Plot: female shape-shifting snake avenges the death of her lover.
Nagin (or Female Serpent) is a bona fide classic from the Golden Age of Hindi horror and a thinly-veiled reworking of a French arthouse favourite from the decade before. Decked out with a star-studded cast including Yogeeta Bali, Mumtaz, Femina Miss India World 1971 and Miss World 1971 candidate Prema Narayan, Heena Kausar or the second wife and widow of late Indian crimelord Iqbal Mirchi, comedienne Tun Tun, as well as popular child actor Vishal Desai (Master Bittu) and superstars Jeetendra, Sunil Dutt, Vinod Mehra, and brothers Sanjay and Feroz Khan; Nagin is was envisioned as the be-all end-all of Hindi horror. A two-and-a-half hour tour de force with an ensemble cast of some of the biggest superstars of the day headlined by Reena Roy and Rekha, and a solid 24 minutes (or 6 tracks) of song and dance. Yes, Nagin is the quintessential 3-hour Bollywood horror epic. Not only was it a veritable hit at the domestic box office and the highest-grossing film of 1976; it defined the early careers of both evergreen (and living legend) Rekha as well as perennial underdog Reena Roy.
The dawn of the 1970s heralded a brave new age in Bollywood horror and ushered in a new Golden Age with Raj Kumar Kohli being responsible for not one, but two, innovative milestones that changed the genre forever. This was horror for the contemporary age that appealed to the young crowds. No longer did Hindi horror model itself after the old Universal Horror (and the its European imitators) and Val Lewton movies of the 1930s/40s wherein white sari clad ghosts frightened pious townsfolk. Producer (and director) Raj Kumar Kohli was the man behind the Kewal Misra box office hit thriller Shart (1969) and as a specialist of ensemble romance, action, adventure, drama, and the occassional comedy he was looking to spread his wings. Kohli happened upon the revolutionary (and cost-effective) idea of setting loose a mythological creature of ancient folklore in the then-present day locale of a rural village in 1970s India. With that in mind he brought in Rajendra Singh 'Atish' and Jaggi Rampal and Charandas Shokh to come up with the story and screenplay, respectively. This was to be a horror flick for the uneducated and illiterate masses and one that preyed on age-old fears and petty provincial prejudices. It was the kind of horror that typically was the turf of the Ramsay clan, a dynasty of seven brothers, that catered to the discerning tastes of small village audiences in remote rural towns. This leaves us Westerners with one question unanswered: what exactly is a nagin?
In Indian folklore the shape-shifting cobra is a staple in the mythological bestiary and are known as great devotees of Shiva. A cobra will become a ichchadhari nag (male) and nagin (female) after hundred years of tapasya (penance). They attain human form after being blessed by Shiva. Nags and nagins possess a gem called nagamani that holds healing properties and grants resurrection. Their natural enemies are the mongoose, eagle and peafowl. They regress back to their serpentine form upon hearing the sound of a pungi (been or shapure bansi) or the wind instrument played by a sapera (snake charmer). When a nag or nagin is killed the image of the killer is imprinted upon the surviving cobra which swears to avenge the killing of its partner. Having just seen and being thoroughly impressed by François Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968) and probably marginally aware of that it had served as the basis for the Spanish erotic thriller She Killed in Ecstacy (1971) Rajendra Singh 'Atish' concocted a premise about a shape-shifting female cobra avenging the death of its mate and instructed Jaggi Rampal and Charandas Shokh to write a spec script. For Kohli this was only his second directorial feature Sapni (1963) more than ten year earlier and on top of that it was one of his rare forays into horror, or at the very least into more fantastic realms, than his usual fare. Everything had to be perfect. His wife Nishi would act as presenter and under his Shankar Movies he rounded out his crew with trusted partners director of photography Baldev Singh, costume designer Bhanu Athaiyaji, special effects men Babubhai Mistry and Ramesh Meer, and composer duo (and veritable hit factory) Laxmikant Shantaram Kudalkar and Pyarelal Ramprasad Sharma. To sell tickets he assembled an ensemble cast of the greatest Bollywood superstars, circa 1976. Something that wasn’t very common back then.
While there’s no shortage of big names present as far as we’re concerned the showstoppers here are the Bollywood queens, 19-year-old Reena Roy and 21-year-old Rekha. As the original dhak-dhak girl (in contemporary popular culture it’s something typically attributed to Madhuri Dixit and her 1992 film Beta and Sridevi in the decade before) Reena Roy (born Roopa Rai or Saira Ali in Bombay in 1957) Reena Roy faced a constant uphill battle as she carved her path to success. She had a darker skintone and fuller figure that didnt didn't conform to the beauty standards of the day and neither was she classically trained dancer. At the tender age of 15 she debuted in Need (1972) and followed that with the romantic comedy Tit For Tat (1973) opposite of Jeteendra where her rainsoaked dance to 'Ab Ke Sedan Mein' ('In the House Now') ensured her cinematic immortality and primed her as a new Bollywood promise. From there she played a fairy in Rani and Lalpari (1975) and opposite of Rakesh Roshan in We Took It (1975).
