Director: Manmohan Desai
Music: Laxmikant-Pyarelal
Year:  1983
Rating: 8.0

Coolie is best remembered as the film in which Amitabh Bachchan almost died from an injury sustained during a fight scene that caused internal bleeding and he in fact did die for a few minutes on the operating table. The film actually pauses and says this is where it happened for the morbidly curious. Now at the time Bachchan was not just an ordinary actor - he was a superstar unlike any before or since with near Godlike status. Indians took their actors seriously - more so back in the 50's through the 70's than they do today. During the week in which he hovered between life and death the entire country came to a standstill waiting for announcements from the hospital - people went on pilgrimages to pray for him - they made offerings at their place of worship for him. Thousands waited for days outside the hospital.

Bachchan had become a symbol to the country in his roles in which he was termed "The Angry Young Man" where he fought against the system, oppression and injustice as an ordinary man and won with his fists, principles and  never back down attitudes. Perhaps an unexpected role for a man who came from a very well educated, well off family in which his father was a poet, but after a few failures at the box office he found his niche in the 1970's and was just in so many good films. But don't make the mistake of thinking these are serious films bogged down with discussions of the proletariat and the chains of society - that is not how Bollywood makes films - they make films to entertain - to thrill you, to make you laugh, to cry, to tap your feet to the beat and make you cheer. That is Coolie in spades.

I loved this film. Truly. It is just so over the top, so ridiculous, so insane, so absurd that I ate up every minute of it. Scriptwriter Kadir Khan (who plays the main villain) must have been thinking what can I do next - how about a hawk that flies down to save a young boy from being axed to death and have the hawk gouge out the eyes of the attacker or a mother running barefoot down miles of road to act as a human shield for her son from a sniper or a man covering himself in a holy shroud for protection and taking shot after shot to the chest with eyes bloodshot red advancing to get his revenge. This film is nuts. Like being in a popcorn machine for three hours.

And I thought to myself, this is why I love Bollywood - nowhere else in the world would this film have even been considered and I mentally thanked my friend Goran who about 20 years ago shamed me into watching a Bollywood film - Taal - because like most Americans I sneered at the idea of Bollywood without having actually seen one. Taal is wonderful - incredible music and dancing, sleek and sophisticated - beautiful women - great production values - everything Coolie is not! This is a rough ride of what the hells - a myriad of plot lines and characters that are all connected in a demented Bollywood way. Coolie was made for what are termed the back seaters where the ticket prices are cheap - for an audience that yells at the villains and cheers the heroes.

As much as I loved this film - seriously I was all a tingle while watching - I would never recommend this to a non-Bollywood person. You have to be steeped in how Bollywood films work - their traditions, their themes, their lack of subtlety where heroes are heroes and villains are villains and mothers are revered - and their ability when done right to connect to an audience in a viscerally emotional way. Now much of this is changing in Bollywood - much more sophisticated, Westernized, glossy production values - but back in the days Bollywood films went for the heart instead of the head.

The first 30 minutes is a blast - crime kingpin Zafar (Kadir Khan) gets out of jail after ten years and asks his men where is Salma (Waheeda Rehman - a huge star from the 1960s) his old girlfriend. When told that she is now married with a son he freaks out and in order to get her back he kills her father, floods a city causing untold deaths, kidnaps her, finds her a baby orphan for her to bring up as her own son, tries to kill her son who is rescued by the hawk and then gives her electro-shock therapy for 20 years to make sure her memory never comes back. And that just covers the basics - but don't forget the baby floating down the river - he will be back.

Jump 20 years into the future - Amitabh is Iqbal, a porter or as they call themselves a coolie at a railway station carrying baggage for customers and demanding rights for them. The film has a leftist political slant in it - at one point during a fight Iqbal picks up a hammer and sickle and holds it in front of him - another time he gives a speech railing against the rich. Religion also infuses the film - Iqbal is a Muslim who keeps his faith at his side and when he almost dies as did Bachchan, people from all religions are shown praying for him. Most of the songs are light and humorous but there is one beautiful song that is a religious ode.

Other plots abound - a girl (Rati Agnihotri) on a train that Iqbal flirts with is looking for revenge for her murdered father of years ago and dresses up in cool long white boots, blue denim and yellow shirt when she goes looking to kill, the son of the villain played by Rishi Kapoor has become a drunk because he still loves the girl he was separated from - when he was ten years old! And so has she! For the entire film practically they come into contact with one another without realizing their lost love is right next to them. A little creepy on one level but it works. And of course all the villainous plans. They all intersect and coincidences mount up like a 50 car pile-up. This is where you have to know Bollywood and accept these coincidences as karma at work - God moving in mysterious ways - most non-Bollywood people would just roll their eyes, utter mocking comments or laugh and turn the channel. That is a mistake. One billion people can't all be wrong.

There is also some nutty comedy that can go either way - a skit in which Amitabh is trying to make an omelet and the girl keeps switching radio stations between a cooking show and a yoga show is on the edge of being kicked over the side but sticks it out - or Amitabh pretending to be a statue so his lady will profess her love for him - after he kidnapped her of course is silly. Then there is the action in which the blows often clearly miss by a mile but nevertheless are great fun to watch. And the hawk who is still around 20 years later to kill assassins. And the songs are great. This is the definition of a Masala film which is defined as anything goes as long as an audience will like it. This is directed by the ever reliable Manmohan Desai.