Review: Aatank (1996)

aatank 1996 posterAATANK (1996)
Not Rated / Color / 113 minutes
Directed by Prem Lawlani & Desh Mukherjee
Purchase it: Out of Print. (Watch for free on YouTube!)

I’ve known about Bollywood (and Hindi) cinema for quite some time now, but never dared dip a toe into that unfamiliar world of mustachioed heroes, and sudden musical numbers. But, during my Summer of the Shark celebration, I decided to finally take the plunge into Hindi film, by tackling AATANK. (a.k.a. “Bollywood JAWS!”) I thought I was prepared for anything the Hindi film industry could throw at me. I was wrong.

First off, let me just say that AATANK does borrow a bit from JAWS, in that there is a giant killer shark on the loose… eventually. However the inclusion of the giant shark seems like a complete afterthought because it occupies a very small portion of the movie. The shark is merely a device used to end this bizarre multi-genre film, and is only the focus of the proceedings for maybe ten minutes or so.

The bulk of the movie can be broken down into several subplots, the main one centering upon the film’s hero, Jesu (Dharmendra). At the start of the film, Jesu is a problematic orphan that is disowned by a stern priest. But after an act of heroism, young Jesu is immediately adopted by the mother of his best friend, Peter (Vinod Mehra). But Jesu’s joy is short-lived because the woman becomes ill and dies, and he is separated from his best friend/brother.

Skip ahead a few decades and now Jesu is a local hero that uses his brawn to battle the evil minions of Alphonso (Amjad Kahn). You see, Alphonso basically governs the small fishing village with an iron fist, and takes whatever he wants, be it most of everyone’s fishing haul, or a king’s ransom in black pearls.

The illegal farming of said pearls catches the eye of India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (the CBI), and may or may not be partially responsible for the sudden awakening of a gigantic man-eating shark. However, it is in my strong opinion that the shark was attracted by the four-minute ditty being sung by Suzy (Nafisa Ali), the newlywed wife of Peter. (Who apparently only returned home to take a wife and settle down.)

"Please! No! Don't eat me! I'll stop singing, I promise!"

“Please! No! Don’t eat me! I’ll stop singing, I promise!”

The shark appears and devours Suzy (thankfully ending her singing), then later returns to swallow Peter when he sets out with Jesu to kill the beast. Amid all of this, a CBI agent infiltrates Alphonso’s pearl smuggling ring, while Jesu acclimates himself to being an adoptive father and (possibly) a husband. Then, with twenty minutes left, the movie pulls out all the stops and goes absolutely crazy, leading to a huge gunfight, Alphonso’s hilariously violent comeuppance, and a duel between Jesu and the giant shark.

AATANK is completely batshit insane! As I watched it, I sat dumbfounded in front of my TV: I had anticipated a JAWS rip-off with a few musical interludes. What I got was three completely different films blended together and generously peppered with song and dance numbers. I felt like I was watching a Godfrey Ho flick! But apparently this is typical of Bollywood cinema (particularly Masala films), as filmmakers want to make sure viewers get their money’s worth.

Because of this kitchen sink mentality that some Hindi filmmakers have, AATANK is burdened with too many storylines. At first its mainly a melodrama with some bits of lighthearted romance sprinkled throughout, but then it switches gears to an action/thriller once Alphonso attempts to become a pearl smuggling kingpin. Then, as it heads into its third act, AATANK finally becomes the movie I hoped it would be.

While not nearly as derivative of JAWS as THE LAST SHARK, AATANK does take a few things from the Spielberg classic. The shark’s first appearance vaguely mirrors the opening of JAWS, as Suzy swims out into the sea, while her husband drunkenly passes out on the beach. Also, later in the film, Chief Kahn (the head of the village’s police department), Jesu, and a somewhat familiar-looking fisherman draw the shark in with bait attached to wooden barrels, then attack it with harpoons.

And heck, the film even goes one step further and rips off JAWS 2 by having the rampaging shark attack a helicopter, which leads to one of my favorite moments in the movie. The shark leaps out of the water and smacks into the (toy) chopper, causing it to crash into Alphonso’s boat. Alphonso is launched into the air, then impaled by a well-timed harpoon from Jesu! It’s simply astonishing! (This is what cinema was created for I tell you!)

The startling realism of 90s Bollywood special effects!

The startling realism of ’90s Bollywood special effects!

Speaking of the shark, it is brought to life via laughable miniatures and a full-size mock-up of its head, which is utilized for close-ups when unlucky victims swim directly into the toothy maw while screaming. For a film shot in 1996, I was astounded at how low-tech these effects were, but I guess the Bollywood film industry was (and in some ways, still is) playing catch-up with modern special effects techniques.

But as amazing as this may all sound to you, I assure you that it is truly a trial to reach the climax and enjoy AATANK’s best moments. I struggled to finish the film, mainly because the it kept assaulting my senses with Hindi song and dance! (GAH! Culture shock!) In all, there are five musical numbers in AATANK, ranging from three minutes, to a whopping eight friggin’ minutes! Every time I began to become involved in the proceedings, a song would kick in take me out of the film.

In the end, I was disappointed with AATANK: It just wasn’t the Hindi exploitation fiesta I was hoping for. Instead it’s a highly convoluted mish-mash of film genres with distracting musical numbers, and far too little shark action. While I’m glad I expanded my cinematic horizons by watching this oddity, I didn’t enjoy it enough to give it my recommendation.

It is with a heavy heart, that I bestow the legendary “Bollywood JAWS,” a rating of:

Still curious about the film? Well, then by all means, sate your curiosity by watching a montage of all the shark scenes below!