Kali Ghata (1980)

What a slinky, trashy little thriller! I spent a long time wishing it into black and white and towards greater seriousness of intention; I am not accustomed to find the phosphorescent turn of the ’80s nutritive for psychological ambiguity. Upon contemplation, though, Kali Ghata proves an effective update of its genre, intelligent enough to exploit the inflexible conventions of masala as a secondary engine for suspense. As of writing, this film was available with subtitles on Ultra’s YouTube channel.

Kali Ghata opens in media res with a wildly scored and edited passage featuring an item girl I don’t recognize, older gentlemen in ruffle-front tuxes, and a scorpion hotel. These elements will not gel for a further ninety minutes, so it seems wiser to begin with siblings Rekha (Rekha) and Rashmi (also Rekha). Little Rashmi has been accepted to an overseas visual arts program, but household circumstance makes her hesitate leaving. Rekha didi seems determined to bury herself alive in the work of managing their late father’s factories and orchards. Rashmi has been going steady with hot-headed Kishor (Danny Denzongpa), who is convinced that Rekha mortally disapproves of him and that Rashmi herself will relish the opportunity to replace him with a newer, Frencher model. The klaxons really start to blare when Rekha’s letters to Paris reveal her rapid entanglement with a man of whom Rashmi has never even heard. Prem (Shashi Kapoor) has no evident family, lives on a houseboat, spends his time slinking around the jungle taking photos, and, most disconcertingly, seems able to call Rekha directly to him via spiritual homing beacon. Although they are very, very rapidly engaged, Rekha maintains enough presence of mind to establish a prenup. This seems to displease Prem, leaving Rekha with little doubt that he is at fault when, having fallen asleep on the houseboat, she wakes up half-drowned. Disgusted at having been fooled, Rekha makes the link from this assassination attempt back to her father’s violent death and realizes that control of the family wealth now paints a target on Rashmi, too. Rekha therefore enlists the help of Kishor’s friend Pinky (Aruna Irani), cuts her hair, dons her sister’s clothing, and sets out for revenge.

I appreciate that the revelation of this film’s central mystery astonished me while it happened, but not when rereading my notes. It deserves not to be spoiled. Suffice to say that Kali Ghata is well informed about the way we watch movies, the actorly personas involved, and the details we are inclined to consider important. Characters conceal their motivations from one another just as unnecessarily as usual, but their personal reasons for secrecy are comparatively compelling. Although Rekha-Rashmi’s story is more convincingly managed than is the background mystery of their father’s death, only two plot points really rang false. In the first place, multiple characters speculate that Kishor had reason to murder Rekha because she would not allow him to marry her little sister until she herself was wed. Kishor—who already seems more suspicious for better reasons—would have to have been daft to do so just prior to the date set for Rekha and Prem’s inordinately swift wedding. The “problem” resolves itself faster than any normal person could secure an assassin. Secondly, I think that one character too hastily forgave another for manipulations that, while pursued for commendable reasons, were still hurtful. It is not worth numbering the collective insanity displayed by the police force.

Kali Ghata was produced by Gobindram Ahuja for Shivalik Pictures with both story and direction by Ved Rahi. I know Rahi primarily for the 1966 reincarnation thriller Yeh Raat Phir Na Aayegi, which made me feel a little better about my running theory being that Prem was a ghost. (Prem is not a ghost.) Writing, direction, and editing work neatly in tandem to feed the layer of dread that burgeons through much of this film. So many other movies present things like Kishor’s possessiveness or Prem’s stalkerish flirting as uncomplicatedly romantic. Here, the editing is ungrammatical, the background score deliberately pointillistic—and of course, there’s that fog spreading out everywhere declaring “threat, threat, threat.” Despite the sense of danger, Kali Ghata is often gently funny. One character surpasses Amitabh’s practice of preemptively calling ambulances to his fights in Trishul: this fellow initiates a confrontation with gravediggers, a coffin, and a Christian priest already in tow.

The sexual politics are not what I expected. Rekha’s interest in Prem is blatantly physical; indeed, in their early interactions, she seems to desire him while also openly, believably hating his personality. My jaw fell when, in the background of a scene, he caught one of her hands and guided it to the inside of his thigh. By the time of their engagement, we are given to understand that they are already sleeping with one another, an action for which the film never bothers to punish her. Rekha’s friends do not object to her sleeping over at the houseboat; in fact, it is his eagerness to marry her that makes him a threat. Nor is this situation framed straightforwardly as wicked-man-seduces-and-destroys-innocent-girl. After all, Rekha bounces right back after her attempted murder to seduce and destroy him, a course of action clearly depicted as heroic. I doubt that any of this was meant to matter or to add up to some coherent statement, but it certainly struck me as abnormal.

