HELLO, DOLLY: A B-Masters Roundtable


It's always complicated discussing Indian remakes. For instance, it's important to remeber that it's not just recent Hollywood hits that get recycled for local audiences: I have in my collection DVDs of 21st-century remakes of movies as diverse as Laura (1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and Chinatown (1974), all of which I bought without realizing what they were.

It's also important to realize that India's position in South Asia makes it a crossroads for cultural influence to and from Europe, Asia and Africa, not just from the cultural monolith that is modern Hollywood.

And then too, it's important to recognize the diversity of cultures, languages and ethnicities within India: "Bollywood", which serves as a convenient catch-all phrase for Indian cinema exported to the US, is only one of many local industries... though admittedly, as the Hindi-language industry centered in Mumbai, it's the major player. But there's also — to name only a few — Kollywood (for Tamil film production, which is nearly as prolific as the Hindi industry), Mollywood (for Malayalam films), Gollywood (Gujarati), Chhollywood (Chhattisgarhi), and two Tollywoods — one for Telugu movies, and the other, derived from the Tollygunge region and representing the oldest "Hollywood"-inspired pun, for Bengali cinema. A film may originate in one region of India and be totally remade for another. Or a film may be remade by more than one regional film industry at different times. Or a foreign film may be remade and completely re-interpreted by one regional industry, and then the remake itself may then be remade in another.

A few B-Masters' Roundtables back, I reviewed a 1991 Hindi version of (of all things) an early Lucio Fulci giallo. I have since learned, though the wonder which is YouTube, that there are at least two other previous Indian versions of Fulci's Sette Note in Nero: a Tamil film called Nooravathu Naal Mohan (1984) and a very, very loose Malayalam remake called Aayiram Kannukal (1986). It's still fair to call 100 Days a remake of Fulci's film, though, since it seems clear from the context that the film-makers drew inspiration as much from the Italian original as from the very popular Tamil version. Each of these films was reshaped to appeal specifically to the concerns of a local audience. For instance, while the other versions copy Fucli's original by centering the action on the female protagonist, the Malayalam version shifts most of the action to the male characters. Whether this makes for a stronger film I'm inclined to doubt; but that's what the film-makers thought was required for the movie to be acceptable. And while the Hindi 100 Days is clearly a remake of Sette Note... made in response to the popularity of Nooravathu Naal Mohan, Aayiram Kannukal is equally clearly a re-imagining of the Tamil film, not the Italian one.

If you find that a little confusing, wait until you see what happened to Tom Holland's 1988 film, Child's Play.

I'm assuming, dear reader, that you've seen Child's Play. That's a pretty safe assumption. If you're combing the internet lookiung for obscure horror films like the ones I write about, chances are you've either seen all the most influential mainstream horror films already, or have chosen not to for some reason. Either way, I'm sure you won't mind if I go over the details of the original film, so I can illustrate how the various Indian version compare. We need to have this common frame of reference if this discussion of the Indian films are going to make any sense at all.

The American film starts with the pursuit of a serial killer named Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), also known as "Chucky". Ray is an unusual serial killer in that he works with an accomplice; but Ray's motivations are also different from your run-of-the-mill mad strangler. He's bent on killing a certain number of people as a sacrifice to the voodoo gods, in order to gain eternal life. We learn all this very gradually over the course of the film; originally, there was to be some exposition at the start of the movie that made Ray's back story clearer to us, but this material was cut from the final version. The absence of this material explain why the first time we see Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon), the cop in pursuit of Ray, he's wearing a dress.

Anyway: when Ray stumbles into a police trap set by Sarandon, his accomplice panics and leaves him behind. Ray attempts to find shelter in a toy store, but is fatally shot before he can make his escape. As he dies, he grabs a doll from a display — this year's hottest item, a talking "Good Guys" doll named Oliver — and begins chanting a sinister incantation. Soon strange swirling clouds appear in the sky over the toy shop... the store is hit by a colossal bolt of lightning, which causes it to explode. Ray's body is found next to the doll at the center of the blast.

The next day, stressed-out single mom Karen (Catherine Hicks) is overjoyed when she's able to buy a slightly-singed "Good Guys" doll at an enormous discount, from a homeless guy in the alley outside the department store where she works. She brings it home as a birthday present for her very young son Andy, who is unusual among horror-movie children in that he thinks and behaves very much like a real child.

It isn't long before Andy confides that his talking Oliver doll is actually named "Chucky", and that he has some very specific and strangely un-doll-like ideas. For example, Andy says Chucky wants to stay up and watch the evening news report about the death of a notorious serial killer, and the escape of his cohort... and when the babysitter insists he stop being a naughty boy and playing tricks after bedtime, things go very badly for the babysitter indeed.

Karen comes home to find her friend dead on the pavement and her apartment full of police. It certainly looks as though someone very small and very dangerous took a toy hammer to the babysitter's head and then knocked her out the window to her death. It's only the sheer unlikeliness of little Andy's being involved that stops Norris from arresting him at the scene.

Norris gets some more food for thought the next day, when Andy skips school — he says Chucky told him to — and takes the El out to a sketchy neighborhood. Andy puts Chucky down to go have a pee against a nearby wall (hey, everybody else around there seems to do it, too), but when he returns, Chucky is gone. Shortly thereafter, a nearby building — which just happens to be the place where Ray's cowardly accomplice is hiding — goes up in a gas explosion. The police find boy and doll at the scene. What is the meaning of this?

The most likely inference is that Andy is a distubed little boy with homicidal tendencies... and to the movie's credit, if it doesn't really allow us to think that Andy really is the killer, it does hint at first that Ray's possession of the doll may be more spiritual than physical, and that Andy really may be doing the actual murders. All that is dispelled when Andy is locked away in a mental hospital for "evaluation", and Karen discovers that Chucky's been walking and talking without any batteries.

