and the other two are rotten: the one washed away in the river ends up working with the devil-worshiping villain who killed his father (again, unknowingly—you can add “unknowingly” to most of the founding elements of this film’s plot), and the other is a pampered mama’s boy quite content to steal from the family business and indulge his taste for a dancing girl. In fact, the first time the three brothers cross paths is in a fight in her brothel. Contrast this with India’s most popular tale of three lost brothers, Amar Akbar Anthony made a few years prior, in which the grown brothers are first united in a hospital, donating blood to their mother.

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The villain is more crackers than usual. He kills his own father to take over the evil empire (villains rarely mention their own parents, instead dealing with sons who provide general hench-services) and starts a quest to finish off everyone who was involved in putting him in jail for a murder. He is inventive and cruel, wielding a giant forked brass knuckle and imprisoning one of his enemies for decades, whipping him whenever he needs a laugh. The victim has right on his side, though, and refuses to let his spirit be broken. Correspondingly, when the villain slams a bottle down on the bar and growls “I want to break his ego like glass,” the bottle doesn’t actually shatter and just bounces off to the side. This might have been a mistake with the props, but I thought it was quite telling: in Teesri Aankh, even the villain’s dramatics have obstacles.

The women of Teesri Aankh have plot arcs of their own. One seeks to avenge her father, who also suffered at the hands of the villain. Sons regularly seek revenge in Bollywood, but daughters do it less often. In this film, the shared mission bonds the romantic pair, rather than the woman simply feeling pity for the man and selflessly supporting his mission. Another is a police officer’s daughter and a total wild child, acting out in grief over her deceased mother and eventually maturing into a real adult who stands up for herself, even against her boyfriend, and using her penchant for reckless driving for good. None of this is a characterization typically given to heroines. The surprisingly bitter mother must shoulder the impact of a massive secret her husband confessed only on his deathbed. Even the mother who gives her baby over to the care of Shiva in the film’s opening is later revealed to have a backstory: she and her husband married against family wishes, so under the pressure of this disapproval, she fled.

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As if to counter this gray world in which absolutely everyone is thwarted or faces unfairness, the film provides one locus of giddiness and glee: the villain lair. At first it may seem unfair to assign most of the visual cheer to the bad guys, they’re better situated than anyone else to actually enjoy it. The principal hero (the straight-laced son) and his mother would hardly know what to do with multiple floors of bars, giant computer screens, and gladiator statues. Many scenes are set here, and all the living characters eventually interact in it. It’s the stage for the resolution of everyone’s quest for identity and justice. This lair has cheesy art (including a painting of the stages of female development, of course stopping at the “hot and mostly naked” age of about twenty), glowing eyes, skulls and many other menacingly-mouthed creature features, various rock formations and glittering grottoes, dancing girls with sparking nails, henchmen in skull-emblazoned jackets, and an unexplained taste for owls. I would never insult this wondrous creation by labeling it the comic relief, but it does provide fun and fancy  in a movie that is otherwise fairly sober except for its love songs.

The lair is the stage for two wonderful songs of its own, one of which shows the hero running all over the lair to beat people up (and was in my previous Gutter column) and another that invokes Superman, based on the protagonists’ childhood love of comic books and flying. This song combines toreador capes, asymmetrical disco wear, spaceships, animal-headed aliens, and flight, and the music itself is as multi-influenced as the set and costume design: listen for surf guitar, a jazz flute solo, flamenco trumpet, claves, and qanoon (that jangly string sound that so many films use to establish “Middle East”).

The big fight at the end, where all the characters are present, goes on for so long that I honestly can’t remember exactly how it started. Much of it rambles through one of these songs , but as the villain escapes and sets the lair to self-destruct behind him, it continues outside, where of course we find ourselves at the Shiva temple where the baby was abandoned all those years ago. It’s a dark and stormy night, with the temple bells clanging. A sharp-eyed viewer will notice that Shiva is missing his trident in this scene, and if you think a god is going to sit by and let a devout mother’s son be killed by a villain, then you missed a very important session of Movie Hinduism 101.

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Take your do aankhen and hurry up and watch Teesri Aankh. It’s a shadowy but still gleeful and giddy masala romp. There is so much to appreciate: some unexpectedly complex characterizations within a rather depressing world, careful and spirited performances from the leads, some satisfying and spectacular songs, and a lair that dreams are made of.

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Beth Watkins will be adding golden owls to her already extant villain lair.

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