A year later she was the star of two box office hits with the action blockbuster Kalicharan (1976) (that paired her with Shatrughan Sinha) and the horror Nagin (in a role that Rekha and Neetu Singh famously declined and one that Jeetendra and Sunil Dutt had recommended her to Raj Kumar Kohli for) that landed her a Filmfare Award for Best Actress in 1977. Sinha and Roy both would star in Raj Kumar Kohli’s werewolf epic Bitter Enemy (1979) the same year that her offscreen romance with Sinha came to an end. 9 of the 16 movies she did with Shatrugan Sinha became box office hits and the 17 marital dramas she did with Jeetendra elevated her to stratospheric heights of success and fame. The duo produced three of their greatest hits: Affinity (1977), Ash (1980) and Arpan (1983). Her dance to 'Shisha Ho Yah Dil' ('This Heart Is A Mirror') in Ash (1980) made her an object of admiration and desire once again. To top it all off, Ash (1980) would land her her second Filmfare Award nomination for Best Actress. By this time Roy was in direct competition with Hema Malini and Zeenat Aman as the highest-earning actress from 1981-85 and second highest from 1976 to 1981. In 1983, at the summit of her popularity, Roy married Pakistani cricketer Mohsin Khan leaving Bollywood for over a decade to raise a family in his homeland Pakistan. In 1992 she divorced from Khan but her legend continued to live in Bollywood (and beyond).
Then there’s the regal, patrician, multi-talented, and notoriously reclusive Rekha (born Bhanurekha Ganesan in Madras, or present-day Chennai, in 1954), a former child actress and monument of over 180 films in a multi-stage career spanning well over six decades. As the recipient of one National Film Award and three Filmfare Awards Rekha’s widely recognized as one of the finest actresses of her generation. Over the decades she has several creative transformations (child star to young adult, arthouse and female-empowerment roles, playing both character and against-type, and in the past twenty years, more maternal roles) all while sustaining her status and prominence in face of career ebbs and flows. While we were initially attraced to Reena Roy (who doesn’t love a good underdog?) Rekha has remained an implacable pillar of Bollywood cinema at large. In 1976 she was still considered the ugly duckling of Hindi cinema and retroactively regretting for not acccepting the lead in Nagin she lost weight, practiced yoga and chose her roles with more care from then on. She too would return for the largely similar Bitter Enemy (1979).
In 1980s she ventured into parallel cinema and neo-realist arthouse films and was one of the first to dive headlong into the female-centric revenge subgenre with Demand For Murder (1988). During the 90s and 2000s her roles became more selective and sporadic. In more recent times Rekha was Hritik Roshan’s loving grandmother Sonia Mehra in his father Rakesh’s I Have Found Someone… (2003) - or the sweetest blend of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Forrest Gump (1994) - pairing him with Preity G. Zinta and she reprised the role for its mega-budget superhero sequel Krrish (2006) (with Priyanka Chopra - long before Jonas, Hollywood, and Disney). Roshan the younger is remembered around these parts mostly for Say That Love You Me (2000) (with that other evergreen debutante Ameesha Patel). Rekha’s cameo in the song ‘Deewangi Deewangi’ (‘Crazy Crazy’) was one of the highlights of Farah Khan’s tribute to 1970s Bollywood Om Shanti Om (2007) with Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone. Quentin Tarantino always steals from the best and never had a single original idea in his entire overrated filmography. No Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood (2019) without Om Shanti Om (2007).
Professor Vijay (Sunil Dutt) is writing a book about the behaviour and habits of shape-shifting snakes. On one of his research expeditions into the deep jungle he encounters a young man and saves him from an eagle attack. Grateful for such kindness the man profusely thanks the professor and invites him to his nocturnal copulation dance. Vijay informs his five friends – Raj (Feroz Khan), Rajesh (Vinod Mehra), Uday (Anil Dhawan), Kiran (Kabir Bedi), and Suraj (Sanjay Khan) – of his discovery but they laugh it off and heckle him for bothering with such trivialities. At Suraj’s palatial haveli him and his wife (Komilla Virk) are hosting the lavish birthday party of his daughter Anu (Vishal Desai or Master Bittu, as Master Beeto). Everyone’s there too: Kiran and his wife (Prema Narayan), Raj and his wife Rajkumari (Mumtaz Askari, as Mumtaz), Rajesh and his wife Rita (Yogeeta Bali, as Yogita Bali), Uday and his very religious wife Sheela (Neelam Mehra) as well as best friend Meena (Heena Kausar) and her husband (Roopesh Kumar). In other words, it’s full house and their obese maid (Tun Tun) has no time to waste seeing that all stomachs are full and not a glass is empty. Vijay is happy to see his wife Sunita (Rekha) at the party. He persists with stories about his discovery and the five men relent in joining the scientist in the deep jungle to witness the snakes.