In the meantime, Chucky's discovered that his doll form is becoming more and more fragile. He's starting to feel pain, and when he's shot he bleeds — not normally what you'd expect from a chunk of plastic. He goes to see his old voodoo instructor, who's at first horrified and then pleased to see his old student reduced to such a state. Ray had misused the teachings of his religion, and now he's trapped in the shape of a pathetic plastic doll... but a doll that's becoming ever more human, and ever more vulnerable. But Ray knows a little more than his teacher had expected, and soon has the voodoo master lying broken on the floor pleading for his life. Ray learns that he can assume human form again by possessing the first human he revealed himself to — little Andy.

That's about all the background you need on Child's Play to deal with its Indian versions... though I should probably point out that it is one of very few horror films that goes out of its way to address the question of what they're going to tell the police as the movie comes to an end. It does have its share of script problems — how, for instance, does our struggling single mom afford her spacious top-floor Chicago apartment? Maybe it's where she lived with her late husband in happier times, and the upkeep of an apartment that she's unwilling to leave is one of the reasons she struggles? Evidently the explanation is yet another thing that was left on the cutting-room floor, along with Ray's back-story in the exposition. But overall, Child's Play does a very good job making a ridiculous concept not only believeable, but frightening.

Now then: remember that in Indian cinema, remakes aren't entirely dependent on what's currently popular. While, say, the Italian film industry of the 1970's could create a cottage industry around remakes of current hot properties like The Exorcist, Mad Max, Escape from New York or Dawn of the Dead until il filone snapped from the strain, Indian cinema might wait decades — well after the international furore had died down — before acknowledging a major Western blockbuster. This is not to say that the Indian film centers aren't eager to snap up current properties while they're hot. It's just that the process isn't always as strightforward as you might think.

That being said, the version of Child's Play you're most likely to stumble over in the US is the Bollywood version, Papi Gudia ("The Sinful Doll"). There are two reasons for this: first, the Hindi industry has the firmest hold on international distribution to countries like the US; and second, Papi Gudia is an early film for an actress who went on to major stardom, Karisma Kapoor. I'd compare Kapoor's appearance in Papi Gudia to Meg Ryan's appearance in Amityville 3-D, except that Amityville 3-D is a much better film than Papi Gudia — mull that over for a moment — and Meg Ryan didn't have the starring role in it.

I. Doing It Wrong (Papi Gudia)
Papi Gudia was made in 1996, which is not only 8 years after the American movie: it's also after Child's Play 2 (1990) and Child's Play 3 (1991). The Bollywood version does not seem to have been made out of any deep faith in its source material. It makes some major changes to the structure of the story, almost none of which make it a stronger film.

As is the case with all the Indian versions of Child's Play I've been able to see, Papi Gudia makes the killer's back-story the most important part of the movie's opening. In this case, though, the evil Charan Das (aka "Channi") doesn't just abduct and kill random people: he preys specifically on children. This is a troubling development which Papi Guida is completely unwilling to consider seriously. Horror movies are generally very reluctant to put kids in genuine jeopardy, and while the original Child's Play does exactly that, it does it very carefully... in fact, through all the perils little Andy faced, it was always stressed that Chucky needed him alive — Andy's peril was always more spiritual than purely physical.

Channi's child-murdering activities may not disturb the film-makers very much, but they do prove to be too much for his henchman. After a beggar woman interrupts them trying to abduct a little boy off the street, and they are almost caught, the henchman tells Channi he's had enough and wants out. Channi, predictably, kills him. This removes the henchman far earlier than in the original, and while it might be considered a half-hearted attempt to address the seriousness of the child-murder subplot, it feels more like something thrown in to emphasize Channi's single-minded brutality.

To give some idea how lightly Papi Gudia takes child abduction, consider this: Channi's first attempt at a solo abduction prompts him to steal a little boy straight off the stage of a karaoke competition, in front of hundreds of parents and well-wishers. He actually expects to get away with it — and he does. In spite of the panic in the auditorium nobody's able to find Channi or the boy he's slung under his stereotypical villain's cloak.

Channi's subsequent run-in with the police is actually played for laughs, as Police Inspector Yadav, strolling down the suspiciously-deserted avenue, realizes he has no matches for his cigarette. He stops the only passer-by, a man in a hood and cloak. He only starts to get suspicious when the lumpy cloak starts crying. This causes Channi to drop his captive and run. Soon the killer and the policeman are running down the middle of the road, firing guns at each other point-blank — and missing. Channi attempts to take refuge in (I'm not making this up) the Green Card Departmental Store.

The police in Indian movies seem even more indiscriminately trigger-happy than their Hollywood counterparts; so it's no surprise that Channi gets fatally shot in the toy department (that's gotta hurt). Before he dies, he grabs a plastic doll off the shelf and begins a sinister incantation. To Papi Gudia's credit, the incantation is genuinely creepy, and it results in Channi's aatma — represented by bands of purplish light — leaving his body and entering the doll. The shop then explodes, leaving a dazed Inspector Yadav to motion the arriving emergency response team toward Channi's lifeless body.

As the paramedics bear away Channi's corpse, a plastic doll turns its head to watch them...

At this point, we have almost two hours' running time yet to go — but it's all downhill from here; and the strongest, most heartbreaking indication we have of the sharp descent in quality we're about to experience comes when we get our first glimpse of The Doll. The Doll, after all, is the centerpiece of the movie. We need to be convinced that this chunk of molded plastic is a real supernatural menace. Merely having its every appearance accompanied by shock-chords and heavy breathing on the soundtrack is not enough. As our later examples will prove, it's not even necessary that the design of The Doll be particularly scary in and of itself; the film needn't even go the full "Chucky" route and have The Doll gradually take on a more and more sinister appearance. But some thought has to be given to The Doll. What you can't do, under any circumstances, is just grab a cheap plastic doll off the shelf, put it on camera and hope for the best. Right? Right?


