Red Rose

Director: Bharathi Rajaa
Music: RD Burman
Year: 1980
Duration: 137 minutes

Produced in the same year as Phir Wahi Raat in 1980, Red Rose also has among its cast Rajesh Khanna, Iruna Arani and very likely that same psychotic black cat. In Phir Wahi Raat this cat had revenge on its fur ball brain and went for the jugular, but the last we saw of the cat, it was being swung around by its tail being readied for space travel. So it is with relief that it shows up again in this film as crazy as ever and still going for the throat and with a taste for blood. Red Rose is an odd grimy subversive film that breaks many of the then conventions of Bollywood – unfaithful wives, unfilial daughters, wanton middle class women willing to have sex for advancement or money, a disdain for religion and a main protagonist who is a serial killer.

What makes it all the more surprising is that this protagonist is portrayed by none other than Rajesh Khanna, once the romantic idol of millions. Termed by most sources as the first Superstar of Indian cinema, he first hit it big with Aradhana in 1969 and went on to a number of successive blockbusters with his smooth velvet appeal numbing the hearts of Indian women everywhere. But time caught up with him quicker than most like a cruel host running out of seconds for supper. India was going through political and social ferment in the 1970’s and this soon was reflected in the films and the rising star of the “angry young man”, Amitabh Bachchan who pushed Rajesh to the sideline - and then in the mid-70’s audiences began preferring the more natural romanticism of Shashi and Rishi Kapoor. His off-screen life was in tatters as well – his well-publicized marriage to the very young Dimple Kapadia had fallen apart, he had gained a reputation for being difficult on the set and heavy drinking and age had taken some toll on his once boyish looks. He was at a career crossroad and so he very admirably was willing to take a chance on playing a blank psychotic killer in this film and allowed the director to often film him in the most unflattering manner possible – up close with his pores looking like giant potholes in New York City, distorted at times, always looking like he needed a shower and over all creepy like a subway molester. Admirable because Heroes very rarely played negative roles in those days in Bollywood though it has become much more common of late. This shattered every Rajesh archetype there was. And he is good at being a tightly wound creep – just the small things he does like smugly opening and snapping shut his cigarette case to some Tchaikovsky tune, the way a cigarette hangs languorously out of his dead mouth, the void in his eyes, the way he spits out the word “beautiful” – he is devoid of nearly every human emotion except anger and . . . perhaps love.

On the surface Anand (Rajesh) might seem like a good member of society – owning an export company, maintaining a beautiful plush red themed home, giving to charity, growing red roses in his garden, a faithful servant (Om Shivpuri) – but his life really revolves around the hunting of women – tracking them, seducing them, bedding them and then killing them all documented by a hidden camera. The director shies away from showing any of the murders in any graphic sense – a strange choice but perhaps that was going too far 30-years ago. Late in the film a fair amount of background is related to show where his hatred of women comes from and why he wants to kill and kill again. This is of course good for the rose garden. He eyes up as his next target Sharva (Poonam Dhillon), an innocent girl right out of the village whose “creep radar” hasn’t developed yet in the big city. She works at a fabric store behind the handkerchief counter and he begins to court her by buying one handkerchief each day and drooling over her like a baked glazed ham. But Sharva is different from the other girls who he easily led into bed – a good girl and a virgin – and virgins can’t be killed in these kind of films can they? Sure virgins are good fodder for sacrifice or for the regeneration of youth by sucking their life force out, but the "virgins don't die" cliché still takes place today in films like the recent Hollywood Taken – good girl lives, tramp dies. So the only way he can seduce Sharva is by marrying her but underlying this is the possibility that he has actually fallen in love with her but it is too late for happy endings. Their wedding night turns into one pulsating murderous evening where seduction becomes the last thing on anyone’s mind. One tip for you newly weds out there, once you discover your husband is a psycho killer, don’t stop to pack a suitcase – just get the hell out.

This could have been a pretty terrific film, but like most of these Bollywood horror films I have seen it is just too long and there is an easy 30 minutes here that could have been whacked off with no loss. And not that I am a gore hound by any means, but the audience needed to see some of his killings and the tension around that. There are only two song interludes sung by Asha and Kishore but they were truly not needed and felt pointless – both projected from the imagination of Sharva, first when she falls in love and then when she waits patiently at home on their wedding night not yet aware that her husband is as he says “planning games for tonight”. But I love the gritty grotty manner this film was shot – using montages to disorient, oozing close-ups to upset, discos that are dives, streets that are dark and empty – there is a just a smidgeon of Taxi Driver and Cruising (1980) that permeates the style of the film like a sweaty night. Red Rose was a remake of the director's Tamil 1978 film, Sigappu Rojakkal, starring Kamal Hassan and Sridevi. The Tamil version was quite successful but not so the Hindi remake.

My rating for this film: 6.0