Yuck, right? Even if you like orange juice, if you are expecting sweet and chocolaty instead of tart and pulpy, it won’t taste right. You might even give it 0.5 of 5 stars. If you hadn’t figured out the reason for my little metaphor, I saw Hisss this evening and it is a nice, frosty glass of orange juice. I enjoyed every sip – tart and pulpy.
Hisss, directed by Jennifer Lynch (Boxing Helena), is a straight-up old-fashioned horror film based around the myth of the Naag Mani, a power-giving gem held by the Nagin, the cobra goddess who can take human form. You see, a sick, dying, and batshit crazy American man (American character actor Jeff Doucette) gets it into his head that he is going to cure his brain cancer by forcing the Nagin to give up the Naag Mani. His plan? Kidnap the Nagin’s lover and use him as a bargaining chip.
Needless to say, the Nagin doesn’t take kindly to this and promptly transforms into human form (the otherwordly Mallika Sherawat) – the better to blend in – and goes on bloody rampage.
Meanwhile, across town, unflappable police detective Irrfan Khan starts putting the pieces together and it is quite satisfying to see how it all turns out, so I won’t give anything away.
Now, I’m assuming that most people reading this read the many reviews panning Hisss and are wondering 1) why I liked it and 2) if they (you?) should go out and see it. I’ll address the second point first - Hisss is a horror film. It’s not masala or one of those new-fangled ultra-modern meta-horror-comedies all the kids are talking about these days (See Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, etc.) but neither is it torture porn like Saw or Hostel. Horror, in this case, means horror - gruesome killings, suspense, fear, and, yes, titillation. So, if the thought of watching a man get bitten to death by a giant snake doesn’t appeal to you, then you probably won’t enjoy Hisss and, by the same token, if you would only enjoy such a snake-killing if the snake and/or victim was spouting witting one-liners or “punch”-lines (bite-lines?), you won’t enjoy Hisss. The visuals are pure B-movie, including nice effect where the screen drains of color every time somebody is shot, and there is no romance, dancing, or singing.
The little boy sitting in the row beside me hated it and loudly complained at intermission that he wanted to go home.
Okay? If you feel like horror is not your thing, don’t go see it. That being said, if you are a professional movie critic do not pan it just because horror is not your thing and/or it’s not the campy masala fest you were expecting.
But why did I like it?
Hisss plays on that age-old tension between nature and civilization. My first thought as the Nagin strode through the town was of those news stories from Colorado and California where houses are built too close to the edge of a forest and then they get bears wandering around the neighborhood. As much as we like to pretend otherwise sometimes, we human beings are animals and just as much a part of nature as bears or snakes. So, on the side of nature is the deadly but passionate Nagin and on the side of civilization is the kind but cold police detective. The Nagin remains unchanging but police detective Irrfan Khan gets to become more in touch with his ‘animal’ side.
I found the story and the plot very compelling. I always wanted to know what would happen next but events never felt rushed, even though the film only clocks in at about an hour and a half. Director Jennifer Lynch takes time to let the camera settle on people just living life – a Holi celebration, a couple at the movie theater, a giggling police officer, a little boy relieving himself, a gunda with a Ghajini haircut. I loved these little touches that kept us grounded in the reality of the film.
And the performances! I loved everybody but Mallika Sherawat was phenomenal! While the critics were busy giggling and pointing at her nude scenes, I was impressed with how much she could convey without uttering a single word. I’ve always liked Mallika – she stole the show in Welcome - but I wasn’t expecting her to be this good. The Nagin doesn’t wear clothes sometimes, sure, but that doesn’t make her nude - she’s just not wearing clothes and I think Mallika conveys that difference well. And even clothed – even dressed in a black robe and veil – Mallika does a lot with her big, kolh-rimmed eyes and even her posture. She doesn’t hold herself like a person in society would and she doesn’t feel emotions that way, either.
Irrfan Khan was also great as the unflappable detective. Nobody does blasé and understated like Irrfan! He underplays everything so much that when he finally unleashes some emotion, it comes as a nice shock – almost more shocking than the snake murders. Divya Dutta did a nice job as his wife and Raman Trikha was very charming as Irrfan’s over-eager junior partner. Jeff Doucette gave just the right amount of crazy-town to his character of George and I would like to give a special shout-out to the woman who played Divya Dutta’s mother but I can’t find her name anywhere. Divya’s mother is senile and this was one of the least clichéd senile performances I’ve seen. Instead of being embarrassed or mocking her, the film shows her with a lot of compassion.
Hisss is that rare breed - a horror film for grown-ups. I enjoyed it a lot and am definitely planning on seeing the American release just to compare and contrast. A final note for any brave souls going to see it on the Indian release in Western countries – the film is in about half-English and half-Hindi but there are NO subtitles.
To those critics who dismissed the film as worthless, I say, “HISSSSSSSSS!”
But to Jennifer and Mallika, I say, “Brava!”