Ladies and gentlemen, without further delay, let me introduce you to the chief liability of Papi Gudia: Channi the Killer Doll...

Channi from Papi Gudia

Following the lead of the original, the action now shifts to the child who will be the unwitting recipient of the Killer Doll. Wouldn't you know it? In this case, that child — whose name is Raju — happens to be the boy Channi abducted from the karaoke competition. In this version of the story (and this is a crucial difference), he's not living with his impoverished single mother — he's living with his sister, who's an immensely popular stage star. The kid still gets left alone for long periods, but it's not because his guardian is struggling to survive. Instead, she's overworked because she's so ridiculously popular.

And I say "ridiculously" for a good reason. Karisma Kapoor is an extremely talented performer who well deserved her later success; but in Papi Gudia, she's given unsympathetic direction and some truly dreadful songs. When she's not singing and dancing, she's made to act like she's acting in a community-theatre production of a Victorian melodrama — clasping her hands to her bosom, staring off into the distance and delivering speeches. When she is singing and dancing, she's a different person... but the songs are so disappointing it just doesn't matter. Don't get me wrong: some of my favorite Indian movie music comes from terrible horror flicks nobody seems to like, such as Kabrastan and Khooni Dracula; but in the case of Papi Gudia I found the soundtrack irritating. For example, during one big production number, Karisma's male dance partner breaks into an attempt at rap, in English... which contains this gem of a lyric:
"Baby baby baby doll
Is a clue that stands out oh-so-tall;
What the hell's the matter with you, man?
You could be dead on the count of ten!"

Nine months after Papi Gudia sank without trace at the box office, audiences got to see Karisma Kapoor star in a movie called Raja Hindustani — a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy, but one made by a director who knew how to present his leading actress in her best possible light. Raja Hindustani also had a first-rate soundtrack — I remember I had a copy on cassette back in the '90's, and I still remember most of the songs (Tere Ishq Mein Nachenge was my favorite). Raja Hindustani was a huge international hit, and helped make Karisma Kapoor a major star. Looking back, Papi Gudia seems to go out of its way to negate everything in its lead actress that made Raja Hindustani such a success.

Not to mention giving us this...

Nope... still not frightening.

It has a huge impact on the tone of the story that Karisma is not only not Raju's mother, but is also coping with too much success, rather than too little. Never mind that the police are disturbingly casual when they bring Raju back to his absentee guardian: "Your little brother was abducted from the talent show by a serial child-murderer; but really, there's nothing to worry about!" Never mind that young Raju takes all of this in stride, and never mind that Karisma subsequently does nothing to change her schedule or her behavior. What I'd like to know is this: why is this immensely successful young woman buying her little brother a crappy doll from a damaged-goods street vendor?

Nevertheless, she does end up buying The Doll for Raju, and from there things start to follow the familiar pattern. But you'll have realized there's an important discrepancy in the plot so far: the faithless accomplice is already dead. That means Channi will have to be listening for different information on the nightly news, before he takes a child's toy hammer to the babysitter's head. It's Inspector Yadav who turns out to be Channi's target for revenge — a development which further upsets the balance of the story, and requires us to shift our attention to a different substitute-Chris Sarandon.

As in the original, Karisma comes home to find her friend dead and the police ransacking her apartment. But when she catches sight of handsome Detective Vijay Saxana, the camera and the soundtrack make it very clear that this is an emotional moment for both of them. Oh, it would be bad enough if this were another simple case of love-at-first-sight, resulting in a couple who spend the rest of the movie bickering until they find their attraction is too strong to overcome. No. That would be too easy on the audience. Instead, it turns out that Vijay and Karisma came from the same village, and had fallen in love many years ago. But Vijay's hard-hearted father had disapproved of his son marrying a poor orphaned entertainer, and had driven her away without allowing her a word of explanation... after which the broken-hearted Vijay had attempted to forget his sorrows by joining the police academy, while the broken-hearted girl had attempted to forget her sorrows by throwing herself into her work, and... and...


(Did I say this movie reminded me of a community-theatre production of a Victorian melodrama? I may have been paying it too much of a compliment by suggesting it was as contemporary as that. There are Neolithic cave-paintings that are fresher than all this.)

So I suppose it's obvious that Vijay will spend most of the rest of the movie trying to prove little Raju is, in fact, a psychopath, all because he's the little brother of the girl he just can't get out of his broken heart. And actually, Vijay may have a point — because unlike the slightly-younger Andy, who might be excused for his reliance on magical thinking, Raju seems to be an enthusiastic participant in his doll's plans. This is made abundantly clear when Channi recognizes a woman begging in the street as the witness who betrayed him to the police. The Doll convinces Raju to carry him out of a crowded concert hall — Karisma has by this time been more or less forced to take some responsibility for her brother — and then help him steal Karisma's car.

I'm going to repeat that: The Doll gets the child to help him steal a car, so he can go run down the beggar-woman. As if the very idea wasn't ridiculous enough, let's not forget that it's this Doll we're talking about: a plain, off-the-shelf, inexpressive piece of plastic, lacking even a hint of the creepiness that you'd expect any doll to possess. And so, we're given this:

I am truly at a loss for words.

Nothing — not even the cloyingly sentimental musical number between Karisma and Raju (!!) that grinds the movie to a halt about two-thirds of the way in — nothing is as likely to drag the viewers straight out of the movie as this image of a plastic doll and a grinning little boy, driving down the street to do murder. Are we supposed to take this seriously? Are we still expected to sympathize with little Raju afterwards?

We're only halfway through Papi Gudia, and the movie has already hit rock-bottom. There are a few things thereafter that the movie handles reasonably well; for instance, there's a low-budget recreation of the famous car-crash sequence from the original that's realized better than I would have expected (in fact, I'd have expected them not to have attempted it at all). Then, too, the reincarnated Charan Das's confrontation with his guru probably makes more sense in an Indian context than in a voodoo one — but then again, there's that Doll... there's always that Doll...

