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Bruce in Bollywood: Dharmendra Meets Bruce Le in Katilon Ke Kaatil

Try to imagine that, like me, your life has become a steady parade of disappointments and squandered potential, but then one day, the following happens: having previously been enlightened as to the existence of a Bollywood ninja movie—a rip-off of American Ninja no less—you go to your little website forum and theorize that, given the popularity of kung fu films in India and the proliferation of Bruce Lee imitators and crappy “Bruceploitation” films during the 1970s, there was no way Bollywood didn’t produce at least one film cashing in on the death and popularity of Bruce Lee. After proffering this notion, however, subsequent searches for Indian Bruce Lee exploitation films yield no results. This does not sway you from your belief, of course, and given how poor the quality and variety of coverage for Indian cult films is, it hardly surprises you. But it does cause you to put your search for such a film on the back burner. And then, one day you are emailing back and forth at work with a friend  about Mithun Chakraborty’s Dance Dance. You search for, find, and play a clip from the film on YouTube, and then, out of the corner of your eye after the clip has finished and YouTube is displaying those “if you liked this, check this one out” recommendations, you see something titled “Dharmendra vs Bruce Li.”

Still your heart, you tell yourself as you struggle to click on the clip before it vanishes and is replaced by another recommended clip. But alas! You are too slow, and the clip vanishes. No worries, though. As your trembling fingers fumble at the keyboard, you manage to type “Dharmendra vs Bruce Li” into the search box. Careful, lad! Don’t let your giddy excitement get the better of you. This could be nothing more than some lame DJ splicing together disparate clips of the world’s premiere Bruce Lee imitator with scenes of Indian action star Dharmendra, all set to some generic techno or hip hop beat out of the German underground. Feeling both fear and elation, you play the clip.

And there it is! Dharmendra, with what appears to be a picnic tablecloth wrapped around his neck, locked in mortal combat with…no! Not Bruce Li! Not Bruce Li at all! Why that’s…no it isn’t possible. And yet…yes! Yes it is! That’s Dharmendra locked in mortal combat with Bruce Le, the world’s premiere Bruce Li imitator! Finally! After years of disappointment and failure, after watching your dreams crumble and become so many ashes, the world is new and young again. A quick scan of the comments turns up the title of the movie, Katilon Ke Kaatil (1981, directed by Anil Hingorani and Arjun Hingorani), though no one seems able to agree on the number of the letter “a” that goes into each word. Apprehensive, you sneak on over to Induna to do a title search, and…argh! No luck! But wait! What if I alter the configuration of a’s in the words…success! And a mere $6.99 and four days later, it is yours. And then you discover not only does it star Dharmendra—70s/80s action icon and father of 80s/90s action Icon Sunny Deol—it also stars your favorite Bombay bombshell, Zeenat Aman. How could this deal get any better, you ask yourself as tears of joy stream from your eyes.

And then Dharmendra fights General Ursus from Planet of the Apes.

That’s why I enjoy doing this. After all these years, and after Teleport City has failed to amount to anything other than a tiny niche site that gets no attention from people looking for someone to write liner notes or a book or join their circle of occult-obsessed jaded rich people who retire to country manors for weekend binges of Bacchanalian debauchery and excess, there remains the simple thrill of stumbling across an unbelievably ludicrous movie like Katilon Ke Kaatil.

Like many masala films, a simple description of the basic plot hardly does justice to the madness that whirls about it like a raging tornado. If I told you this is a movie about two thieves who pose as the long-lost sons of a wealthy woman so they can get their hands on her loot, you’d probably shrug and think to yourself, “Yeah, seen it.” And if you know a thing or two about Bollywood films, you’ll probably even think, “And I bet in the end, they are redeemed and turn to good when they find out they really are her long-lost sons.” A plot summary like that hardly leaves room for Dharmendra to fight Bigfoot or punch Bruce Le through a brick wall. But then, if you really know two or three things about Bollywood, you know that they require a simple plot wrapped in fantastically convoluted and outrageous incidents that detour the movie into warped territory.

