Article Hindi

40 years of Red Rose (1980): Killing them not-so-softly in this psychological thriller

Rajesh Khanna played a psychopath in this remake of a Tamil hit that seemed more a horror movie than a thriller.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

The psychological thriller Red Rose (1980), a remake of the Tamil hit Sigappu Rojakkal (1978) starring Kamal Haasan and Sridevi, both directed by P Bharathiraja, was loosely inspired by the case of the serial killer Raman Raghav in the 1960s. In a sharp departure from playing the romantic, affable hero, Rajesh Khanna played a psychotic killer, one who preys on young women, luring them into his web and murdering them.

Anand (Khanna) is a misogynist and sexual predator. Society sees him as a respectable, successful businessman who lives alone in a huge house. But he is on the whole distracted and a bit lost. He is quite particular in his tastes, ordering his wardrobe according to the day of the week and holding a preference for the colour red and the symbol of a rose.

One day, he sees a young woman Sharda (Poonam Dhillon) and follows her into a clothing store. Sharda works at the handkerchief counter there and Anand buys one from her, returning often thereafter to meet her and get to know her on the pretext of purchasing hankies.

Sharda is young and innocent and does not see Anand as creepy and, basically, a stalker. He professes his love for her and they start seeing each other. Despite his advances, the pure and naïve Sharda refuses to sleep with Anand before marriage. And so, they get married, only for Sharda to discover that Anand has many dark secrets.

The film begins with a scream and time-lapse photography of a white rose turning bloody, leaving no doubt in the viewer's mind what it is about. With eerie music by RD Burman, Red Rose features the usual tropes of a horror film — a black cat that traipses across a piano, a dangling skeleton, a hand sticking out of the mud, the colour red everywhere, a super creepy gardener (Om Shivpuri) who enthusiastically uses dead animals as manure for his roses, and locked rooms with a danger sign on them, amongst others. Then, of course, there is the overdone symbolism of the rose, with the idea of deflowering taken to the next level!

It is amply evident in the film what Anand is up to, targeting a certain kind of woman with ‘loose’ morals, typified by them wearing Western clothes, being flirtatious, smoking, seeking boyfriends, and reading risqué novels.

Sharda, of course, stands apart, being simple and god-fearing and who, as Anand describes her, is a “Ramayan ke zamaane ki larki [belonging to the era of the Ramayana]". Which is why, within the logic of the film where female sexual desire is punishable by death, she, being ‘pure’, is spared.

The flashes of a woman that Anand sees indicate a traumatic past being at the root of his desire to kill women. The thriller elements are defeated as it’s pretty obvious that Anand is the killer; the big reveal in the end is only about ‘why’, along with what really happened to his father.

The film roots the logic of Anand's actions in his past and attempts to provide an explanation for it; nonetheless, he must pay for what he has done. The guilt that he possibly feels is hinted at when Anand goes to a prison every year to distribute sweets amongst the inmates, saying that not all criminals are behind bars.

Khanna plays the charming, suave businessman with a swagger, hamming his way through most of the film. Dhillon is well cast as the innocent, wide-eyed, trusting young woman who is in for a rude shock but proves herself capable of getting out of a tight spot. Aruna Irani plays the adventurous friend who understands the realities of life and knows that to lead a comfortable life, one needs money and must find herself a rich man.

Despite all the odd, over-the-top bits and the predictable direction in which the film is headed, it strangely goads one to stick on till the end. A big part in that is played, one suspects, by the cult of the superstar Rajesh Khanna. The name Anand, a hat-tip to his famous role in the 1971 Hrishikesh Mukherjee classic, is perversely corrupted by this character and while the Tamil original was a hit, the Hindi version did not impress the audience much. The Adults Only tag did not help its cause.

One wonders why Khanna chose to do this film and play the role of a killer, when he was still the heart-throb of countless women though his stardom was waning. Was it a desire to play a ladykiller literally? Who can say?