My movie reviews here at Filmi Geek usually hew to a standard format. An introductory paragraph like this one is followed by a brief plot summary - often just the first third of the story, enough to lay the foundation for a discussion of the movie's portrayals and themes. Then, the bulk of the text is devoted to just that discussion.
With Prakash Mehra's Hera pheri ("monkey business"), though, that format just won't fit. This movie is, at its best, a series of reasonably entertaining bits that tell a barely-coherent story about the power of friendship. But that is a very charitable reading. I watched the movie twice - paying fairly close attention the second time - and I still don't think I followed the plot all the way through. And since the story really has no bearing on one's enjoyment of this otherwise largely satisfying masala jaunt, I won't spend any more words on it.
At the core of Hera pheri is one of Hindi film's epic buddy-pyaar jodis, Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna. Their Vijay and Ajay (no points for guessing which one is Vijay) do not quite reach Jai and Veeru territory when it comes to lifetime devotion and finishing one another's sentences. But what they lack in longevity they more than make up for in homoeroticism.
Isn't it romantic? The gay subtext is so strong that (as either Beth or Amrita put it, may they forgive me for not remembering which) it isn't even really subtext - it's just text. In one scene, Ajay and Vijay curl up under a blanket together to sleep on the living room floor, while Kiran (Saira Banu) sleeps in their bedroom. Vijay gets up in hopes of a rendezvous with Kiran, only to discover that Ajay has tied the two of them together with a bit of rope. ROPE. Later in the movie, they tearfully embrace and declare that their love for one another transcends all other relationships. Coupled with Ajay in hot pants and that knotted blouse shirt, one has to conclude that at least some of the crew of this movie knew exactly what they were doing.
Buddy-pyaar romance aside, Hera pheri offers plenty in the way of satisfyingly fun masala antics. A hilarious extended sequence in a casino features Vijay pulling a magnificent card-table scam against Asrani, in which he coolly scams the casino manager at the same time. The casino itself is one of those superb sets that one only finds in masala movies of the 1970s. The set is showcased well in Padma Khanna's item number, "Aapka sarkar kya kuchh," where the playing-card decor of the casino is reflected in the playing-card design of Padma's outfit.
And there's nothing quite like a song in which the heroes pull off a supreme con job by posing as holy men. I loved this gambit in Shaan and it works brilliantly here as well, in the movie's indisputable highlight, the qawwali "Darbar mein uparwale ke."
In another hilarious sequence, the boys set up a whole cadre of smugglers, thugs, and all around nasty guys with threatening phone calls, hoping to ambush them at the casino. After some first-class sneaking around...
...the fellas get caught out, and what follows is a terrific Keystone-Kops-esque chase with some quality comedic fight scenes. (Incidentally, comedy dishum-dishum beats earnest dishum-dishum hands down.)
One of my favorite sequences comes during the breakup phase of the romance - the inevitable down-point late in the film where Ajay and Vijay have had a falling out, and Vijay mourns the loss of his true love. Vijay wanders through dark streets, past a long sequence of movie posters plastered to a wall - posters that alternate between the titles Dost and Dushman. At one point Vijay rips one of the posters, and the word "Dost" floats dejectedly down a culvert. It's really quite an elegant series of shots, perhaps the most artful in the film. Technical problems prevent me from putting a screencapture here, but you can see it about three and a half minutes into this song.
With all of this and more masala goodness going for it - including a filmi-insane maa, Ajay's dubious parentage cemented by a long-lost pendant, and a villain's lair tricked out with numerous images of the famous Trimurti from the Elephanta cave - Hera pheri could have been a repeat-watcher as satisfying as Parvarish, Manmohan Desai's gem featuring the same pair of actors. What holds it back - and ultimately drags it down into the realm of mere rainy-afternoon, half-attention timepass - is its terrible C-list female stars. Saira Banu is rarely that appealing even in her prime, and here she is well past it, bringing very little life or energy to the screen. I hate to have to say this. Saira Banu was only in her mid-30s when this movie was made, and I want very much to favor female stars as romantic leads up to and well beyond this age. But Saira Banu doesn't make my case for me. Her first appearance in the movie, which doesn't come until a full hour in, is just puzzling - a squealing, appalling attempt at playing the ingenue. This is forgivable as it becomes clear that her character is not meant to be ingenuous. But it doesn't offset one's gut reaction that she be muted and removed from the screen as quickly as possible.
The other lead, Sulakshana Pandit, is utterly forgettable. This poor-woman's Neetu Singh may as well be a cipher; she is thoroughly lacking in charm, appeal, charisma, or any of the other qualities that make her contemporaries so enjoyable. Indeed, one wonders how excellent this movie could have been if the budget had room for, say, the real Neetu Singh in Sulakshana's place, and Parveen Babi in Saira Banu's. That would have been a masala flick for the ages. As it stands, Prakash Mehra seems to have known what he had - that is to say, what he lacked - in these two, as they get relatively little screen time between them. And so, for the first time ever, I can say of a masala movie that it did not need to give its female leads more to do. If nothing else, Hera pheri is an object lesson for directors in just how crucial women are when it comes to elevating a movie into something truly memorable. Neglect them, and your movie withers on the vine.