Old school Indian cinema enthusiasts (the sort of people who would sooner die than call it “Bollywood”) are well-versed in the legend of the ichchadhari naagin, the shape-shifting cobra who can assume human form.
A fairly common theme once upon a time — with alpha-females Rekha, Reena Roy and Sridevi all taking a stab at playing one — it has, in the last two decades, gone the way of the reincarnation drama, abandoned as an anachronistic throwback to a whole other India. Apparently the current Indian film-going public is able to suspend disbelief only far enough to be convinced by Karan Johar films, though my gut tells me that a vengeful snake-woman on a mission is as convincing a premise as Shah Rukh Khan setting out to inform the American president that he isn’t a terrorist.
Hisss doesn’t remotely resemble the naag films that preceded it; it resembles nothing on this earth. It is, did I forget to mention, a film by Jennifer Lynch, better known as the most baffling creation of her father, American auteur David. Jennifer Lynch seems a peculiar choice for reasons too numerous to mention, not least because her directing credentials include the film Boxing Helena, which earned her great renown as one of the world’s worst filmmakers. With Hisss she works to solidify that reputation.
Opening in the dense Indian jungle, a deranged American with an inoperable brain tumour is convinced, perhaps from having watched Indian cinema in the 80s, that the only cure for his condition is the mythical nagmani, the “jewel” possessed by the female ichchadhari naagin. Since finding an ichchadhari cobra in an Indian jungle is akin to the proverbial needle in a haystack, he hatches a plan to capture her mate (cobras, unlike socialites, mate for life) thus luring her to him. And so, following a series of incredulous coincidences strung together with choppy, incoherent editing, Mallika Sherawat slithers her way into the city where she is provided with the opportunity to show off her acting talents in a series of very small cholis and some see-through saris. Sherawat’s naagin is a function of anthropomorphism, she is not a snake — she is a feminist. The bulk of the film comprises sequences of her mauling and devouring would-be rapists and domestic abusers at a woman’s shelter. One can’t help but think that Lynch would sooner have cast Germaine Greer. It’s not as if it would make this film any more peculiar.
And while on the subject of peculiar, it’s almost heartbreaking to watch Lynch Jr trying to channel Lynch Sr. David Lynch, while often infuriating, is invariably intriguing and atmospheric. Jennifer Lynch’s attempts at being intriguing are laboured, unconvincing and ever-so-slightly pathetic. With a subplot about a police officer charged with getting to the bottom of Sherawat’s murder spree, the plot creeps along achingly slowly. It is interspersed with lengthy and pointless visuals of Lynch’s India — elephants, snake-charmers and barely-clad natives. Also — and this is far more offensive — artsy, boring sequences of the scantliy-clad Sherawat, a cardboard cut-out of an actress, possessing none of the fire and ice of her sinuous cinematic predecessors.
Lynch claims that she abandoned this film without editing it since she wished to make a love story and not the horror that the producers insisted on. As regards the climax (pun intended), which features the long-awaited (and feverishly graphic) mating of woman and snake, Lynch doesn’t seem to understand that the love story was the most horrifying aspect of all.