In honor of "Sridevipalooza" - a blogosphere-wide celebration of the work of the wonderful Sridevi - I chose to watch Chaalbaaz ("deception"). I can't entirely say I'm glad I did.
Identical twins Anju and Manju are separated in infancy when a servant (Aruna Irani) steals Manju away from their wealthy family's luxurious mansion. Manju (Sridevi) grows up in the slums, feisty and self-reliant, with dreams of being a dancing star. Anju (also Sridevi) grows up under the care of her uncle Tribhuvan (Anupam Kher) and his companion Amba (Rohini Hattangadi), who are unspeakably cruel and sociopathic - the only thing that stops them from murdering her outright is that she is their ticket to the family wealth. Suraj (Sunny Deol), a handsome young heir with a wild streak, meets Manju and the two are instantly smitten. In the meantime Anju meets Jaggu (Rajnikanth), a long-time foil of Manju's, and sparks fly there as well. Also in the mix is Balma (Shakti Kapoor), a relation of Amba's, whom Tribhuvan and Amba intend to marry to Anju in order to secure their hold on her wealth. But none of the three men - not to mention Anju and Manju - realize that there are actually two identical girls. Needless to say, wacky hijinks ensue.
I'd had Chaalbaaz in my collection since my first Sridevi experience, Mr India, where I'd been so impressed by her cuteness, her dancing, and her talent for physical comedy. Her gifts are evident here as well, but instead of being the highlight of a satisfyingly entertaining masala film, they are small bits of sparkle almost lost in the pile of unapologetic crap one has to dig through the find them. Chaalbaaz is simply a terrible movie. Sridevi's best efforts, along with an otherwise promising cast, are just not enough to overcome the non-descript music, the excessive violence and general algogenic nature of 1980s style, or the script's phoned-in take on an unoriginal story. In the modern era, with great films so readily available on DVD and other media, there is really no reason to watch Chaalbaaz when one can watch Seeta aur Geeta instead.
What few moments of quality Chaalbaaz has are mostly thanks to Sridevi's skill, and the movie does its best to undermine them. The best of these is a direct quotation from Waheeda Rehman's snake dance in Guide - in the irresistible, almost trance-like passion of dance, poor Anju is momentarily liberated from the misery of her life. (It's the second clip of this video.) The scene is early in the movie and offers the potential for an interesting variation on the hackneyed separated-twins theme, but Chaalbaaz drops the thread. Instead, the film fills its allotment of time with a jumble of half-assed, supposedly comedic elements like Tribhuvan's overbite or Balma's pointless catchphrases (one catchphrase is not enough - the character has several). Even the songs offer little in the way of redemption - only one is close to memorable, "Tere bimar mera dil," an entertaining fantasy sequence between Sridevi and Sunny Deol.
It's a shame that the best I can do for Sridevipalooza is honor Sridevi's vast talents by saying that she is far, far above awful movies like Chaalbaaz. I do want to see more of her, but her era was a dark, dark time - most of her films, I fear, do her as little justice as this one.