Zulmi (1999)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:


A Better Tomorrow 3

Hard Target


Lava Lamp

Our rating: one LAVA® motion lamp.

Proof that sunglasses can't
make everybody cool.
Mario Puzo's The Last Don: The Musical. Could this be what's going to replace Cats at the Winter Garden theater now that Cats has gone the way of all crappy musical theater after a mere 18 years? No, Cats will be replaced by a musical based on the works of ABBA. But Bollywood stepped up to the plate last year and made a musical mob film. And at two and one half-hours, it feels like a mere four. Kind of like Cats!

Baba (Dara Singh), an Indian Godfather, puts on a huge party to celebrate a family wedding. Zorawar, a rival crime lord, crashes the shindig. When Zorawar apologizes for all the bad things he has done, Baba decides to let him stay. But at the cutting of the cake Baba's chief of security, Balraj Dutt (Amrish Puri), notices that Zorawar is inching away. Balraj leaps to the conclusion that the cake is a bomb and wheels it into the nearby pool. The resulting explosion makes two things clear: that there was indeed a bomb in the cake, and that Baba's family enjoys swimming in gasoline. As Zorawar's thugs open fire (hey, where'd they come from?) Baba and most of the members of the wedding party are cut down. Baba's dying wish is that Balraj should care for Nihal, his only surviving male relative.

Zorawar is celebrating his victory when Balraj finds him. In the fight that follows Balraj breaks Zorawar's leg, and tells him that the sound his crutches will forever remind him of his enemy Balraj "Dutt - Dutt - Dutt!". Zorawar and his brother Junior end up on the run from the cops, and when Junior has to leave his brother behind, Zorawar goes to jail.

Someone tell India the 80's are over!
That's just the pre-credits sequence.

We come back from the credits to meet Raj (Akshay Kumar), a rocking guy playing Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano in a club that has the words "Oh Shit" emblazoned on one of the walls, and a stegosaurus on another. That's what happens when you let eight year-olds with only a faint grasp of English decorate your set. Raj (sadly, unaccompanied by Rerun or Dwayne) has dinner with his sister, but as she leaves the restaurant she is abducted by thugs, and Raj gives chase. He catches up to them in an ice factory, where some kung fu fighting results. Raj takes a few blows from an iron bar to the head (it should be noted that this causes no permanent damage) and ends up splayed on a block of ice. The thugs then make to rape the sister, but she pulls an Angela Mao and stabs herself to death before they have the chance.

...But wait until the end of this song.
Sometime later Raj is trying to get on a bus when he is nearly run over by a beautiful woman in an expensive jeep. He finds the woman totally infuriating, and is clearly glad he will never see her again. Then a little later he sees a defenseless woman being set upon by thieves. Raj jumps into the fray and a long, Jackie Chan-inspired chase follows.

This selfless act is witnessed by Balraj, who hires Raj on the spot. The job? He's to be a bodyguard to Balraj's daughter, Komal (Twinkle Khanna). And guess what? She's the annoying rich girl who almost ran him over at the bus stop! Betcha didn't see that coming!

Needless to say Komal hates having the low-class Raj around, so she tries to get her father to fire him, or annoy him into quitting. One memorable instance of the latter is when she parks her jeep outside his bungalow and puts on an impromptu music video to keep him from sleeping. Even if the techno music that uses chirping frogs as a sound effect doesn't irritate you, the fact that Balraj's estate is apparently equipped with wind machines in every room and on every lawn may well drive you over the edge.

Guys in orange shirts always die first.
Raj sticks around long enough to watch Komal single-handedly drive away the male star of her college's dance production. Who can save the day? Why -- Raj, of course! The musical number that follows suggests that this is one college that puts serious money behind their drama department. It features three different sets, a full band including drums and trumpets, and dozens of backup dancers. The whole thing has the unmistakable stamp of 1980's, even though the film was made last year. For the love of God, Raj actually wears magenta pants at one point. Magenta pants! But we do like Komal's super-short blue mini-dress.

For those of you keeping score at home, we've had riffs on (among other things) Mario Puzo novels, Love Story, Police Story, Enter the Dragon, Girls Just Want to Have Fun, and Dirty Dancing. And we haven't even gotten to actual plot yet!

