Phir Wahi Raat

Phir Wahi Raat
Director: Danny Denzongpa
Year: 1980
Duration: 145 minutes

Danny Denzongpa, who was one of Bollywood’s best known acting villains, tries his hand at directing for the first (and I believe last) time and perhaps to be in tune with his creepy screen image, he creates a spooky tale of madness, murder and mystery. The few mainstream horror films that came out of Bollywood in this period are by comparison to horror films from other countries very low key conservative affairs, as is this one. There is no splattering of blood or ravaging of female flesh – just atmospherics, a lot of fog and an eerie suspenseful soundtrack from R.D. Burman – but it works reasonably well. Think more Rebecca than Freddie Kruger.

Perhaps one reason that horror has made such a small impact in Bollywood is that taking a break from the narrative for a musical number is not only incongruous but also a death blow to the mood that has been built up, but here that isn’t really too much of an issue as most of the songs come early in the film and one is used very effectively to produce mood. What the film unfortunately is unable to withstand though is another Bollywood convention – the dreaded comic relief. The first half of the film is pure story – a slow build to possible insanity or mischief – and much of the second is an o.k. reveal – but for some reason Denzongpa decides to throw in an over acting comedian named Jagdeep who on his own comes within an inch of destroying the film and certainly hands it a deep wound. Watching this guy with his bug eyes and frenzied gesticulations for an extended period of time could make a blood vessel burst. What on earth was Denzongpa thinking? Was cheap comic relief such a convention that to ignore it was considered box office poison? The one positive thing I can say about modern Bollywood films is that to a large degree these comic relief actors (and there were a lot of them) seem to have faded from sight.

Asha (who goes only by the name of Kim and who gained some cult fame two years after this in a film called Disco Dancer!) is having bad dreams at night. Scream inducing dreams. In them she is locked in a room in the cellar and her crazy aunt is trying to strangle her. Night after night. Not all that surprising in that as a little girl Asha witnessed this aunt murdering her mother and has never gotten over it. The aunt died in an insane asylum, but she is alive and well in Asha’s dreams. Her nightly screaming is getting on the nerves of her classmates at college and so along with her friend Shobha (even with pigtails, a 28-year old Aruna Irani looks a bit too mature to play a student) go visit the neighborhood psychiatrist, Dr. Vijay (a slightly plumpish Rajeesh Khanna past his idol popularity stage). As soon as the door closes, Doctor and patient run into each other’s arms and I fully expected them to burst into song. They didn’t. I could have used a song but instead Dr. Vijay uses the latest psycho babble technology to delve into Asha’s troubled mind by placing an electronic device around her head that soothes and hypnotizes her. He says “Tell me every single detail of your childhood” and I thought to myself – this could be a very long movie – but fortunately she skips right to the good part - the murder in the family mansion on a dark and stormy night years ago. None of this really seems to help Asha much but he also gives her a nice hug.

The college soon boot both Asha and Shobha out of school for breaking the rules and so where does the good Dr. Vijay suggest they go – of course – to her family home in the middle of no where and where the wind blows like a banshee, the curtains kick up a storm, the chandelier shakes, rattles and rolls, wolves howl and the caretaker and his hot daughter, Gauri, talk of ghosts and look highly suspect. What good therapy! The horror follows her – or maybe it was just waiting – but lamenting songs play across the wind, broken windows shatter her nerves and a hideously scarred woman walks the hallway at night. No one says it out loud but everyone is wondering - is Asha going crazy like her aunt. Then Jadeep comes crawling out of a dingy comic hole and you want to shoot him – but the film is saved near the end by a crazy over the top ridiculous action scene and a guy wildly swinging a revengeful black cat by the tail. Two thirds of a good movie. The six songs by Burman are serviceable but not all that memorable – one has a nice Spanish trumpet introducing it – but what Burman does really effectively here is the background music – constantly changing and mood inducing. The playback singers are the usual Burman crew of Asha, Lata, Kishore and Mohd. Rafi – the best in the business.

My rating for this film: 6.5