I really want to love Sridevi. I truly do. Her talent bursts out of the screen when she smiles, when she dances, even when she pratfalls. But, through no fault of her own, Sridevi's filmography makes appreciating her a tiresome slog. For every great movie Sridevi is a part of (such as Mr India), there are numerous terrible movies in which she is the only watchable element (I'm looking at you, Chaalbaaz). Worse still are movies so dire that even the magnificent presence of Sridevi cannot redeem them. Himmatwala ("man of courage") is that dire.
The titular Himmatwala is the upstanding goody-two-shoes Ravi (Jeetendra), the dreariest sort of film hero. You know the guy - he is flawlessly devoted to his mother's honor, never tells a lie, delivers incessant lectures on morality to everyone around him, and can beat up four bad guys without breaking a sweat. Yawn. This kind of intolerably boring character can nevertheless be appealing if he's played with charm and cuteness (Shashi Kapoor made an art form out of this) but here, Jeetendra has none. It's hard enough to swallow this sniveling, creepy old man as a freshly-graduated engineer and a romantic hero; I would say he was an obvious inspiration for the physical appearance of The Dirty Picture's Suryakant, but I don't know whether Ekta Kapoor could really have backed such explicitly unflattering reference to her own father. More than that, it's hard even to believe this is the same actor who made Caravan so delightful with his chubby-cheeked stupid cuteness.
The villain of Himmatwala, Sher Singh Bandukwala, is played by Amjad Khan. This, too, you might think would be a plus - how many awesome filmi villains has Amjad Khan delivered over the years? Alas. Here, he is doughy, bloated, mealy, and as far from menacing as an Amjad Khan villain could be. There is some weak humor surrounding a running joke where he yells for his rifle-bearing sidekick - "Banduk!" - since his name is Bandukwala, you might think he'd have a rifle close at hand himself. But a corny running joke hardly makes a villain, at least not in an apparently earnest morality tale like this one. Speaking of corny running jokes, dialogue-writer Kader Khan has a role in the movie as Bandukwala's spineless accountant (and father of Ravi's chief romantic rival, naturally played by Shakti Kapoor), whose every dialogue is peppered with arbitrary references to geographical locations. Weird.
Speaking of weird, guess who plays Ravi's mother.
What on earth is Waheeda Rehman doing in this God-awful movie?
Himmatwala is not utterly without redeeming quality. After all, it does have Sridevi. When we first meet her, as Bandukwala's spoiled daughter Rekha, she is clad in a dreadful pleather outfit, leading a pack in cruelly taunting another girl. This, I suppose, is Hindi film's first glimpse of its future rani.
Once the petulant, brutish Rekha gets a taste of Ravi's morality lectures, though, she begins to soften, and sheds the skin-tight pleather in favor of classical dancing togs, as she dreams about her upstanding new love in the movie's best-remembered song, "Nainon mein sapna."
This is a really terrific song and is worth watching; no need to squirm through the rest of the movie to enjoy it, though. Jeetendra comes closer to appealing here than at any other point in the movie. His outfit is horrible and he looks as creepy and weird as ever, but at least he can dance. He demonstrates this as well in another of the film's better songs, "Wah wah khel shuru ho gaya." These songs seem to have pioneered the side-by-side dancing style that is so characteristic of the 80s and early 90s.
But before you get too comfortable with the idea that Himmatwala's songs are safe and pleasant enough to watch even if the rest of the movie is cringe-inducing, be warned: "Imtehaan" blindsides you with grim stock footage of dead flood victims arrayed in a muddy plain. That's right, corpses in a song: WTF, Himmatwala? This is just one of the gruesome lurches in tone taken by this barely coherent movie, which careens from goofy lowbrow comedy to high-falutin' moralizing and back again without warning, all in service of demonstrating the many skills and qualities of its infallible, justice-driven hero. Feh.
And then there is Sridevi, the only reason I subjected myself to this drivel in the first place. Sridevi is certainly cute here, if not yet quite fully-formed. She does display marvelous presence in the movie's songs (see above). Her comedic skill gets pressed into service too - one of the movie's better scenes comes where Ravi and Rekha scheme convince Sher Singh Bandukwala that Rekha is pregnant, and as Rekha hams for Bandukwala's benefit and feigns a green mango craving, we get a glimpse of the Sridevi that is to come. But as in Chaalbaaz, she's just not enough to rescue an otherwise tiresome excuse for a movie.
There is a remake of Himmatwala coming out later this year which, in the time-honored filmi tradition of ouroboros-like self reference, aims to introduce a Southern star to the Hindi-language audience. As much as Tamannah is a guilty pleasure of mine (see Konchem ishtam konchem kashtam), the first trailer of this Sajid Khan indulgence looks every bit as dire as the original. And the wizened, leathery Ajay Devgn (sic) opposite fresh-faced Tamannah appears just as revolting as Jeetendra 2.0 was with Sridevi. I can't wait.