The relatedly intriguing treatment of Pinky deserves its own paragraph. One thread of suspense running through Kaali Ghata is when the Aruna Irani character is going meet her inevitable death—and then she doesn’t. Pinky is straight-up a heroine! One who leads a cool single-lady life in Delhi, who is introduced as the platonic friend of a male character, whose goodness no one questions. I loved her song “Nainon Ki Khidki.” Similar to the standard Aruna number, she’s covered in sequins in the Hotel Horizon’s peacock frieze room (so familiar to fans of ’70s Bolly). The reason she’s dancing, though, is to try and cheer up her good buddy Rashmi. When some sweet girl like Rashmi winds up in the presence of an item, I expect it to be because the villains have tied her up! No, Pinky is a devoted friend who uses her powers of sensual dancing for good. I loved it when, upon first meeting Prem, she asked in blatant distaste, “Yeh ‘hero’ hai koan?”

A warning is in order regarding action, which remains a weakness throughout despite the liberal, visible application of money. The finale feels wearisome simply because it is so shoddily done, seeming to have been shot at all twenty-four hours of day in a series of ambiguously connected locations. (Which sister is which gets murky at the same point. The doubt should and mostly does lie in how well other characters can tell the girls apart—not whether the audience can.) I bring this up mostly to complain about the close-ups of Rekha “riding” a “horse,” which are the worst I have ever seen. Nobody even bothered to ask her to bounce up and down a bit! This is all the more baffling in that it is intercut with footage of her, full-length, on an actual horse. I guess they rented it by the hour and had to send it home.

The music by Laxmikant-Pyarelal feels refreshingly custom-built, with Anand Bakshi lyrics closely integrated with the story. The title song “Kaali Ghata Chhayi” pulls one of my favorite tricks, playing with variable understandings of when a song is audible in the world of a film. The first time Rekha hears it, she’s talking with her diwan, who seemingly can’t; she turns away mid-sentence to walk zombielike toward the sound. Later, an unseen Rekha-as-Rashmi sings it to Prem who, shaken, asks whether Kishor can hear it too. In two different instances, characters attempt to raise a polite alarm by singing relevant allegorical stories at their friends. I lost my breath during the Arab-flavored travesto number “Mohabbat Ek Vaada Hai” that Aruna shares with a sister whom I ought not specify. There’s also a snake song, “Tu Chali Aa, Chali Aa Meri Mehbooba,” which I rewound and rewatched three times in a row in increasing disbelief. Pinky wears glittery socks on either hand to represent two snakes. This means that she cannot move from her initial perch on top of a tree except by shuffling backwards on her belly and elbows, which is possibly intended to be reptilian but, in practice, just seems bizarre. One cannot look away.

5 thoughts on “Kali Ghata (1980)

  1. I think I watched this a lifetime ago, as a child. Or maybe I didn’t, I don’t remember anything of it except that title song. But Aruna Irani with glittery socks on her hands – now this song, at least, I should watch! *off to do so*.

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    1. It’s so dorfy and weird! And not only does she shrink to snake size at the end of that song, but in “Nainon Ki Khidki” she can blip in and out of sight at will–to the evident bewilderment of the nightclubgoers. Since that exact same thing happens in her number “Yeh Mera Jaadu” in “Fakira,” I have chosen to believe that it is not these Aruna characters, but Aruna herself who can manifest unexplained magical powers in the midst of otherwise unmystical films. “Jaadu chale yeh sabhi pe, bijli gire yeh sabhi pe. . .”

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      1. I have to admit I couldn’t watch beyond a couple of minutes of that song! It was just so bizarre. Odd that they’ve made such a travesty of a dance trope as well-worn as the snake dance, actually. There have been several actresses who’ve done snake dances onscreen in Hindi cinema (Waheeda Rehman and Sandhya among them), and without these outlandish accessories.

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      2. The entire ordeal is so strange! It’s not properly an ichchadhari naagin song–just a snake-and-snake-charmer song, I guess. Kishor and Pinky are performing at Rekha and Prem’s engagement, with Kishor intending the lyrics to be a caution to Rekha not to be entrapped by Prem. He actually says something shortly beforehand to the effect of, “Put your snake socks on, Pinky; Rekha’s being weird and we’ve got to get a warning to her.” Despite these quotidian surroundings, Pinky shrinks in size and zips around the screen toward the end of the song–not an ability I specifically associate with snake songs, but certainly one that I DON’T associate with engagement party songs. In short: what?!

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