On the promised night of the full moon Vijay and his five friends gather at a secluded spot in the deep jungles. Then and there it dawns upon the good professor that the young man he saved was in fact an ichchadhari nag who after hundred years of tapasya (penance) was given human form. In the jungle Nag (Jeteendra) declares his everlasting love for his Nagin (Reena Roy) as the two engage in a passionate dance of affection. Believing Nag to be a snake attacking the still human Nagin Kiran unexpectedly intervenes by shooting and killing the male snake. In a panic the men flee leaving kindhearted Vijay in the jungle. That night Nagin, enflamed with rage, solemnly vows to kill the five men responsible for the senseless slaying of her lover Nag. In hiding the men encounter a blackrobed cleric (Ranjeet Bedi) who ominously warns them about the dangers of enraging the nagin. In human form Nagin insinuates herself into Kiran’s household and easily seduces him using her womanly wiles. She then zeroes in on Rajesh by taking the form is his wife Rita. Rajesh is surprised to find Rita unusually affectionate and they have a hard time finding a private spot with his live-in mother (Sulochana Latkar, as Sulochana) lurking around every corner. At home Vijay confides in his wife Sunita and her live-in mother (Anita Guha) suggests they hire a sapera (snake charmer) Sage (Premnath Malhotra, as Premnath) to ward off the scaly threat. In short order Nagin taunts the charmer and drives him insane. Next Nagin moves onto Uday and creates a brawl at his house that leaves him among the dead. She gets Suraj by using his daughter Anu as live bait and Raj is as easy a victim as Kiran was when she transforms into his wife Rajkumari. At long last Nagin confronts virtuous Vijay but falls from the terrace. Nagin dies but is reunited in the afterlife with Nag.
As with a lot of horror productions from around this time Nagin opens not with a warning card but with equally heavy-handed narration. If anything else, it’s clear that Kohli had seen his fair share of Mario Bava and Dario Argento if the green-red-yellow lighting is anything to go by. The special effects are for the most part pretty good, except the snake transformation is rightly legendary for its crappiness. Well, there’s also the stuffed-eagle-on-a-string (the string itself isn’t visible) that attacks Jeteendra during the opening scene is also worth a chuckle. Reena Roy looks fantastic in her skimpy golden lehenga choli and for the remainder of the feature she either can be seen wearing trendy haute couture or traditional Indian garments. Regardless, Roy and Rekha clearly were destined for fame and fortune. Perhaps the biggest behind-the-scenes story (it’s hardly worth calling a scandal or controversy) was when Rekha halted the shoot during the song ‘Tere Ishq Ka Mujh Pe Hua Yeh Asar Hain’ (‘This is the Effect of Your Love on Me’) when her co-star Roy (who, as legend has it, Rekha wasn’t very keen on playing second fiddle to) was given a more expensive dress to wear than she was. In a brief moment of diva-like behaviour she made it known to director/producer Kohli that she wouldn’t resume filming unless her dress was replaced with something reflective of her profile and status. ‘Tere Sang Pyar Main Nahin Todna’ (‘I Do Not Break My Love with You’) appears in two versions and the Roy-synched cut later functions as the seduction-and-destruction siren song. The opening song ‘Tere Sang Pyar Main’ (‘Love with You’) somehow has penetrated the West as it was featured nearly thirty years later in Michel Gondry's Academy Award-winning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). It can be heard in the scene where Clementine (Kate Winslet) invites Joel (Jim Carrey) over to her apartment for a drink. And is there a way any warm-blooded mortal man can resist the considerable charms of Reena Roy, Rekha, Prema Narayan, Mumtaz, and Yogeeta Bali? These days only Vidya Balan and Rani Mukerji manage to be seductive while completely covered up in a colourful saree. Well, they’re hardly the only ones but they are the most recognizable to Western eyes.
Female Serpent has stood the test of time, and while not as over-the-top with its brazen insanity as Bitter Enemy (1979), it has become something of a classic by itself. That it made bank at the box office was also not unimportant. Just three years later Raj Kumar Kohli caught the same lightning in a bottle with Bitter Enemy (1979) that made him famous internationally. After such resounding victory in 1981/82 Kohli was in talks and in early stages of planning a sequel with the working title Laut Ayee Nagin but due to a variety of reasons it would never venture beyond the pre-production phase. Female Serpent was hardly an innovation when it hit but it has nevertheless endured. The ichchadhari nagin has been a constant in Bollywood cinema with examples including, among many others, Nandlal Jaswantlal's epic love story Nagin (1954), this, Nagina (1986) (with Sridevi) a decade later and, more recently, Jennifer Chambers Lynch’s ill-fated Hisss (2010) (with Mallika Sherawat). The Ramsay may have specialised in horror but history has seldom remembered many of them for all the right reasons. In fact Ramsay horror is infamous for how legendary crappy their movies were. Female Serpent is now part of the public domain and can be viewed anywhere in high definition and with subtitles. If Bollywood horror interests you, this is a good place to start.