Naag Shakti
India 2000
Directed by Om Sai Prakash.


It's Snake Goddess v. Vulture God, battling over the soul of a man whose kiss is poison. And, there's a talking parrot.

Naag Shakti is an epic film which spans generations, a tale of human kind and their relationship with the gods, of the rewards of prayer, of love, honor, and death. There's also a talking parrot and a villain who wears a tight red spandex costume with a cape, for those who aren't really into all that other stuff.

We are firmly in southern India territory here. The favored god is not Vishnu, but Shiva. Shiva wears around his neck a snake, and so is often included in any kind of snake worshipping which might be going on. And in Naag Shakti there is a lot. So much, you start to wonder if people have time to do anything else.

But I suppose, I can't really blame them. Take poor old Gauri, who as the film begins is being yelled at for bringing bad luck to a new bride just by hanging around. No one wants a barren woman around. She prays to the Gods every day, but nothing ever comes of it. At last, Shiva, and his consort, Parvati, look down from the heavens and see her suffering, so they decide to go down to earth and help out. They probably always think of reasons to go down to earth, since in heaven it looks like all they do is sit in their traditional, postcard pose: facing forward, with their right hands raised up as if they are about to swear in their testimony.

Down on earth, they explain to the dedicated Shivite that the reason she is barren is because she chucked a bloody, soiled, wedding night blanket outside, where it landed on some snake eggs, which suffocated under the blood. They have been punishing her ever since. They recommend the couple go to the local snake goddess and beg forgiveness.

The snake goddess (Soundarya) hangs around on earth because of a fight some generations ago in the Naga-loki, the serpent underground. She was a princess, and planned on marrying her love, Prince Naagveer. But the evil Naga Kamnag changes Naagveer into an ordinary snake and sends him to earth. Naagveer is killed in short order by a landlord who notices the snake has shlepped onto his property to drink milk from his cow's udder. He realizes right away this was a poor choice on his part, and after conferring with the chieftan of his village. "Killing a snake is akin to killing a Brahmin," the Chieftan says, much to the landlords dismay. He soon realizes he must build a shrine to the snake and worship it regularly. When he does so, a termite mound appears overnight at the shrine (In India, termite mounds are considered to be snake holes, as well).

Meanwhile, back in Naga-loki, the Nagas all stand in a row in bright and cheap-looking costumes as if they are part of a chorus line. They find out what happened, and banish Kamnag from Naga-loki. Kamnag is insolent. He also cheats out to the audience a lot and is a really poor actor. The Naga Princess, when she learns that the landlord's family has established a shrine in honor of her lover, she decides to go to earth to live near them, in the termite mound, and considers them her 'in-laws.' So leaves her family, and moves into the shrine.

So the childless couple go to the Naga shrine and beg forgiveness. And shortly thereafter, Gauri is barfing all over the place, which is Indian cinema shorthand for, "I'm pregnant." She delivers the baby with a bit more hands on help from the Naga Princess, and names the child Naglakshmi in the serpent goddesses honor.

Naglakshmi grows up at the terminte mound, and hangs out with the cobra. They are best friends. Time passes, and soon Naglakshmi has grown to a beautiful woman (Prema), who in a happy and playful musical number featuring dancing, drumming snakes, Naglakshmi reviews a number of the most famous Naga legends. It is the time of the Nag Panchami festival, and all of the women of the village have come out to give milk and rice and ghee to the goddess.

The Nag Panchami festival is still held every year in some parts of India, sometime in the rainy season, since at that time many of the snake holes are flooded and the snakes are out and about, and snakebite mortality is higher. Snake mortality is also quite higher during Nag Panchami. Part of the problem is the belief that snakes love milk. Not only is this not true, but snakes will actually choke and die if they drink it. Worshippers consider it good luck if the snake laps up some of your milk offering, and I suppose it is, in a way -- that's one less snake that might bite you some other day. In addition to death by suffocation, a lot of cobras are rounded up by snake charmers and de-fanged before bringing them to the city to make a buck doing the charm schtick. The defanged snakes usually die a few days later. All told, tens of thousands of snakes die every Nag Panchami day.

But not in the world of Naag Shakti. Here, snakes lap up milk as if they were mammals. And the death count by the end has more humans dead than snakes.

Naglakshmi meanwhile, takes off in a raft with her talking parrot, and falls into the water. She would have surely drown, if not a handsome man saved her. And who is this man? His name is Shivraj, and he is the grandson of the landlord who built the Naga shrine. Of course, fate has brought them together, and they fall in love. He has just turned 25, and is taking over the family responsibility to be the village administrator, and mete out justice to villagers who need it. His father was well respected, and he demonstrates his ability to be a fine administrator himself. And so he is, until, that is, he hears the sound of a snake-charmer's bin and starts killing and raping people. He becomes a possessed demon, cursed by his mother-in-law as a child. The poison inside Shivraj is powerful, and can only be removed by the snake around Shiva's neck. Only Naglakshmi can obtain the help of Shiva, through prayer and fasting.

The force behind the evil turns out to be Kamnag again, who, having been banished from Naga-loki, has gone over to the other side, with Garuda, and the vultures. He has also shaved his head and, as promised, wears a tight spandex superhero outfit over his rather bulky frame. He is Vultureman. All of which still doesn't keep him from the unnerving habit of staring directly into the camera each time he delivers a line of dialog. He was obviously meant for other things, like WWF wrestling. The Princess is captured by Kamnag, and Shivraj is judged by his own father. The entire village cries for justice. Kamnag sends his vulture to disrupt Naglakshmi's prayer and ruin the temple. Finally, she appeals to the Goddess, Devi, also called Kali, the four-armed bringer of death, and Shakti, the essence of God's power. She is power incarnate, and in her form as Naag Shakti brings the film to a cosmic conclusion of dramatic finality.

Like most Indian films, Naag Shakti is filled with music and melodrama, and is well over two hours long in length. Unlike most Indian films, however, it isn't a chore to get all the way to the end. Naag Shakti delivers the goods. It is fun, fast paced, and filled with exciting CGI effects. If you've ever wondered what it looks like to have a giant snake with a human head lick the boils off of a young girl's face, look no further. Director Sai Prakash further spices up the mix with the use of brilliant color and lots of groovy, LSD induced editing effects. The musical numbers are colorful and catchy. The main characters are all solidly acted and sympathetic. On the other end of the scale is the actor portraying Kamnag, who is so bad he somehow transcends badness and elicits instead a certain amount of awe. All in all, Naag Shakti is great entertainment -- nothing more, nothing less.

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on May 09, 2004.


Comments

I actually have this movie and consider Kamnag to be one of the finest villains of all time. He nearly caused me to break a rib from laughing too hard.

I've watched a fair amount of Japanese anime, some of which is pretty strange. This movie is far stranger and yet, entertaining.

Posted by: Nokomarie at October 15, 2005 11:52 PM
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