Clearly that uninspiring toy wasn't going to be sufficient for the climactic battle between Good and Evil, so the movie cheats a little by letting Charan Das resume his human form for the final set of conflicts. Wait: did I say "a little"? I meant it cheats one hell of a lot — because the movie also subsitutes a little boy in a doll suit at key moments, and the boy bears no resemblance at all to the doll, especially in size. And just to add that final layer of indignity, rather than copying the (shockingly sensible) ending of the original Child's Play, Papi Gudia cribs its ending from not one, but TWO Hammer "Dracula" films.

(I realize that last statement may need some clarification. Since this ending is so totally removed from the original Child's Play, I'm putting its decription in a SPOILER SECTION...
Taste the Blood of Dracula: Channi is trapped inside a church, where the religious figures and icons sap him of his strength and supernatural powers. Papi Gudia goes TtBoD one better, though, by having the statues of saints launch Death Rays at him.

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave: Channi is ultimately impaled on a gigantic cross.


II. Doing It Right (Mantra)
For a complete contrast, fast-forward 9 more years. By this time, the original Child's Play had had four official sequels and a drastic change in tone. Yet for some reason, in 2005, the decision was made to produce a straightforward Bengali version of the original film, maintaining much of both the story and the tone of the original.

The resulting film, Mantra (2005), has been overshadowed by a popular by a totally-unrelated Telugu horror film with the same name that came out in 2007. You will not find the Bengali film listed in the IMDb. But Mantra is one of the most successful and most seriously-intended Indian adaptations of a Western horror film, and while it's technically a bit rough on the edges, it far outclasses Papi Gudia, and (especially considering its limitations) it holds up very favorably in comparison to the original.

Once again, the killer's back-story is made the center of attention in the movie's prologue. Curiously, this is the weakest part of the film: we don't get enough real detail about what the evil Mantra Shiba has been up to... though we do see a montage of the religious rituals he performs to prepare himself for murder. It's important to note he requires a mirror for his rituals — not just for the glimpse it gives us of his psychologcal state, but for practical reasons that will become clear later on. Rajatava Dutta, the actor playing Shiba, looks like a cross between Tim Curry and Oliver Reed, and he has absolutely no shame — none — no sense of restraint in his portrayal of a spiritually-mad serial killer. He laughs and bugs out his eyes; he sobs; he sticks out his tongue and giggles... he should be merely silly, but after a while his whole-hearted commitment to the role exactly as he plays it starts to become genuinely frightening.

Rajatava Dutta in Mantra

Once again, the villain is thwarted by the police before he can achieve his sacrifice; but this time, instead of a toy shop or a department store, the killer seems to be brought down in a children's carnival called Clowntown that's closed for the night. Police Inspector Chaudhury exercises unusual restraint for a cop in an Indian horror film, but Mantra Shiba ends up fatally shot anyway. The new locale provides us with a grimly unsettling scene, as a man lies bleeding to death in a pile of carnival balloons, which he pops as he struggles. Again, it should be comic, but the effect is much different than the bald description suggests. As Shiba flails, he comes across two items that bring him back into the moment: the first is a large, plastic-wrapped doll; the second is a mirrored shelf. These are exactly the items he needs. With his last breaths, Shiba begins an incantation...

Rajatava Dutta in Mantra

There's no explosion this time; no dramatic conclusion. Instead, there's just the peculiar shimmering of the mirror, as Shiba slumps over dead beside the doll. The inspector goes to call for help; but as he turns away, he fails to notice the itinerant who's taking this opportunity to loot some of the toys from the scene of the crime. Including, you will be unsurprised to hear, a certain Doll.

The next day it the birthday of a boy name Mimo (apologies of I spell the characters' names wrong: I don't speak Bengali, and there's next-to-no information available in English about this film). Mimo is a weird little kid: he likes to dress in a fox mask and pretend to be a monster. He even interrupts his mother's morning prayers to insist on getting his presents. Unfortunately for Mimo (and in total contrast to Papi Gudia), his mother Mandita (Locket Chatterjee) is a struggling widow, with a menial office job that makes Karen's perfume counter gig in Child's Play look pleasant by comparison. All he gets is practical gifts, like clothing... when what he really wanted was a doll to play with.

Well, it just so happens that Mandidta's co-worker Shabnam (Swastika Mukherjee) notices a shabby-looking itinerant street vendor selling an expensive doll at a deep discount. She convinces Mandita to come with her to buy it before someone else does, since she knows how much a new toy would mean to the poor boy. But the street vendor wants more for the doll than Mandita is willing to pay. When she hesitates, Shabnam grabs Mandidta's purse from her shoulder and takes out the money... only to find there isn't enough. With a shamed glance back, she goes to take the remaining sum from her own purse, only to have the entire bundle of cash yanked uncounted from her hand by the cackling vendor.

So Mandita has a gift for her son. But when she comes back from her unauthorized break, she discovers she no longer has a job because of her truancy. One step forward, one yawning chasm back.

On the bright side, Mimo is thrilled with his new doll, and even Mandita is amazed by its ability to talk as though it were really holding a conversation. However, Mandita is now going to have to leave her son for a little while to go search for a new job. Shabnam agrees to babysit for her — and under the circumstances, it's really the least she could do.

The build-up to the inevitable murder of the babysitter is very well handled in Mantra. The pacing is leisurely enough to make the eventual breaking of the peace very effective (Shabnam is absorbed in an English novel called "Hammer Strike", by Walter Winward — just another little touch that's both absurdly funny and horrifying at the same time). Mandita's discovery of the body is equally well-handled. You read that correctly: in this version, our heroine does not come home to a house full of police. Instead, we follow her for quite a while on her weary journey home. We know what's waiting for her, but the movie's in no hurry to break the news. Thus we see Mandita trudging through the busy streets until she finally breaks down and tries to hail a taxi she can ill afford. She arrives home to find the place oddly dark and quiet. She's expecting no real trouble as she goes from room to room... and then she stumbles upon her friend's dead body, lying in a spill of flour on the kitchen floor. Even then, we don't cut away: the camera follows Mandita's horrified reaction for a much longer time than we expect.

