India 1983
Directed by Pramod Chakravorty .

What does it take to turn a good Hindu boy, a priest's son, into an athiest ("nastik")? How about the landlord's son stealing your Krishna idol, and blaming it on you and your devout father, whom he has already stabbed to death. As an afterthought, he locks the doors of your house and sets it on fire, buring your mother and sister alive. Yes, at this point, it becomes a bit difficult to believe in a good diety looking down on you in kindness. Almost everyone who faces catastrophe questions their faith, and the boy Shankar is no exception. He decides that faith is crap, takes the knife that killed his father, and stabs the landlord's son in the eye with it, and flees, vowing to no longer pray to god to ask for anything, to do it all himself. And so he grows up to become a thief (and Amitabh Bachchan), and a Nastik.

He fights and then befriends another thief, Balbir (Pran), who steals to earn enough money to pay for the medical expenses of his daughter, who was raped by a one-eyed man and has gone totally insane as a result. They become instant blood brothers, and though it takes them until the end of the movie to figure it out, we realize instantly that Balbir's daughter's rapist and Shankar's father's killer are one and the same. The killer boy has grown up to become Tiger (Amjad Khan), a smuggler of diamonds and gold, who also maintains an underground factory that would make Dr. No green with envy.

Shankar and Balbir coincedentally cross paths with Tiger, stealing a briefcase that contains some stolen diamonds in a set of his false eyes. But they in turn are robbed by a third thief, Gauri (Hema Malini) and her trained dog, which variously retrieves bags, guns, and evidence throughout the film and proves to be damn handy to have around. They, too, become fast friends, and soon the foursome are causing Tiger all kinds of trouble, even without knowing his real identity.

After the intermission things turn a bit more serious, as Shankar finds his mother alive and returns to his village to confront his past and kill the landlord's son. Instead, he is framed once again, just like his father before him.

NASTIK is a delightfully entertaining "masala" film, sagging with melodrama but impossible to take too seriously, in which Amitabh Bachchan can do three impossible things per day -- and that's before breakfast. If you've ever wondered if it were possible to kick a gun out of a goon's hand at such an angle that it flies across the room and into the hand of your friend, hanging upside-down from a rope, so that he can shoot three villains with the next three shots, this film is for you.

Along with the impossible, there is also the highly improbable. NASTIK hinges on a set of coincidences that could only be possible if the principle characters were the only people on the planet. One sequence in particular comes to mind. Shankar has finally found his mother and sister alive. He goes back to join with them, but their home was burned down and they moved. Every night, he drives the city streets looking for them, and almost runs over his sister (who he doesn't recognize) when she is out to get medicine for her mother. The next car that sees her is a car full of goons with Tiger at the wheel, who decides she should be captured and raped. And she would have been, too, if not for the fact that Balbir was wandering about in the vicinity, sees the fighting, and intercedes to save the girls life. Basically, everyone we have been introduced to in the movie so far just accidentally ran into one another that night. It's a small world after all.

"Athiest" is something of a dirty word, pretty much worldwide, and throughout most of history. In the west it is bad enough to be an athiest, if anyone finds out about it. It is not an affiliation to be proclaimed publicly, it must be hidden, as if something shameful. And needless to say, an athiest's chances at polical office are slim to none. And that's the way it is in the most tolerant of societies. In the far east, it is a little easier to be an athiest, mainly because communist doctrine dictated it in China for so long, while Japan shed its religion recklessly in its post-war push to modernization. The trend in both nations, however, is toward more religion, not less. In the middle east and south asia, you can forget about being an athiest. Even thousands of years ago, Christians and Muslims preferred meeting each other over meeting an athiest -- and we all see how much they love meeting each other. So it comes as something of a novelty that our hero is an athiest here, though it is obvious it won't last (lapsing in the end to the old "god is testing me" philosophy), still it is worth noting that Shankar doesn't convert back until the last 10 minutes of the film, spending the rest of the running time giving religious folk a good tongue lashing at the mere recitation of such phrases as, "it's in God's hands now."

This is a solid entertainer. What more can I say? As it says before the opening credits, "For those who believe, no argument is necessary. For those who do not, no argument is possible."

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on February 06, 2006.

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