Indian films don’t always dive beneath the surface – and we mean that quite literally.
Sure, there are sequences shot in water tanks and swimming pools, but movies set entirely underwater? They are as rare to spot as frilled sharks. The February 17 release The Ghazi Attack claims to be India’s first underwater film, but it has to cede the title to Anmol Moti, made in 1969 and starring Jeetendra and Babita in the lead roles.
The Ghazi Attack is a Telugu-Hindi bilingual film based on the sinking of the submarine PNS Ghazi during the Indo-Pak war of 1971. Sankalp Reddy’s movie stars Kay Kay Menon, Rana Daggubati, Taapsee Pannu and Atul Kulkarni.
Before Menon and company dived into the deep, there was SD Narang’s Anmol Moti, in which Jeetendra plays pearl diver Vijay who wrestles his enemies underwater as well as tackles a giant octopus during one of his deep sea expeditions.
Several sequences show Vijay exploring the marine world, giving Indian viewers a taste of a never-before-experience of underwater action that had already become a genre in Hollywood by the 1970s. Scenes inducing breathlessness were balanced with songs in which the heroine Rupa (Babita) is shown bathing in a lotus pond or sleeping in a giant oyster shell.
Shankar Nag’s Kannada movie Ondu Muttina Kathe, made in 1987, was also billed as an underwater film. The plot was inspired by John Steinbeck’s novel The Pearl. The film featured Kannada superstar Rajkumar as a pearl diver who scours the bottom of the sea for oysters. In a five-minute fight sequence, he untangles himself from the crushing arms of a murderous octopus.
The special effects in Anmol Moti and Ondu Muttina Kathe were understandably rudimentary, unlike in The Ghazi Attack, which has state-of-the-art visual effects and the shooting technology necessary to produce convincing underwater sequences.
Technical drawbacks didn’t prevent Bollywood filmmakers from foraying into unknown territory. In Manmohan Desai’s Parvarish (1977), the thrilling climax scene was filmed in a controlled environment to depict an underwater mission. (Amit) Amitabh Bachchan and Kishan (Vinod Khanna) are kitted out as deep sea divers who are entrusted with the job of stopping smugglers from escaping the country in a submarine. The two able men manage to ward off the hostile guards protecting the travelling submarine and nab the goons.
Ramesh Sippy’s Shaan (1980) provides further proof of the Hindi film hero’s ability to defeat his enemies whatever the terrain. Villain Shakaal (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) tries to feed Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) to a hungry crocodile, but Vijay defeats the reptile after an intense underwater tussle. Menacing sharks are displayed in water tanks built around Shakaal’s den, just like the piranhas swimming in the lair of Blofeld in the 1967 Bond movie You Only Live Twice. Shakaal’s choice of a crocodile as a killing machine ultimately proves to be anti-climactic.
Improved visual effects actually dulled the experience of underwater thrills in the 2000s. The plot of Blue (2009) involves a treasure hunt. Aarav (Akshay Kumar) spends a lot of time snorkeling in the Bahamas with his buddies Sagar (Sanjay Dutt) and Sam (Zayed Khan). They are surrounded by digitally-enhanced killer sharks. Nobody wrestles with the big fish. Fighting a replica toy or a digital dummy is hardly entertaining. Give us Anmol Moti and its innocent underwater adventures any day.