The emphasis, then, is not on the shock of the killing, but on the audience's emotional reactions before and after the murder. In fact, the only serious mis-step in the entire sequence, from murder to discovery, is our first real glimpse of the Killer Doll in action. We see him (or rather, a kid in a doll costume) running across the background, when a shadow or a suggestion would have been much more effective.

This is not to suggest that The Doll in Mantra is as ludicrous as the one in Papi Gudia. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mantra's Doll is designed to look almost innocent in the clear light of day... but in the right combination of shadows, and accompanied by the weird, shimmering mirror-light that comes with him, that Doll seems to come alive. It takes on new and sinister expressions even without being animated. That's what makes the occasional use of a kid in a Doll suit comparatively disappointing: the fact that they were able to wring so much character out of a prop, using only simple puppetry and changes in lighting.

The Doll in Mantra

Mantra Shiba, the Killer Doll

Mantra is some 20 minutes longer than Child's Play, but it does not feel padded in any way. It follows the original story very closely, but the additional running time is not eaten up by musical numbers (in fact, there are only two songs in Mantra: one plays in the background during a montage, toward the end of the film, which shows Inspector Chaudhury and Mandita — two decidely unglamorous heroes — drawing close to one another; the second, a lovely ballad called "Jibon Jodi Ei Bole", plays over the end credits). The difference in length is mostly accounted for by pacing. Mantra is overall a slower, quieter film than Child's Play. Unlike Papi Gudia, it has no explosions... it doesn't even attempt to reproduce the car-crash sequence, opting instead for a simpler murder plot that ends up accomplishing the same thing.

As was the case in Papi Gudia, Mantra temporarily puts the villain back in his human form for the climax; but in Mantra this doesn't seem like a cheat. The return of Bengali-ver Reed seems somehow natural — necessary, really — and when he first reappears, in the confrontation with his former guru, he even moves like a broken doll who's forgotten how to be fully human. I suppose the reappearance of Mantra Shiba feels right because Dutta's performance is so totally over-the-top it makes the whole Killer Doll thing look perfectly sensible by comparison.

Rajatava Dutta in Mantra

III. Doing It Weird (Zapatlela)
The Marathi film industry is the oldest in India. But it's comparatively little-known outside India, in part because it shares its center of operations — Mumbai — with Bollywood, the Hindi film industry, which exercises a dominant influence on the rest of Indian cinema. This not only weakens Marathi cinema's impact within its own region, it also deprives it of its own catchy "-ollywood" alias. So Indian cinema has Bollywood, Tollywood (two of them!), Kollywood, Ollywood, Gollywood, Dhaliwood, etc.... and the Marathi film industry.

Yet Marathi cinema beat Bollywood to a version of Child's Play by three years. Not only did they get there first, they also managed to make a version that was less a remake than an entire from-the-ground-up reconception. Perhaps realizing that a straightforward remake of Child's Play would not go over well with a conservative Marathi audience, the film-makers made a critical change to the structure of the story: they made it a comedy... which, when you think about it, actually makes a certain amount of sense. There is something incredibly silly about the idea of a supernatural Killer Doll, and it's a very difficult job to overcome that silliness. Tom Holland's original film does that very well, though by the third sequel the series had started to slide into comedy anyway... But there's something to be said for acknowledging the silliness up front, and going with it, especially if you know that's the only way your audience will come to accept it.

In order to do that, though, the important thing is to remove the child from Child's Play. Thus producer/director/star Mohesh Kothare got together with Marathi cinema's favorite man-child, comedian Laxmikant Berde... and together with the popular Indian ventriloquist Ramdas Pradhye, they made Zapatlela ("Haunted", 1993). And unlike the disastrous Bollywood version (which tanked), or the superbly well-done Bengali version (which nobody seems to have heard of), the Marathi version was an enormous success at the box office.

As we might expect, Zapatlela starts by giving us a good long look at our main villain. In this version, the Bad Guy's name is Tatya Vinchu... but he is not the mad serial killer we have come to expect. Instead, he's a run-of-the-mill gangster — still a very bad Bad Guy, but a far cry from the assassins we've seen in Child's Play and its more literal imitators.

Tatya Vinchu has decided to intimidate a local mystic into providing him with the secret mantra that will give him ultimate control over material objects. He confronts the mystic in what looks like the set of a spooky children's show: a hilariously unconvincing cave full of light-up plastic skulls on sticks. The mystic agrees to teach him all he needs to know — a long incantation that ends with a Sanskrit-flavored flourish: "Om phat swaa-HA!" (This bit requires the chanter to blow over his extended fingers for added effect. Take note of all that — we see & hear it a lot in this movie, so every time I so much as mention Tatya Vinchu, imagine you hear a manic voice chanting "Om phat swaa-HA!" and gesturing with his hand).

Tatya Vinchu, in his human form, is played by the actor Dilip Prabhavalkar. Prabhavalkar started his career as a biophysicist; later on, he became a respected author of humor and children's literature. In his professional acting career he's won an impressive handful of awards, and in two films he's played the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi. All that being said (cough), here is how Prabhavalkar appears in this film:

Tatya Vinchu as a human... almost

As you can no doubt tell by his appearance, Tatya Vinchu may be an evil criminal genius, but he's also got a nice wide streak of idiocy to make him more human. When you combine this deliberately broadened character with Dilip Prabhavalkar's gleeful, scenery-chewing performance, you end up with a villain who's both hissable and oddly sympathetic at the same time. Not sympathetic enough for any impressionable minds in the audience to want to be like him, of course, but still endearingly awful.

