Revisiting Bollywood’s fascination for mythical shape-shifting creatures with various filmmakers drawing inspiration from mythology to create their fantasy stories
By Mayur Lookhar
Think of serpent and many cultures around the world think of them as demonic creatures. Yes, they invoke fear but there are also fascinating limbless creatures. Snakes have evoked both fear and awe in Hindu mythology. While the multi-hooded Sheshanaga is said to be a devotee of Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva roamed with the cobra Vasuki around his neck.
Given its significance in mythology, it was natural for the serpent to find its way into cinema too. From being worshiped to be painted as an evil creature, Indian filmmakers have used their creativity to sell their slithering stories. Today (16 July] is marked as World Snake Day. Well, as remarkable as it may sound, but it is true. The #WorldSnakeDay is trending on Twitter.
So, on this day, we decided to slither into Hindi cinema’s Hiss-tory.
Often regarded as the first Hindi film to tap into a mythical creature, writer Rajendra Krishan and director Nandlal Jaswantlal’s Nagin  burrough-ed into the myth of the ichchadhari Naag/Nagin [shape-shifting] cobras, that would later set a template for slithering tales in Hindi cinema. It starred Vyjayanthimala and Pradeep Kumar in the leading roles. Vyjayanthimala shed all her inhibition, if any, to play the shape-shifting nagin in this fantasy film set in a tribal land. While the film is not so memorable, but composer Hemant Kumar scored the classic track Man Dole Mera Tan Dole crooned by Lata Mangeshkar. The sound of the pungi [been] charmed one and all.
It took 22 years before the ichchadhari nagin resurfaced in Hindi cinema. Director Rajkumar Kohli ignited the revenge plot as the shape-shifting nagin [played by Reena Roy] avenged the death of her lover cobra [played by Jeetendra]. The film boasted of a stellar cast with Roy, Jeetendra, Sunil Dutt in leading roles, and ably supported by Sanjay Khan, Feroz Khan, Rekha, Mumtaz, Vinod Mehra. Kabir Bedi, Anil Dhawan. Nagin  is said to be resounding success paving the way for more slithering tales.
A decade later, director Harmesh Malhotra was bitten by the ichchadhari nagin tale, as he roped in super star Sridevi to play the shape-shifting serpentine. Rajni [Sridevi] is married to Rajiv [Rishi Kapoor] but it is later alleged by the tantrik Bhairo [Amrish Puri] that the woman is a snake who is here to avenge her lover’s death. The film was a huge success with Lata Mangeshkar finding another slithering number in Main Teri Dushman, Dushman Tu Mera,
Nigahen: Nagina Part II 
Nagina’s huge success saw Malhotra come up with a sequel Nigahen: Nagina Part II . Rajni and Rajiv’s daughter Neelam [also played by Sridei] takes the reigns forward with human Anand Sunny Deol as her lover. The new story revolved around Gorakh Nath [Anupam Kher] vowing revenge against Rajni’s family. However, the sequel couldn’t match the success of Nagina .
Naag Nagin 
In the same year, we had director Ramkumar Bohra throwing a pair of shape-shifting snakes in Naag Nagin . Her green eyes made Mandakini apt to play the female serpent Chandni while Rajiv Kapoor played a double role, one as the snake Kuber. Bohra had hoped that the audience would warm up to the Ram Teri Ganga Maili Ho Gayi  pair again, but that wasn’t to be as his fantasy tale was the biggest dud that year.
Nache Nagin Gali Gali 
It looks like 1989 was a year where filmmakers were burrough-ing the serpentine tales. Mohanji Prasad’s Nache Nagin Gali Gali was another addition. Well, it it were to release now, perhaps this title would be more apt for an item song. Popular actor Meenakshi Sheshadri got her first taste of playing the mythical creature. Nitish Bharadwaj, who had shot to fame playing Lord Krishna in Mahabharat TV series, couldn’t repeat the same success here.
K.R. Reddy’s film was titled after the legendary mythical creature. Mandakini, Rishi Kapoor, Anupam Kher, Jeetendra found themselves in another creepy crawly tale. It was a maiden shape-shifting role for Madhavi and Rekha. Anupam Kher was one of the bad guys, but the Aghori/tantrik here was played by Danny Denzongpa.
Tum Mere Ho 
Just like Ramkumar Bohra, Tahir Hussain, too, had hoped that the audience will shower love again to his Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak lead pair  Aamir Khan and Juhi Chawla. However, like Bohra, Hussain, too, met with disappointment. Let’s just say Aamir Khan couldn’t say no to his father. Another tribal tale, Shiva [Aamir Khan] had the powers to charm snakes. The nagin here was pure evil, played by Kalpana Iyer.
Doodh Ka Karz 
Filmmaker Ashok Gaekwad’s Doodh Ka Karz was a slightly different tale with the human-serpentine bond being the USP of the film. It was titled Doodh Ka Karz for a reason. In one controversial scene, the widow Parvati [Aruna Irani] feeds her breast milk to a cobra, who later would repay the karz [debt] by helping her son Suraj [Jackie Shroff]. Neelam Kothari and Varsha Usgaonkar were the female leads.
Pooja Bedi turned into a Vishkanya [poisonous girl] in Jag Mundhra’s revenge drama. This was her debut film. Bedi acquires the serpent’s power after willingly drinking snake poison. More than content, the film courted news for Bedi’s bold scenes. Pooja’s father Kabir played her father in this film.
The herd mentality came to the fore again when filmmaker V. Menon tried selling the cliched snake, naagmani [snake-stone] story in his film Naagmani. It didn’t have any A-list cast with the likes of unheralded names Sumeet Saigal, Shikha Swaroop, Kiran Kumar in leading roles. The film had some popular songs with Anuradha Paudwal’s Mera Laung Gawacha becoming a huge hit.
Jaani Dushman – Ek Anokhi Kahani 
Director Rajkumar Kohli revisited the fantasy genre with Jaani Dushman – Ek Anokhi Kahani . However, this was no anokhi [novel] tale but another case of an old wine in a new bottle. The film had an ensemble cast, led by the likes of Sunny Deol, Rajkumar’s son Armaan Kohli, Manisha Koirala, singer Sonu Nigam. Suniel Shetty, Akshay Kumar, Arshad Warsi, Aftab Shivdasani all had small but pivotal roles. The only twist to this tale was the millennial setting and as opposed to a nagin, it was the male-serpent Kapil [Kohli] who went on a killing spree to avenge the death of his female-serpent. The film was a disaster in every sense. It failed to revive son Armaan’s career and would be the last directorial of the veteran filmmaker.
One thought that the days of shape-shifting snakes was over in Bollywood. But with advanced technology, one felt that the fantasy genre could be revised. Hiss  was shot in English and Hindi simultaneously with American filmmaker Jennifer Chambers Lynch helming the much hyped film. Mallika Sherawat looked the part as the new-age nagin but visual effects was not enough to save this dull drama. The late Irrfan Khan, too, couldn’t save this film. Hisss simply failed to create any history.