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Hisss (2009)

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 Rajkumar 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.