He's particularly sympathetic when you compare him to another of the main characters in Zapatlela: a block of wood with a head full of padding. And I'm not talking about a doll: I'm referring to our nominal hero, Inspector Mohesh (played by the director, Mohesh Kothare... there's an "Inspector Mohesh" character in many of Kothare's films, and they're always played by... well, guess). Mohesh is Tatya Vinchu's mortal enemy, and the main reason the gangster's decided to enlist supernatural help running his empire of crime. But no sooner has Tatya Vinchu returned to his shabby warehouse headquarters to gloat over his new powers, when Inspector Mohesh literally somersaults onto the scene with his guns blazing.

Naturally, Mohesh is immune to the bullets of mere henchmen... though equally naturally, every single one of his shots fells a goon (I'd like to think this whole sequence is self-parody, but I have my doubts). When Tatya Vinchu realizes the battle is not going his way, he summons his hunchbacked squinty-eyed sidekick and attempts to escape in a gloriously tinny old car. Inspector Mohesh manages to shoot out a tire, and the two villains are forced to take refuge inside a post office.

While the hunchback grapples hand-to-hand with Mohesh, Tatya Vinchu attempts to sneak up and draw a bead on the Inspector from behind a shelf of packages. But Mohesh catches sight of him at the last moment, and shoots him fatally. Mohesh's battle with the hunchback distracts him from the dying gangster... but in his death throes, Tatya Vinchu accidentally rips the packing paper off a box in the pile of Incoming Mail. Inside the box is a ventriloquist's dummy — prominently labeled "Made in USA", though its product description, "VENT DOLL" (using "vent" for "ventriloquist"), sounds more like British than American English.

This gives the dying man one last brilliant idea. He begins his mystical incantation, finishing with the expected "Om-phat-swaaa-HA!" and a gesture of the hand straight toward the small figure on the box. He's able to complete it several times, though by the final go-round he's grown too weak to manage the usual flourish. Just as he comes to the end of the final chant, he falls over dead. Inspector Mohesh, who's just that moment managed to defeat the hunchbacked sidekick, calls into the police station to report the good news (even saying it in English to add emphasis): "Tatya Vinchu is dead."

Within the broken box, the ventriloquist's doll waggles its eyebrows, rolls its eyes, and begins to giggle...

Now, when I say "ventriloquist's dummy", you probably think I have something like this in mind:

And this one is absolutely terrifying.

Why would you not? Plenty of traditional ventriloquist's dummies have been put to sinister use in Killer Doll movies randing from The Great Gabbo (1929) through Dead of Night (1945), to Magic (1978) and Dead Silence (2007). However, I have to warn you that Zapatlela, while it does feature a classic dummy in several key scenes, does not put its villain's disembodied spirit into one. Instead, Ramdas Pradhye designed a doll that was more expressive... that was made of soft material, so that its hands and facial expressions could be manipulated directly by the puppeteer... that had moving parts, like its eyes and eyebrows, that could be controlled separately by hidden mechanisms.

In short, Pradhye replaced Chucky the Killer Doll with: a Muppet.

Tatya Vinchu, as a Doll

To me — that is, through the eyes of somebody who was part of the original, intended audience for Sesame Street — Zapatlela's Tatya Vinchu doll seems completely insane. There is no way this could ever be frightening to me. I can't look at the doll without thinking it's the damaged love-child of Bert and Ernie.

But I have to put aside my cultural prejudices and see things through they eyes of a Marathi audience. And to them, the waggling eyebrows... the independently-moving fingers... the changing expressions on the pale, white face... all these things actually suggested horror. They had no experience with a doll that could move like this, and the effect — I'm told — was just scary enough for an audience that wasn't used to being terrified at the movies.

(I just remind myself that the real-life "Annabelle" doll — the one the ghost-chasing Warrens swore was possessed by demons, and which was incarnated so memorably in The Conjuring and Annabelle — was actually a Raggedy Ann doll. Context! It's all about context!)

So. It's time to get things started —

AUDIENCE (singing): Why don't you get things started?

— with the action of the story proper. After Mohesh's stunning cleanup of the Tatya Vinchu gang, everybody involved gets a promotion. Unfortunately, the Superindent of Police's new duties prevent him from getting to the airport to welcome his daughter Gauri back from her criminology studies in America. No problem, sir! — says the newly-promoted Mohesh. He'll go out to the airport and pick her up himself. Except that he's late; and rushing to the airport he runs into a car driven by two young ladies.

Mohesh is furious, and gets into a sarcastic verbal duel with the passenger of the other car. You will have guessed that this is the Meet-Cute between Mohesh and Gauri, even though Mohesh (the Great Detective) will be in the dark for a long time yet. The driver of the car is Gauri's old friend Aavadi, who happens to be the girlfriend of Laksha (Laxmikant Berde), a lovable loser who never goes anywhere without his ventriloqusit doll. Gauri grew up with Laksha, too, so as a special present she has sent him a unique "Made-in-USA" Vent Doll from America.


Laksha is actually a very good ventriloquist, who takes his craft very seriously — instead of a shrine to a god or a religious figure, Laksha has a photo of Ramdas Pradhye on his wall, to which he addresses his morning devotions. But the direspectful and rebellious side of Laksha's personality that comes out through his dummy comes as a surprise even to Laksha himself. Introducing a local dignitary at a charity show, Laksha goes a little bit too far... much to the delight of the audience, and the extreme discomfort of the dignitary. Even when Laksha is helping his mother with her general store, the dummy has a tendency to intervene and make things difficult for the customers; so everybody in town is accustomed to dealing with him as a harmless lunatic with a split personality.

So when Laksha's new American doll, named "Tatya Vinchu", starts insulting people and generally behaving as though it had a mind of its own, everybody just assumes Laksha is just working on his act...

