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June 24, 1997


Manjula Padmanabhan

Of Basic Instinct and trashy films

Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct Basic Instinct was a fairly awful film the first time I saw it. But the second time round, it was positively insane. Especially since the print that Chanakya cinema chose to screen looked as if it had been processed during a sandstorm and edited by a lawnmower.

Michael Douglas, a seedy cocaine-sniffing detective, investigates the sensational murder of a rock star. The prime suspect is his girlfriend, Sharon Stone, who also happens to be a best-selling crime fiction author with a bent for kinky sex. In her latest book, she describes the scene we see in the first two minutes of the film, in which a woman does to a man what, in those ancient films called westerns, the lead cowboy did to the lead mustang.

Even as we watch with bated breath to see whether the bucking bronco will manage to unseat the naked lady, we notice that she is spoiling all the fun by tying the unfortunate fellow's wrists to the bars of the bed with a white scarf. This drives the man to snort and rear in a most alarming fashion. And the lady, meanwhile, is so carried away that she kills him with an ice pick.

In no time at all, the detectives have begun to ask themselves if it's possible that the lady who writes such scenes might not be connected to the lady who entertained the man who died in the bed of the lady who…. Okay, so they interrogate Stone. But, of course, she's ready for them. Staring coolly at Douglas and his partner, she bares her perfect premolars and delivers a volley of precisely enunciated f-words. The big tough men collapse into whimpering bundles. From then on, it's her show all the way.

Literally. Because her next action is to strip off one insubstantial piece of clothing and replace it with something even skimpier. At the police station, she is taken to an interrogation cell where she sits in front of a team of police officers who behave like teenagers at a chemist's counter asking for their first condom.

The crucial interrogation scene In the original film, this tableau is one of heart-stopping suspense because, every time she uncrosses her legs, we get a glimpse of the designer label on her birthday suit. But, in this particular print, the scene had been so cut and spliced that it looked more like Ms Stone doing the Charleston sitting down. The accompanying dialogue had, likewise, been slashed to ribbons but it didn't matter, because it was drowned out anyway by the sound of the audience collectively gnashing its teeth.

Douglas, in the meantime, has shown us that his occasional girlfriend, Jeanne Tripplehorn, is the police psychiatrist. When he returns from the cross-examination of Stone's lack of underwear, he attacks Tripplehorn with such ardour that, for the first few seconds, we're not sure whether he's killing her or thrilling her. Tripplehorn, being a shrink, however, correctly guesses that his lust for the prime suspect in the murder case has caused him to behave like a stud piranha.

A few plot twists later, he and Stone meet up at a disco whose inmates have been recruited from a Hieronymous Bosch painting. As Stone's lesbian lover looks on in dismay, erotic sparks begin to fly between Stone and Douglas. In a twinkling of editing scissors, they have ricocheted into bed together.

Another bondage bronco scene takes place, minus the ice-pick this time. Douglas roars and snarls while Stone whinnies in tune. He confesses later that this experience was the intercourse of the millennium. Or words to that effect. But the film is a murder mystery, so corpses pile up.

Tripplehorn appears to be the surprise killer and the case is wrapped up, leaving the insatiable couple to harness themselves to sundry pieces of furniture and ride off into the credits. At this point, the original film reveals its final chill, by freezing its final frame on an ice-pick. The intrepid viewer is left to conclude that the lady may be a killer after all. Chanakya cinema, however, decided that its audiences hated ambiguity. So it deleted that offensive detail altogether.

Live-wire romance Not that it really mattered. I would even say that I owned the cinema a debt. Shorn of its surface gloss, the film looks so trashy that it becomes laughable, even a little forlorn. Who are these middle-aged lechers whose sense and judgement can be swayed merely by glancing up the skirt of a bow-legged murder suspect? Why should we care what happens to them?

Stone is presented as a character so supernaturally amoral; she practically levitates. She represents one of the many incarnations of the Hollywood goddess figure, but what a thin and miserable version this one is! She radiates a type of morbid carnality, suggesting that the ultimate sex trip is really death after all. One suspects that the producer was actually a God-fearing puritan airing his own favourite brand of morality under cover of a blood-and-glamour spectacular.

Photographs: Courtesy Tristar

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Manjula Padmanabhan