Dharmendra and Rishi Kapoor star as Ajit and Munna, the two sons of a wealthy family in possession of a sacred, jewel-encrusted gold chariot. Evil bearded villain Black Cobra (perennial villain Amjad Khan) takes time out from shooting his own men and obsessively stroking his Blofeld brand cat in order to steal the chariot, a plot which involves Black Cobra dressing up like a police inspector then berating other police inspectors for not questioning his identity thoroughly enough. As part of the demonstration of how crappy the police are, Black Cobra tells them how easy it would be for Black Cobra to waltz in, steal a cop’s gun, and hold everyone hostage. Then he does just that, which is pretty cool as far as super villain bravado goes. In the ensuing fracas, however, Cobra and his men are unable to pull off the heist, so they return later than night to pick up where they left off. You’d think if the most notorious criminal in India was after your jewel-encrusted golden chariot, you’d up the security or something.

Now this fracas eventually results in young Ajit and Munna getting separated from their family. Munna is discovered, crying on the road, by…oh no! Munna is rescued by an aging odious comic relief actor Mukri. Ajit has it slightly worse—but just slightly—when he witnesses Black Cobra beating his father to death with a studded leather strap. While attempting to avenge the murder, Ajit falls off a cliff and into a passing train full of hay, where he lands right next to a slumbering woman who thanks the gods for delivering this child to her. This is going to be the least of the movie’s improbably events.

Ajit is afflicted with plot-convenient amnesia and is raised by the woman as Badshah, a local thug and all-around bully. Munna grows up to become a hustler and con artist. Good thing these guys always grow up to be cops or criminals. What would Bollywood do if the story was, “Two brothers separated at birth. One grows up to be a help desk operator at Dell’s call center; the other becomes assistant manager at a record store.” Anyway, the movie settles in to an incredibly long and often boring middle section in which Badshah woos a singer named Jamila (Zeenat Aman) while Munna plays cat and mouse with a charming thief (Tina Munim). The bad news is that the musical numbers are pretty boring, the comedy is unfunny, and the drama is tepid. There is no chemistry between Zeenat and Dharmendra, despite the talent both of them possess, and their entire relationship comes out of nowhere. Rishi and Tina fare better, thanks in part to Rishi being the impish one and Tina having a monkey in sultan pants as an accomplice. The only thing that breaks the tedium is the out-of-the-blue showdown between Dharmendra in his hot pink kerchief (somehow, he makes it work) and Bruce Le.

In the years immediately following the death of Bruce Lee, sleazy film producers rushed to crank out an endless series of ultra low-budget kung fu films that featured a guy who looked marginally like Bruce Lee, or had Bruce Lee’s haircut, or thumbed his nose like Bruce Lee, or whatever they could think of to trick people who didn’t know better into watching what they thought was a Bruce Lee film. The best-known of the Bruce Lee imitators was a Taiwanese actor named Ho Chung Tao. Ho was nothing special and had no notable career to speak of until producers tapped him to be the stand-in for Bruce Lee as they struggled to piece together a finished film from the footage the real Bruce Lee had shot for Game of Death. Ho declined, but shortly after that he hooked up with producer Jimmy Shaw, who came up with the Bruce Li name and kicked off Li’s career as Bruce Lee lite. Li starred in a string of Bruce Lee biopics, films in which he was passed off as a true student of Bruce Lee, or as the official successor appointed by Bruce Lee in unofficial sequels to Bruce Lee movies, or as Bruce Lee himself.