Of course, the one person who knows Tatya Vinchu is really alive is Laksha, but Tatya Vinchu is free to gloat over the fact that nobody will believe him. And to be fair, this version of the Evil Doll isn't really as Evil as the other incarnations we've seen. He's more of a troublemaker than anything else, and he sometimes ends up helping Laksha (when it's in his own interest to do so).

But things come to a head when the local dignitary Laksha offended in public decides to get his revenge. He comes to Laksha's house while the ventriloquist is away, intending to evict him for a supposed non-payment of rent. But when he finds he's alone, he decides to upend the place, wrecking the furniture and scattering Laksha's belongings. He saves a special scorn for Laksha's beloved dummies — especially his new American one, which he kicks into the corner.

That turns out to have been a very bad decision... since the Doll proceeds to get up and tell the intruder exactly how he feels about the situation. Soon Tatya Vinchu has his felt fingers wrapped around the other man's throat; he threatens him with a knife until the poor man drops dead of the shock. Naturally, this is the cure for Laksha to come back and find them; and equally naturally, Mohesh, Gauri and Aavadi stumble in just at that moment and find Laksha, standing over a dead body, with a limp, lifeless ventriloquist's dummy in one hand and a knife in the other.

Everybody assumes that poor Laksha has finally gone 'round the bend. He's taken off to prison... which is is particularly bad for Laksha, since the comic relief constable at the police station has been trying to muscle in on Aavadi's affections. Much to Laksha's added distress, the Tatya Vinchu doll is taken along as evidence. As soon as the constable has turned his back, Tatya Vinchu sits up and demands Laksha tell him how to get back to Mumbai. He needs to go see the mystic again, and find out how to get back into a human body.

Tatya Vinchu again: are you scared yet?

Turns out the joke is on Tatya Vinchu. After the Doll manages to hitch a ride to Mumbai on the back of a train, the mystic reveals to him that the only human body he can transfer his soul into is that of the first person he revealed his identity to. Laksha, in other words... all the way back where he started. Since this is a much gentler film than Child's Play, Tatya Vinchu doesn't take out his wrath on his former mentor. Instead, he goes marching straight back to the village, where the post mortem results seem to have exonerated Laksha from his murder charge.

Laksha temporarily gains the upper hand on the Doll and locks it is a wardrobe. But when he tries to tell Aavadi what's happened, she unlocks the wardrobe and takes the now-inert doll out for a cuddle. Laksha is horrified... so to placate him, she suggests they go out to a field and bury the doll forever. Laksha is enormously relieved when they've finished, and the two of them start up the movie's title song, "Zapat'lela".

The song comes to an abrupt end as Tatya Vinchu claws himself out of the ground. That's enough to send Laksha running back to the village in such a state that the comic-relief police constable promptly fetches an ambulance to take him to the mental hospital.

In all the excitement, the Doll is unable to slip away and follow Laksha, but the hiatus gives him a chance to plot some revenge on Inspector Mohesh and the police. After all, they've left him alone with Mohesh's girlfriend, the police chief's daughter. Just because he's not, umm, anatomically accurate any more doesn't mean he doesn't recognize a pretty girl when he sees her... if he can't have his way with her, he could always just kill her. Gauri wrestles with the doll in a painful attempt to recreate the tension of the scene in which Karen realizes Chucky's alive. In fact, she's just having a doll thrown at her, whereupon she tries her best to convince the camera it's wrapping its fingers around her throat and choking the life out of her. She breaks away, and the fight scene is followed by an even more ludicrous car scene — will she be able to roll up the window in time to avoid the Doll tied to the... er, clutching the roof? Gauri manages to dislodge the Doll, and goes driving off to tell the unbelieveable news to Mohesh.

Mohesh takes everything surprisingly well, all things considered. He's already got a sort of a clue he gleaned from the hunchbakced sidekick: the name of Tatya Vinchu's mystical guru. Mohesh takes Gauri to the mystic's cave, and the old man reveals to them the One True Method to return Tatya Vinchu to the world of the dead where he belongs...

You gotta shoot him. In the head.

Seriously. This is what untold centuries of Indian mystical lore have brought us: the George Romero solution.

To its credit, Zapatlela plays the whole final pursuit sequence for laughs. We've got the hunchbacked sidekick tying Laksha's Mother to a post like a villain in a silent movie; we've got the "what's under the couch?" sequence from the original movie re-interpreted as vaudeville.

This was scarier, somehow, in the original.

And yet, for all the low comedy, the movie actually does manage to generate some suspense, as Inspector Mohesh ends up danging from the roof as Tatya Vinchu begins his final incantation. But everything's tied up just in time for the inevitable Happy Ending, as Laksha's hero Ramdas Pradhye makes a cameo to present the heroic little ventriloquist with a token of his esteem: a brand-new dummy...

IV. Doing It Over Again (Ammo Bomma)
Zapatlela was a great success with Marathi audiences, and the echoes of that success traveled all the way to, uhhh... (cough) Mumbai... where Bollywood dubbed the film into Hindi and released it to their audience as Khilona Bana Khalnayak ("The Villain in the Guise of a Doll", 1995).

But dubbing apparently wasn't enough for the Telugu film industry. Thus they turned around and made their own version of Zapatlela — not their own interpretation of Child's Play, but a literal, often shot-for-shot remake of the Marathi film. After all, why shouldn't they? It's only natural for a healthy local film industry to want to put their own personal stamp on an idea they know has been a hit elsewhere, right?

Well, that may be true, as far as it goes... but Ammo Bomma ("Oh God! The Doll") was made in 2001, a full eight years after Zapatlela had been released. That's hardly striking while the iron is hot.

At least (you may be thinking) a remake gave them a chance to improve on that silly doll! Oh, but here again you'd be mistaken: they used the exact same doll design for Ammo Bomma that they'd used for Zapatlela. Though Ammo Bomma tries much harder to treat the Doll as an object for horror, mainly through the use of spooky lighting, the Telugu films often comes off as being even sillier than its template.

