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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.

Plot: terminally ill adventurer attempts to catch snake to attain immortality.

Hisss is one of those beautiful trainwrecks that can only happen (and will continue to do so) when producer and director don’t see eye to eye on the fundamentals. The Asian snake goddess myth continues to fascinate Westerners. Hisss was an attempt by an American director to adapt it for a Hollywood audience. In Bollywood Raj Kumar Kohli set the standard with his Nagin (1976) that starred both Reena Roy and Rekha. In Hong Kong Tsui Hark adapted the legend for his deeply oneiric The Green Snake (1993) with Joey Wong and Maggie Cheung as the snakes. Despite favorable domestic box office returns Hisss (which initially was going to be called Nagin: the Snake Goddess before producer Govind Menon re-cut it) was widely considered a failure. We’re on the fence about Hisss. On the one hand the critiques aren’t entirely unfounded and it could have been far stronger under better circumstances. On the other hand, Hisss could have been far worse too. For a Bollywood production Hisss is suspiciously bereft of the usual trappings that come with such a description and there’s no way a Hollywood audience is going to fall for an English-language Hindi movie full of people they don’t know. Thankfully Hisss hasn’t damaged Mallika Sherawat’s domestic career too much and she was able to walk away from it relatively unscathed. Hell, Mallika even went as far as to pose with snakes on the 2010 Cannes Film Festival to promote Hisss.

The director of Hisss is Jennifer Chambers Lynch, daughter of David, who can’t seem to catch a break no matter what she does. Chambers worked as a production assistant on her father’s Blue Velvet (1986) and from there moved on to direct the New Model Army music video 'Living in the Rose'. Her directorial debut Boxing Helena (1993) was critically panned and infamously savaged by the National Organization of Women who launched a campaign against it. Following the release Chambers underwent three spinal surgeries due to a car accident that had occured earlier. For the next 15 years she withdrew from much of public life in order to raise her newborn daughter. Her second film would arrive in the new millennium in the form of Surveillance (2008). Her comeback effort won the top prize at the Sitges Film Festival in Spain and Chambers was the first woman to receive the Best Director award at the New York City Horror Film Festival.

In 2010 Chambers traveled to India for the Govind Menon production Hisss, a project was envisioned as Mallika Sherawat’s overdue Hollywood debut. Menon had worked with Sherawat earlier on Bachke Rehna Re Baba (2005), Kis Kis Ki Kismat (2004), and Khwahish (2003). Producer Ratan Jain had done the same on the comedy Maan Gaye Mughall-E-Azam (2008). Apparently Chambers and Menon had a falling with Chambers leaving once shooting had wrapped. She had envisioned Hisss as a romance but producer Menon edited it as a horror movie, cutting out the romantic scenes as well as any and all of the obligatory songs. Understandably Chambers has since disavowed Hisss while Sherawat remains Bollywood celebrity. After the Hisss debacle Chambers directed the flawed thriller Chained (2012), the Sierra Swan music video for 'Emotional' in 2014, and has since returned to directing for television.

Aging adventurer George States (Jeff Doucette) is dying from brain cancer and has come to Kerala, India in desperate search of a last panacea. He believes that if he can extract blood from the sacred nagmani stones of the Nāga that his debilitating affliction will be cured. He and his entourage have come to Sahyadri, the rainforest of the Western Ghats, to find such stones. States’ plan is simple: capture a Nag and keep it in captivity to lure a Nagin to come to her imprisoned mate’s rescue. States and his local henchmen succeed in their plan and await for the Nagin to come. The Nagin assumes the form of a beautiful woman (Mallika Sherawat) and travels to the town of Nainchi. There she’s mesmerized by snake charmer Dinesh (Mahmoud Babai, as Mahmood Babai) and makes her acquaintance with police officer Vinkram Gupta (Irrfan Khan). Gupta has his own problems. His loving wife Maya (Divya Dutta) is barren and their lack of offspring strains their relationship. Nagin helps a few local women by getting rid of the town’s undesirable elements. Vinkram is ordered to investigate the sudden spate of mysterious murders, unaware that they are committed by the beautiful mute woman he met earlier. Nagin does find her captured mate in States’ hideout and once reunited the two copulate. Around the same time that Gupta figures out the murder case George tries to obtain the sacred nagmani from the Nāga and is killed for his trouble. Vinkram returns home to find his wife Maya giving birth to a baby while the Nagin, now in the safety of her jungle home, breeds her own spawn.