Li’s success as Lee meant that other producers were looking for their own Bruce Lee, or their own Bruce Li. Among these was Wong Kin Lung, an actor at the Shaw Brothers film studio in Hong Kong. Wong had starred in, among other things, the Shaw Brothers outrageous sci-fi kungfu epic Inframan alongside Danny Lee—best known for his role in John Woo’s The Killer, but also the star of a couple early Bruce Lee exploitation films, one of which, Bruce Lee I Love You, starred Bruce’s “real-life mistress,” Betty Ting Pei, and was based on her version of what happened between her and Bruce. Like Bruce Li, Wong was adopted by another studio and redubbed as Bruce Le in order to cash in on his passing resemblance to Bruce Lee. Le never achieved the acclaim of Li, as ridiculous as all this may sound, but he did have a knack for showing up in films from other countries, often with absolutely no connection whatsoever to the plot. Later in life, he would re-emerge under his real name and enjoy a late-career renaissance in the form of the movie Gallants, in which, even as an old man, Wong proved that he was a hell of a lot more than just a Bruce Lee imitator.

Le’s appearance in Katilon Ke Kaatil is no less bizarre than his appearance in, for example, Future Hunters opposite Robert Patrick. Dharmendra has attempted to win Jamila’s heart by pretending to hang himself out of heartache and disguising himself as a famous singer. When both deceptions fail to convince Jamila that Badshah is the man for her, she wanders into a garden and walks by a table where Bruce Le is sitting. He jumps up to menace her, and Dharmendra shows up to fight Bruce Le, and that’s the first and last we see of Bruce Le. He’s not a henchman of Black Cobra. He has no connection at all to the movie. He just happens to be sitting there for one scene. That said, even though Bruce Le gets little respect for his accomplishments in shoddy Hong Kong productions, his fight with Dharmendra—or with an anonymous stunt man in a Dharmendra wig—showcases just how advanced even mediocre Hong Kong fight choreography was. Although it has nothing to do with the movie in which it is nestled, the Bruce Le scene is pretty great. The fight choreography is suddenly better as two seasoned vets of the Hong Kong film industry (again, assuming the anonymous Dharmendra stand-in was Chinese) go head to head, with occasional shots of Dharmendra staggering backward or flying through a wall. Katilon Ke Kaatil has its share of problems, but a lack of people flying through walls is not among them.

Then we return to the movie itself, which drags on for a while as we maneuver Munna and Badshah/Ajit into meeting one another and ending up both trying to con their actual mother, who they do not realize is their mother. We also learn than Michael is still alive, having faked his own death to escape the wrath of Black Cobra (who in twenty years has not aged at all) over failing to get that chariot. Even twenty years later, Cobra is still talking about that goddamned chariot. Surely he could have come up with some other scheme by now. Or at least succeeded in stealing a golden chariot from a solitary woman who is still collapsing with grief over the loss of her sons like it happened yesterday. When Black Cobra discovers Michael is still alive (by pulling into the one gas station in all of India where Michael happens to work), he sicks “Recha” on the poor bastard. And that’s where Katilon Ke Kaatil really starts to get weird.

Recha is described by Black Cobra as being the hellish offspring of a woman raped by a bear, but for all intents and purposes, he is a gorilla from Planet of the Apes. He’s also bullet proof. While people are scared of him based on his size alone, no one seems all that amazed by the fact that this giant, fur-covered sasquatch of a beast exists. Maybe India is crawling with sasquatch men, or maybe the countryside is full of leather-clad gorillas on horseback catching unlucky humans in their nets. Recha manages to shatter Michael’s leg and kill Michael’s beloved wife, meaning we now have our villain who can be redeemed by teaming up with the good guys.

His interest in the chariot revived, Black Cobra devises a plot that relies heavily on the sort of contrivances and coincidences that only happen in a Bollywood film, where the improbability of anything can easily be explained away with a dismissive wave of the hand and a statement about events being guided by the hand of the gods. Black Cobra’s plot hinges on the mother randomly wandering up to a temple to pray for the return of her sons, and this temple will just happen to be the one where Black Cobra and his gang have disguised themselves as priests. Predicting that she will know her youngest son by the trident pendant he wears, he then gives one of the henchmen a trident pendant and sends him off to randomly run into the woman. Naturally, after a bit of wackiness, Munna ends up with the pendant. It all goes on for a while, until Munna and Ajit have their big revelation and team up to kick Black Cobra’s ass.