Ammo Bomma feels as though it is going to a be a more serious film from its very outset. The opening scene in the mystic's cave is treated with a little more dignity: the set looks a little less like that of a children's TV show and more like the traditional chromatically-lit vault made famous by the Ramsays back in the 1980's. Our main villain, Gangaram (Satya Prakash), is quite a bit more intimidating than Tatya Vinchu... he swaggers like a more typical movie gangster, and his exagerrated makeup is limited to a set of rat-like front teeth.

Gangaram, the chief villain of Ammo Bomma

True, his sidekick looks like Jess Franco in one of his least-convincing idiot roles; but overall the effect is much less overtly comic than was the case in Zapatlela. Gangaram forces the "om-phat-swaa-HA!" mantra out of the old guru when he starts killing the guru's adepts — a touch of genuine villainy that Tatya Vinchu was never allowed to display.

The seriousness of tone disappears completely with the introduction of Inspector Mahesh (Suman). His entrance is a little less spectacular in Ammo Bomma than Insepctor Mo-hesh's in Zapatlela, but he's still the unstoppable Force of Justice who's immune to the attacks of simple henchmen. Gangaram and his sidekick attempt to escape in a similarly rickety car, and once again the Police Inspector manages to shoot out a tire in front of the local post office.

This time, however, Mahesh gains the upper hand on Gangaram. He holds the gangster at gunpoint, while looking into his eyes for a long moment. Then, the Inspector shoots the disarmed Gangaram at point-blank range. We're supposed to see this as heroic behavior on the part of Mahesh, and in fact Mahesh receives a commendation for his exemplary handling of the case. Yet even by the standards of police behavior in Indian horror films, this is a little too much.

Having mortally wounded Gangaram, Mahesh is fully occupied subduing his sidekick, and so does not notice the dying gangster beginning his incantation over the ventriloquist's doll in the opened package...

Laxmikant Berde's role as the small-town ventriloquist is taken here by Rajendra Prasad, who is as popular and famous a comedian in Telugu cinema as the late Mr. Berde was in Marathi. But throughout, Prasad seems to be bringing too much dignity to the role. His style of comedy seems to be quite a bit different from that of Laxmikant Berde — more centered, less self-deprecating — and indeed, the character Ram Babu is shown from the beginning to be more of a local hero than a tolerated loony, like Laksha. Watching the two films back-to-back, I got the feeling I was watching Bud Abbot take a role written for Lou Costello, or Dean Martin playing a part intended for Jerry Lewis.

That's a shame, because the difference in style between the two actors makes some of the physical comedy of the action sequences seem flat by comparison. The Doll, by contrast, is given quite a bit more business in Ammo Bomma than in Zapatlela... and although the evil Gangaram is much more genuinely evil than Tatya Vinchu, in his Doll form Gangaram comes across as even more of a simple practical joker. That, too, is at odds with the film as a whole: Doll-Gangaram is shot and lit like an object of fear, but he's more likely to be irritating than truly horrible.

Ammo Bomma is the same length, more or less, as the original Marathi version of Zapatlela — about two hours and twenty minutes long — and it follows the plot of the original very closely. But Ammo Bomma has several additional songs that interrupt the flow of the story. Furthermore, the Telugu version interpolates some lengthy comic-relief segments which have very little to do with the main story. One particularly painful episide involves a visit by two fake "Americans" — in whiteface — as a scheme by Police Constable Kola to ingratiate himself with the Superintendent ("We want Kola!" insist the "Americans", and the Superindendent calmly points out this is a Police Station, not a restaurant. So you can see the quality of the humor here).


We also get to hear the words "Om-phat-swaa-HA!" repeated so often that even Ram Babu couldn't possibly want to hear them less.

All in all, Ammo Bomma really feels like a remake, and not in a good way. It's almost as if a spirited original had been reborn, somehow, into a limited new form that wasn't quite right for it... that was even, in some ways, a little ridiculous. Something like...

... something like... hmmm...

Now, what does Ammo Bomma remind me of...?

Oh, well: if there's a simile to be found somewhere, it escapes me for the moment. But it seems as though Telugu audiences agreed with me, because Ammo Bomma failed in the theaters.

Re-warmed Komedy!

This little survey by no means exhausts the subject of Killer Doll movies in India. It doesn't even cover the topic of Indian Child's Play remakes exhaustively... and there are a surprising number of Indian movies about Killer Dolls that have nothing to do with Tom Holland's movie, or even predate it by a number of years.

For that matter, nor is Ammo Bomma the last word in follow-ons from Zapatlela: Mohesh Kothare made a 2005 film called Pachhadlela ("The Possessed"), which reunited Laxmikant Berde (shortly before his death) and Ramdas Pradhye on another comedy-horror film. Pachhadlela features a trio of evil ghosts, led once again by a grotesquely made-up Dilip Prabhavalkar, who attempt to interfere in the courtship of the daughter of the woman responsible for their deaths. Laxmikant Berde plays an inept exorcist who attempts to banish the wayward souls into something harmless, like, say... dolls. The spell goes horribly wrong, and the heroes find themselves on the run from three more evil muppets.

And as recently as 2013, Kohare brought out Zapatlela 2. Not only did he re-use the exact same Doll after all these years — he realized it with a combination of puppetry and CGI, and shot the movie in 3D.

I had intended to cover all these, and a few more, for this Roundtable, but lack of time and a filthy cold have prevented me. I still hope to get to these movies before too long. But in the meantime, you too can experience these four films in all their unsubtitled glory, through these YouTube links (current as of November, 2016):

Papi Gudia



Khilona Bana Khalnayak (Zapatlela in Hindi: fewer songs, clearer picture)

Ammo Bomma