Since debuting inauspiciously in 2002 the repertoire of Mallika Sherawat has been all over the cinematic map in both the literal and the figurative sense. First Sherawat has starred (probably more than any other Hindi actress of her generation) in remake after remake of popular foreign imports. In 2003 she starred in Khwahish (2003), a remake of Love Story (1970). She followed that with Murder (2004), Bachke Rehna Re Baba (2005), and Ugly Aur Pagli (2008), Bollywood remakes of Unfaithful (2002), Heartbreakers (2001), and South Korean drama My Sassy Girl (2001), respectively. Then Sherawat appeared in Dasavatharam (2008) as well as the Bruno Mars music video ‘Whatta Man’ in 2012. Unlike Priyanka Chopra (who parlayed her liaison with Nick Jonas into a steady Hollywood – and music career) Mallika’s failed American television debut came with a a guest role in the series Hawaii Five-0 (2010) in 2014, but was not enough to leave any kind of lasting impression.

On two seperate occassions Sherawat has tried her hand at Asian productions. Once in Hong Kong with The Myth (2005) where she starred alongside Jackie Chan and then again more than a decade later in the Mainland China action-adventure Time Raiders (2016). Right in the middle of all that lies the ill-fated Hisss, a remake of the Rajkumar Kohli vintage Nagin (1976) where Sherawat inherited the role of the seductive snake spirit that Filmfare award nominee Reena Roy played so formidably in the earlier version. Lest we be remiss to mention, Nagin (1976) was a Hindi remake of the François Truffaut classic The Bride Wore Black (1968). Sherawat is known for her women’s rights activism, a long-time Bollywood sex symbol, and is one of the most popular celebrities in her part of the world. Be that as it may, this Mallika (no, not that one) apparently can’t seem to catch a break…

Largely a preamble to see Mallika Sherawat skulk and writhe around Hisss could just as easy have been made in America. If this was ever to get an American remake (the chances of which are very slim, not to say nil) Diane Guerrero, Gina Rodriguez, Vela Lovell, Jackie Cruz, or Antoinette Kalaj would be ideal for the part. The special effects are good enough and even though Hisss has some slight resemblances to The Loreley’s Grasp (1973) in terms of imagery, these are merely superficial. Hisss is thoroughly Asian. It’s closest cousin is Tsui Hark’s wuxia fantasy The Green Snake (1993) that uses the Chinese folk tale Madame White Snake as its basis. Chambers doesn’t have the painter’s brush and eye for scene composition that Hark had in his prime. A lot of the time Hisss sort of feels like a Hindi take on Anaconda (1997), whether or not that is a good thing is up to the viewer. Mallika is obviously a better actress than Jennifer Lopez ever was. For one it’s leagues better than Cheung Kwok-Kuen’s Mainland China monster romp Snake Curse (2004), but anything is. Bereft of the usual extended singing and dancing routines Hisss is only (a comparatively anemic) 90 minutes long and thus relatively short by Bollywood standards. That Hisss is neither here nor there is ultimately its undoing. For a Bollywood audience this is probably not the epic it ought to have been, and for Western general audiences it’s probably too confusing as to what exactly the point is.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Hisss as such. Even if it, at just under an economic 100 minutes, often feels longer than it actually is. It’s fairly evident from the onset that it was subject to some rather extreme cutting. There’s a single dance routine at the very beginning which very much sets Hisss up as the romance it was envisioned as. Once the musical interlude has passed Hisss changes into a fairly standard, at least by Western standards, monster movie. The sudden tonal shifts are quite jarring and often clash with each other. Just how much of the Chambers-shot material was cut by executive meddling is unclear but Hisss would’ve benefitted tremendously from having lengthier transitions between the character - and horror scenes. Since director and producer no longer appear to be on speaking terms the hopes of a director’s cut are slim at this point. The special effects work of Robert Kurtzman and his Indian team is good enough. Mallika did most of her own stunts and Hisss is a convenient excuse to see her slithering around seductively. Sherawat doesn’t utter a single line of dialogue for the entirety of the movie and communicates primarily in moans and hisses. As a contemporary retelling of the Southeast Asian Nāga myth there have been worse examples. Which doesn’t make Hisss good or anything, although it certainly didn’t deserve the bad rep it has gotten in both Hollywood and Bollywood.