Nagin is the story of a pissed off snake (Reena Roy) out to get some good old-fashioned revenge on the bozos (Sunil Dutt, Feroz Khan, Kabir Bedi, Vinod Mehra, Sanjay Khan and Anil Dhawan) who pumped her soulmate (Jeetendra) full of bullets after he went out of his way to be nice to them. Chills, thrills and boatloads of (unintended) hilarity follow. Enough to make this my favoritest Bollywood B-movie ever.
The legend of the snake woman is one that is familiar to Indians everywhere, if not through religious texts like the Mahabharata and folklore then through movies like this one. According to it, there are certain highly evolved snakes out there, usually extremely venomous cobras, who can take human form thanks to a “jewel” they carry deep within themselves (hence the scene from Nagina in which Sridevi appears to vomit yesterday’s lunch into Amrish Puri’s hand – she was handing him her highly prized shapeshifting powers). Although male snakes also have this ability, it’s the female of the species that appears to really excite the imagination. Nagin is no exception.
But while it would have been easy to just straight up make a movie about a murderous snake woman luring susceptible men to their deaths, Nagin decides to take a more scenic route to the finish line and starts doing all sorts of interesting things.
For one thing, the so-called villain of the piece is actually quite a sympathetic character. There she was, minding her own business, looking forward to a night of glorious nookie after a wait that lasted a 100 years, and half-a-dozen humans come lumbering into her bedroom and shoot up her lover. It’s a brutal home invasion – jungle style! Obviously she becomes a little unhinged and isn’t all that interested in the whys and wherefores.
She might be in human form, but she’s still a snake. What’s she going to do? Call the police? No, she’s going to take care of it on her own, thanks. Girl-power before it had a name.
But who are these idiots who destroyed her happiness? In a lesser movie, they’d be horrible douchebags you’d want to personally throw down a deep hole or else saintly, lovely men who didn’t deserve all the bad stuff slithering towards them. Happily for us, Nagin is much better than that.
For one thing, they’re all in this mess because the male snake has more than a bit of a woodland sprite in him (hint: Jeetendra in interpretive dance mode fluttering through the forest in a skirt) and his idea of a good deed is to invite some guy poking his nose in where it doesn’t belong to come watch him getting it on with his girlfriend. Snake society must be much more naive than the human one because out here that’s called asking for trouble.
And when he does get in spades, it’s a case of mistaken identity – the guy with the gun saw a sexy lady being attacked by a vicious snake and his itchy finger did the rest. But then the movie suggests he wasn’t reacting entirely out of chivalry – he was just so turned on by the sexy snake lady, he forgot everything his friend had told him about how they were headed into the forest to see a couple of snake-humans get it on. So when the Nagin shows up at his house to play on his attraction and chew him dead (whoops! did I spoil that for you?), nobody is really all that bothered. It’s when she makes it clear that she isn’t differentiating between the killer and his BFFs that people get sweaty.
This then sets us up for a number of fascinating subtexts:
For instance, the nature of love and trust in a relationship. The Nagin’s preferred method of offing her enemies is to take on the form of the women they love / are attracted to and seduce them to a point where they’re no longer thinking with their brain so she can sink her fangs into them (and boy, does she have a bite on her!).
When the men catch on to her little plan, they’re then forced to spend all their time peering suspiciously at their wives and girlfriends, wondering if they can trust them. In one hilarious episode (with subtitles!), Feroz Khan opens the door to a bootylicious Mumtaaz with her foot inserted firmly in her mouth, holding a boombox. Yes, it’s just as bizarre as it sounds. It’s also quite possibly the most entertaining yet dire PSA ever created against hooking up with strangers: they might force you to dance to “stupid music” and try to shoot you!
Mumtaaz is also an excellent example of how Nagin constantly plays footsie with Bollywood’s Madonna-Whore complex. On the one hand, she comes to his door because their mothers think they might make a go of it, like a proper Indian girl should. But what sells them on each other is a shared taste for liquor, shaking a leg, living dangerously and that they find each other hot (also, a combined IQ that barely makes it to the double digits but that’s another matter).
All the women in this movie, in fact, are Madonna figures – there’s the devout wife who prays her way into her atheist husband’s heart; the chaste girlfriend whose purity is so bright, death is pretty much assured to the man who looks at her with lustful eyes; and of course, the ever-fabulous Rekha who isn’t afraid to break a few nails for her lover. The movie takes great care to explain that the slutty side of their personality isn’t actually their own (except for Mumtaaz, her boombox and her head for hard liquor, all of which are portents of doom from the word go) – it’s the demented snake trying to act like them.
But the Nagin herself fits the criteria for a good, faithful woman. She isn’t doing all this for the fun of it – there’s nothing to suggest she’s intrinsically evil. Even when she’s writhing around with the men she plans to kill, it’s nothing more than a means to an end. Snakes might be an iffy lot with their free love and what not, but at the end of the day she’s a faithful mate exacting revenge for the murder of her soulmate. What’s so wrong with that?
Ah, that leads us to the philosophical implications of vengeance. In 1976, Amitabh Bachchan’s Angry Young Man was marching through the nation, righting the wrongs done his mother, his father, his sister, his brother, his lover, his neighbor, his best friend, his adoptive parents, his crew at work, anyone and anything he could find really. And he would continue to do so for the next many years to great acclaim.
Slap bang in the middle of that comes this movie suggesting that even (female) animals know better. Excellent. So why am I the only person who loves this movie?