What do you get when you put the master screenwriters of populist and allegoric masala films and the urbane and intellectual director of Masoom to combine their talents to create India’s most beloved superhero? Mr. India is the end product that transcends all masala boundaries to become the zaniest and looniest comedies of the 80s. Salim-Javed made sure that their last collaborative effort pulled out all the stops to become a classic. After 1942: A Love Story, Mr. India was the second most worn down VHS of my childhood with weekly screenings after school.
There is a wonderful anarchic spirit to this film with Arun Verma (Anil Kapoor) the sunny violinist whose sprawling house on Juhu Beach houses 12 orphans and a cook named Calendar (Satish Kaushik). Their household lives hand to mouth each month, when Arun’s cheery nature fails to placate the shop owners with his growing debts, he goes out to find a lodger. He rents a room to the hot-tempered and child-hating reporter Seema (Sridevi) and they quickly start sparring with each other much like Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. Kapoor and Sridevi has expert timing and their machine-gun style dialogue delivery fits like a glove with the screwball comedy elements in their love story. There’s also the megalomaniac super-villain Mogambo (Amrish Puri) who is responsible for the food-shortage crisis and rioting all across India. Mogambo holds off on his true khushi of blowing his missiles all across the country, till he gets the invisibility watch that Arun’s father created and has hidden. Arun gets a hold of the watch in time to save his house and the children from starvation. Adopting the moniker of Mr. India, Arun sets out to stop Mogambo’s nefarious plans with the aid of Seema, who has fallen for Mr. India and his exploits.
The film is an instant cult classic, because it mines for comedy gold in Arun’s adventures as Mr. India as he does invisible dishoom-dishoom to Mogambo’s henchman Daaga (Sharat Saxena) and his cronies; all while delivering a serious speech against wrongdoing and rescuing Seema. The supporting players like Saxena, Ajit Vachani, and the late Bob Christo are riotous as the goofy cronies that sportingly get punched and slapped by Mr. India, clearly having fun and improvising with their cartoonish roles. Particularly, Bob Christo fulfilling his trope as the bad colonialist looting India of its precious gold statues from temples, who suddenly hails “Jai Bajrangbali” after being knocked around with a rousing sermon by Mr. India. The film’s lunacy is inspired, but its social message has that extra edge from Salim-Javed’s patriotic undertones where Mr. India is the “aam Hindustani” standing up for right and wrong. Mr. India is the right blend of righteousness and goofy charm as he feeds villains their black market goods and delivers the opulent feast of the rich to the roadside poor.
The film is by no means the technically polished and thoughtful classic. Yet it has that cult status with it’s inspired interludes of slapstick and showboating performances that completely win you over. The 12 children are aggressively cute and are paraded out during the maudlin scenes, but we do not even care about that, because the narrative pitch is so enveloping that we scream, you get them bastaaaards Mr. India! The kids are suitably precocious and showcase their breakdancing moves mid-scene. The kids bring that infectious energy to the proceedings and bring out the audience’s inner child when they join in the climactic fights by throwing pies at the cronies. Sridevi gets ample opportunity to showcase her brilliant comic timing in the Charlie Chaplin scene or arguing with spitfire speed with Arun, she is at the top of her game in this film. Her scenes with her editor Annu Kapoor are ridiculously funny for that interplay between their varied comedic styles.
It helps that Laxmikant and Pyarelal deliver two of the most iconic songs catered to show off her charm and dancing in “Hawa Hawaii” and “Kaate Nahi Kate Yeh Din.” The latter is one of the sexiest rain songs of that era with Sri conveying all that yearning and sexuality in her charged and energetic dancing, as well as Alisha Chinoiy’s and Kishore Kumar’s sultry chemistry to set the bar for erotic picturisation in film songs to come. Her chemistry with Anil Kapoor is so cute and fun that you cannot help but root for this pair to get together. Anil Kapoor’s cheery behavior is so endearing and his palpable glee is apparent when Arun tries on the watch for the first time, with Kapoor alternating many ways to screech, “Kya main sach much dekhai nahi deh raha?” You cannot fault any of these performances because they’ve become part of the filmi canon, with Mogambo joining the ranks of cinema’s evilest villains and Kapur for pioneering India’s first cool superhero. Amrish Puri is having a ball with his part as Mogambo, finding new ways to utter his catch phrase ‘Mogambo khush hua’ cue the audience tapping their fingers in armrests and wanting to secretly shout HAIL MOGAMBO! He is a delicious villain, preening around his glassy lair with his acolyte’s jumping into chemical pits in his honour, Puri hams to the hills but what can you do but admire his masterful scenery-chewing.
The film does show its age now, but Kapur creates indelible images and scenes, which we can all quote like the back of our hand. Whether it’s appreciating Salim and Javed’s loony script that threatens to split at the seams, or Mr. India’s fights making one tear up from laugher, Mr India has its heart in the right place. It’s chock full of cleverness, and self-referential humour to appeal even now and enough masala interludes to explode Mogambo’s den, but its cult for a reason!