Written by: Sachin Bhowmick
Directed by: Prem Lalwani, Desh Mukherjee
Starring: Nafisa Ali, Dharmendra, and Girish Karnad
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
One of the more unbelievable things about the shark movie free-for-all in the wake of Jaws is that Bollywood sat it out. Despite showing a flagrant disregard for intellectual property laws throughout the years, the industry was content to sit back and let the Italians trash up the killer shark scene. Perhaps this was the case because lone outlier Aatank went into production in the mid-80s but wasn’t completed and released until nearly a decade later during a beleaguered production that must have put Spielberg’s ordeal on the set of Jaws to shame. It goes without saying that’s just about the only way Aatank outdoes the film that likely inspired it—well, unless you consider their respective quota of song-and-dance numbers, in which case Aatank is clearly superior.
To be fair, Aatank isn’t expressly concerned with ripping off Jaws. In many respects, it feels like that was an afterthought, one that was tacked onto whatever the hell is actually going on in this movie in order to make it even more gonzo. We open with Jesu and Peter, a couple of rambunctious childhood friends who are prone to mischief; when the latter falls into a hole, Jesu rescues him, much to the gratitude of the boy’s mother. Because Jesu is an orphan, Peter’s mom immediately takes him in but promptly dies, at which point Peter is taken away to be raised by relatives. Several years later, Jesu (Dharmendra) is a folk hero around the village, always standing up for truth and justice in the face of Alphonso (Amjad Khan), the gangster who rules the place with an iron fist. When Alphonso’s thugs uncover valuable black pearls in the nearby ocean, it draws the attention of both the local authorities and a huge, megalodon-sized man-eating shark.
For much of the runtime, it’s fair for you to wonder just how much the shark will figure into the proceedings. Nearly 45 minutes pass by without so much of a hint that there’s even going to be a shark at all, as it’s much more concerned with loveable roughneck Jesu’s day-to-day activities and the illegal smuggling ring operating out of the village. In between, there are random song-and-dance interludes, most of them performed by village women reminding the men of their own desirability. The film cuts between all of these subplots with all the grace of a child learning to use scissors, fumbling with every movement: one minute, we’re watching Jesu basically take a child away from his negligent mother (which is apparently okay since she’s going on dates within days of her husband’s untimely but suspicious passing). The next minute, we’re knee deep in gangster business that sees Alphonso and his goons terrorizing the locals and concealing their crimes from the ineffectual police.
To borrow a phrase from Ian Malcom, you begin to ask if there’s eventually going to be a shark in this killer shark movie. And to its extreme credit, Aatank answers in the affirmative in the most incredible possible manner. About halfway through the movie, Peter resurfaces into the picture: apparently, he’s also still living in the village, and he’s set to get married, with Jesu serving as best man. During the rowdy nuptials, Jesu has to pull Peter away before he gets too drunk and ruins his own wedding night, if you catch my drift. Luckily for Peter, his wife certainly does catch that drift, and the happy couple is sent off, full of spirit, so much so that she breaks into a song intoning Peter to follow her. They end up at the ocean, where she promptly disrobes and enters the water. Big mistake: see, this shark—which the locals may or may not worship as a god—may be fuming at the gangsters raiding the seas, but he doesn’t discriminate. He’s going to eat whatever crosses his path, even if it is a happy bride on her wedding night.
As silly as this all sounds, there’s something quite unsettling about it. Maybe it’s the stoic shark itself, which looks lifeless despite roaring like a goddamn lion the entire time its own screen. There’s a grim inevitability to watching this poor girl plunge headlong right into this outrageously giant maw as her husband passes out on the beach, oblivious to the horror unfolding just a few yards away, an image that invites one of the very few direct comparisons to Jaws. More than anything, it seems like somebody, somewhere saw the continued popularity of Jaws and felt compared to wedge in a killer shark subplot by any means necessary, coherency be damned.
Even when the shark finally emerges, it doesn’t exactly consume the movie. While Peter does naturally want to take to the sea and exact vengeance against the shark (to predictably disastrous result), long stretches still pass where the beast doesn’t even figure into the proceedings. You’d think a possibly preternatural (and most definitely biologically impossible) mega-shark might demand more attention, but it turns out everybody has other shit going on. For example, Jesu has to deal with losing his childhood buddy, and he somehow finds himself shacked up with his adopted son’s mother, who still has plenty of time to go out but no time to cook, much to his dismay. The gangsters most certainly have no time to deal with a fucking shark since they’re operating an international smuggling ring with a CBI investigation breathing down their collective necks. Somewhere along the way, a government agent even infiltrates their ranks, leading to an awesome beachfront brawl where he has to fend of legions of thugs.
Obviously, Aatank has a little bit of everything. Functioning as something of an exploitation grab-bag, it stretches plenty of drama, crime, horror, and action across its various subplots—though I guess it’s fair just to call them plots since they all sort of intermingle and feel like they could belong to their own movie. I would say they come together during the climax, but it’s more like they collide haphazardly, with the CBI investigation leading to a shootout (!) that sends the head gangsters fleeing to the sea, where Jesu just happens to already be hunting the shark. It’s not the most graceful of resolutions, but it is certifiably off its rocker. When you hear “Bollywood killer shark movie,” your mind probably wanders to some pretty gonzo places, and Aatank finally delivers on such expectations during its final fifteen minutes or so.
While that shootout unfolds on the beach, Jesu is engaged with the shark, which is doing shark stuff, like devouring children and terrorizing Jesu’s obviously miniature-sized model boat through a series of caves. When the gangster’s plan to escape via helicopter intersects with Jesu’s pursuit, it does so in glorious fashion—let’s just say if you found the helicopter attack in Jaws 2 to be unrealistic, you’ll be apoplectic at the blatant disregard for physics and biology on display here. I dare you not to be swept away by the lunacy of it all, though, especially since you’ve likely never seen a killer shark movie resolve itself in the bloody fashion on display here. Aatank is absolutely, positively worth sticking through just to witness these climactic scenes.
Not that the rest of Aatank is exactly a chore—it’s just that it does become a bit exasperating to skip through the various subplots, which sometimes feels like watching someone else skim through television channels. Bits and pieces manage to stick, though, especially any scene involving the charismatic lump that is Jesu. Depicted as something of a simple-minded but good-hearted lug, Jesu is the village protector, equally capable of nurturing a child and whooping your ass in equal measure. In fact, he’s reintroduced as an adult during a sequence where he beats the hell out of a bunch a guys and sends a message straight to Alphonso. He’s a lovable, kind brute who just wants to do right by the people he loves and beat some ass in the process. Kind of like Rocky, I guess, but with more harpoons.
Aatank is something of a personal holy grail. In my quest to dig up every killer shark movie ever produced, I came across the title some years back but quickly learned it’s pretty scarce, especially with English subtitles. Watching it on Youtube with some dubious subtitles is hardly ideal, but in the absence of any legitimate DVD release, it’s the best you can hope for at this point. In the event that it actually does see the light of day on home video, I will purchase it without hesitation and proudly display it in my killer shark collection. “But wait,” you might be thinking, “you’ll probably buy any killer shark movie!” Friends, that is true. However, they’re not all proudly displayed, as this one would be. In fact, I’d put this one out prominently as a conversation piece because, if nothing else, everyone should be privy to the lunacy of Aatank’s climax.
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