Akshay in yellow pants and a
see-through shirt, light up neon lips,
and guys in purple leg warmers.
What could we say to make this funnier?
Akshay Kumar is the closest thing India has to Jackie Chan, an actor known for his stunts and fights. If Kumar is the best Bollywood has, Chan needn't worry. There's a reason that Variety has never run the headline "Indian Action Star Makes Hollywood Debut." He may be somewhat handsome, but he doesn't exude much charisma or project a memorable screen persona. Twinkle (must... resist urge to... make "little star" joke...) Khanna is another in the long series of improbably beautiful female stars who are featured in Bollywood films. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that being a beauty queen is the easiest way to get into the Indian film industry, and acting talent is secondary. (Why do we get the feeling that Big Brother's Jamie Kern will be moving to India any day now?) Amrish Puri may be the best known Indian actor in the West for being in Ghandi, and more significantly, for playing the evil Thugee priest in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Returning to the movie, Komal goes to the beach with some of her friends, complete with a plan to frame Raj (who is tagging along, of course) for inappropriate behavior. But before she can put her plan to action, Junior (remember him?) shows up with three jeeploads of armed goons, so Raj must save her. There are some particularly notable bits during this scene. Raj runs into the surf to save Komar from the gunmen and they dive under the water to escape the bullets. But then in the very next shot, Komar and Raj somehow appear on Raj's motorcycle behind the gunmen. A few scenes later in a forest, Raj takes out the heavily armed gunmen with a knife and his bare hands, yet he never picks up any of the gunmen's weapons to use against them!

"Thank you sir, may I have another?"
Spending the night in the forest, Komar has a dream about her future with Raj, and of course it takes the form of a music video. A pretty bad one, too. Our favorite bit involves Raj spraying Komar with a hose. Then they both frolic in the spray. Hey, who is holding the hose now? At first it was Freudian, now it's just weird and disturbing. But it signifies the fact that they are in love. Raj even asks for Komar's hand in marriage, and Balraj approves.

At this point, an hour and a half in, we still haven't seen the plot rear its head. Balraj takes Raj to the airport to greet his ward Nihal. While Balraj is in the airport bookstore looking over the Mario Puzo novels, Raj spots Nihal, and guess what? Nihal is the man who attacked his sister at the beginning of the movie!

So finally the story's real conflict kicks in. Raj has sworn a blood oath to kill Nihal. Balraj has sworn to protect Nihal. Komar is caught in between, because Raj will very likely have to kill her father to get to Nihal. And Zorawar is still around, anxious to use this situation to exact revenge on Balraj.

This movie is long, long, long. It's an hour and a half before the real plot shows up, and then it's another hour before that plot is resolved, and not much happens in that last hour. There is a musical number where Komar tries to use song and belly dancing to convince Raj to give up his blood oath, but he's unmovable. The climax, when it finally does come, is pretty unbelievable.

As the second Bollywood feature we've seen in as many weeks, we have to ask: are Indian bladders larger than those of Americans? How do these people sit through films of this length -- and our plot synopsis of this film is already longer than our entire reviews of American films -- without a break to pee? Perhaps the musical numbers are more a matter of necessity than anything else; at least it gives you a rhythm to tap your foot to as you try to concentrate on anything but that large Cherry Coke you downed thirty minutes ago. The only recent Western film of comparable length was Titanic, although the amount of water sloshing around at the end of that movie didn't help matters. Perhaps this is the way the citizens of India are training for some secret Olympic event. "Ladies and Gentlemen, the country with the world record for 'holding it' -- India!"

What's that you say? Indian films have intermissions? (Insert Bruce Campbell swagger here) Guess our Indian friends are human after all!

Finally, a word about the title of this film, which qualified it for the Month of Z: The word Zulmi apparently has a double meaning. Zulm means atrocity, and zulmi would generally means somebody who commits atrocities, or perhaps someone who is excessively cruel. On another level, however, a zulmi can be a woman who is so beautiful that her stunning good looks cause pain to men around her. What a wonderful language Hindi is. We wonder if they have a word for the particular pain one feels watching an aimless, overly long rip-off of other, better movies.

Review date: 09/28/2000

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