The naked truth about invisibility in Hindi films

With Emraan Hashmi's 'Mr X' about to release, a look at a 1971 film where Vinod Mehra played a cocky invisible man.

 |  7-minute read |   13-04-2015
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With India’s newest invisible man film – the Emraan Hashmi-starrer Mr X – set to release, there has been much talk about computer-generated effects, and even more talk about the fondly remembered Mr India. But forget all that. It is time to rescue from film vaults another, older movie that features an invisibility device.

In the 1971 Elaan, upwardly mobile journalist Naresh (Vinod Mehra) and his girlfriend Mala (Rekha) run afoul of one of those “international” crime syndicates that use high-tech gadgets (blue rotary phones! walkie-talkies! flower pots that can be twisted about to make a door open!) and do unspeakably evil things such as printing literally dozens of fake one-rupee notes and hanging them on a clothes-line to dry. (“Ek din India ki currency fail ho jaayegi aur hum log maalamaal ho jaayenge! Ha. Ha. Ha.”)

Soon Naresh finds himself locked in a cellar alongside a seemingly crazy old man who claims to have invented an “atomic ring” that can make you disappear. Where is this ring, you ask. It turns out that the old man has kept it safely buried in his thigh for years, waiting for a good-hearted person he can bequeath it to. When Naresh respectfully addresses him as “Baba”, the old chap realises that Bilbo Baggins is here at last; so he tears open his own leg, extricates the ring from his gory flesh and tells Naresh:

“Put this in your mouth, then take off all your clothes, and see what happens.”

(Or words to that effect.) I should mention that there is no disinfectant in this cellar.

Remember this excellent Christopher Walken monologue from Pulp Fiction?

“This watch. This watch was on your daddy’s wrist when he was shot down over Hanoi. He was captured, put in a Vietnamese prison camp. He knew if the gooks ever saw the watch it’d be confiscated, taken away. The way your dad looked at it, that watch was your birthright. So he hid it in the one place he knew he could hide something. His ass. Five long years, he wore this watch up his ass. Then he died of dysentery, he gave me the watch. I hid this uncomfortable hunk of metal up my ass two years. Then, after seven years, I was sent home to my family. And now, little man, I give the watch to you.”

At least the Walken character doesn’t ask little Butch to put the watch in his mouth. No such luck for Naresh.

In most invisibility stories, either the device-user disappears fully, along with the clothes he is wearing (Mr India, The Lord of the Rings), or the body disappears but the clothes can still be seen (the 1933 Invisible Man the Kevin Bacon-starrer Hollow Man). The science of Elaan is a little more complicated: You have to take off all your clothes if you want to turn invisible – otherwise it won’t work at all.

And it must be done in a pre-specified order:

1) First remove your shirt.

2) Then, carefully place the atomic ring in your mouth – not like you’re Rajinikanth flicking a cigarette, but like you’re Vinod Mehra ingesting a Hajmola for a TV ad.

3) After this, remove your trousers. (No one ever needs underwear.)

It is only the magical combination of ring-in-mouth PLUS trousers-off that leads to invisibility. Omit one of these important steps and you’re either standing there half-dressed and visible with a ring in your mouth, or naked and visible with a ring in your hand.

Also, the moment your body comes in contact with any sort of cloth – if someone throws a towel over you, for example – all of you is visible again.

This is where I present my carefully worked out thesis that Elaan isn’t so much a film about invisibility as a film about the liberating joys of nudity.

No one is too impressed with the invisibility idea anyway. It is treated as a plot detail, easily jettisoned when other details, such as sleek orange cars, come along. Unlike Mr India and (presumably) Mr X, where so much hinges on this marvelous superpower – and the writers know they can build a whole adventure around it – Elaan looks at its own script and goes: “Invisibility? Uh-huh. What else you got?”

Consider a scene where Naresh meets Mala, who has joined the CBI after her father is murdered. (It’s that easy. You just join, and get a special number and your own wristwatch-like gizmo, on which CBI boss Iftekhar can call you anytime – and he does, usually at the precise moment when you’re undercover in the villains’ den with bad guys all around you.) She yearns to avenge her daddy; we know this because she is throwing darts at a board with an expression of annoyance, like a picnic has just been cancelled due to rain.

So Naresh gives her the good news straight.

“Mere paas atomic ring hai!”

“Atomic ring? Woh kis kaam ka hai?”

“Usse mooh mein rakhne se aadmi gaayab ho jaata hai. Iss se hamara mission aur bhi aasaan ho jaayega.”

(Mala titters, like she has heard that the weather will improve in the evening. The background music is soft and romantic and not at all conducive to conversations about atoms and protons. So they talk about things more exciting than invisibility, such as where to go for dinner.)

The nakedness, on the other hand, is what really drives this film. Often, when Naresh is being pursued by the bad guys (say, during a breakneck car chase), he has to dump his clothes and vanish. Which means that each time he wishes to become visible again, he must:

1) Find a clothes store.

2) Find a shoe store.

3) Sneak into each of them by turn.

4) Pilfer things in his invisible state without the salesmen noticing anything amiss.

5) Wait for a changing room to be unoccupied.

6) Enter the changing room.

7) Check for CCTV cameras…

See how this sort of thing might slow down the pace of what was intended to be an action movie?

half-invisibility_041315021005.jpg
The half-invisible Vinod Mehra in Elaan.

By the film’s climax, the dominant mode is low comedy, and people are falling over themselves to get hold of the ring mainly because it gives them an excuse to take off their clothes. After all, what is the point of having both Rajendranath (as Naresh’s buffoonish friend Shyam) and an invisibility-nudity ring in the same film if you can’t use lines like these?

Naresh (having been cornered by the bad guys): “Shyam, apne mooh se ring nikaalo.”

Invisible Shyam: “Par main toh nangaa hoon!”

So Naresh takes off his own coat and drapes it around Shyam’s lower half (wisely), and voila, the buffoon reappears.

****

Elaan’s casting was prescient, I feel. After early stints as a hero in B-movies, Vinod Mehra would become one of the invisible men of mainstream Hindi cinema – not so much a second or third lead as a noble foil who always had a brave, rueful smile on his face; making up the numbers in multistarrers like The Burning Train and Jaani Dushman; or appearing as a martyred policeman in the “pre-credits backstory compression” (to use a delightful phrase coined by the writer Rajorshi Chakraborti) segments of 1980s movies.

In Elaan, having got a chance to play the lead, he shows terrific screen absence in scenes like the one where he romances Rekha (while being invisible), or strides heroically into a room to foil the plans of international bad men (while being invisible), or rides a motorbike (while being invisible) with his friend clinging to him. Of course, the second you remember that Naresh is also naked in all these scenes, you start to understand why Elaan has remained largely unseen for decades. But you could say that’s a pretty good achievement for an invisibility film.

Writer

Jai Arjun Singh Jai Arjun Singh @jaiarjun

Writer and critic. Blogs at Jabberwock (http://jaiarjun.blogspot.in ). Author of Jaane bhi do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983. Edited The Popcorn Essayists.

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