If the middle portion of the movie has been somewhat a chore to get through, at least the investment is paid off for in the finale, in which our heroes team up with Michael and battle Recha in a lengthy and hilariously awesome showdown. They then infiltrate Black Cobra’s inner sanctum by disguising themselves as members of a dance troupe (as is the way in Bollywood movies) Black Cobra has hired to entertain his men and celebrate the successful theft of the chariot, which by this point, is an operation that probably cost him more than the actual value of the chariot. This represents…what? Like the ten millionth time the good guys have infiltrated the bad guy’s lair via a troupe of dancers? Why do these bad guys keep hiring dance troupes to come in and perform for them in their secret lair? Doesn’t busing in a bunch of dancers sort of spoil the whole “secret” part of the secret lair idea? Making matters sillier, Black Cobra sits the chariot out in the middle of his throne room/dance hall, and the disguised heroes come out and sing a song that is basically a summary of everything Black Cobra has done to their family. I guess this is a variation of Hamlet, where they stage a play that recreates a murder Hamlet thinks has happened, but it doesn’t seem like the best way to maintain your cover. Oh well, it all leads to our heroes killing about fifty million guys Arnold Schwarzenegger style, so that’s OK.

Katilon Ke Kaatil has its share of awesome action sequences, but there is also a lot of filler, which rarely rises above the point of being mildly interesting and often sinks below the point that things become tedious. The Bruce Le fight is great, as is Dharmendra’s showdown with some Steve Reeves looking bodybuilder in hot pants. And of course the finale is wonderful, but there’s an awful long road in between these morsels. Dharmendra doesn’t exude much charisma in this film, and at times I’m not even sure he’s aware of the fact that he’s being filmed. Rishi is more energetic, but he’s often upstaged by the monkey in shiny sultan pants. The biggest disappointment of all, however, is Zeenat Aman, who here contributes nothing to the movie. For a woman who built her career on challenging the conventional “damsel in distress” trope, to see her as a conventional damsel in distress incapable of doing anything is a let-down. She doesn’t whip out any kung fu, she doesn’t use her brains to outwit. She doesn’t do anything but stand there. You could have hired any woman to fill this role. Why cast Zeenat Aman unless you want Zeenat Aman?

Dharmendra was a big deal with a lot of great films under his belt, but Katilon Ke Kaatil isn’t one of them. By the 1980s, he was floundering a bit and trying to find his way in a cinematic landscape that had been changed considerably. However, even in his mid-forties, he looks convincing in action and makes a credible tough guy, even if whupping Bruce Le is a bit of a stretch (seriously, compare those physiques and the speed, and dig Dharmendra’s numchuck skills). The trouble begins when Dharmendra has to do something other than kick someone’s ass. Rishi Kapoor is better in his role than Dharmendra is in his. Rishi is part of the Kapoor dynasty that seems inescapable in Bollywood. He’s not much of an action star, playing second fiddle to an occasionally bored and/or confused looking Dharmendra. Luckily, Bruce Le, not Steve Reeves, and General Ursus are around to lend a hand.

The musical numbers are pretty dull. Although you get a couple glittery nightclub scenes, they don’t make up for the endless scenes of a holy man wandering into the camera to sing summaries of the plot up to that point. And even the nightclub scenes succeed on the merits of psychedelic set design rather than the merits of the singing, dancing, or even the costumes. We do have the scene where Dharmendra and Zeenat get drunk and dance around Mumbai, playing on teeter totters and then, for no reason other than Benny Hill level comedy, dressing Dharmendra up in drag, but even this goes on a little too long, and you’ll start thinking to yourself, “Man, I wonder what that monkey in the sultan pants is up to.”

About Keith Allison

Keith Allison is a writer and pop culture historian living in New York. His interest in film and adventure started at an early age, when he was left to his own devices in the wee small hours and discovered the Universal monsters, Godzilla, and "Matinee at the Bijou." He has written for Alcohol Professor, The Cultural Gutter, Teleport City and the book Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head. He is also the author of Cocktails & Capers: Cult Film, Cocktails, Crime, and Cool.

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