If I have one major failing when it comes to selecting films to watch, it is the stubborn (naive?) belief that any film which has good songs and a good cast must also necessarily be good. This has been proven to be a completely baseless criterion for film selection, but I plod on optimistically, buying and renting films that have superb music but fall absolutely flat on other fronts: House No. 44, for example, a Dev Anand starrer that tries to be noir but doesn’t quite make it.
The film starts off promisingly enough, with my favourite song from the film, Teri duniya mein jeene se toh behtar hai. This is sung by Ashok (Dev Anand), a pickpocket who just about manages to make ends meet for himself and the sidekick he calls Jamoora. Ashok and Jamoora sleep on the pavement, but shift into the nearest verandah one night when it starts raining. They are woken up the next morning by Nimmo (Kalpana Kartik), the girl who lives in the house. She is a little miffed at these interlopers.
Nimmo’s father (Shivraj), a chowkidar, pacifies her while Ashok and Jamoora go off. Shortly after, Ashok successfully picks the fat wallet of a passerby, Sundar (Bhagwan Sinha). Unknown to Ashok, Sundar also is a crook—though substantially more crooked, unscrupulous and big-time than poor petty Ashok. Sundar discovers that Ashok’s filched his wallet. He confronts Ashok, and is impressed by Ashok’s jaunty acceptance of the crime.
Sundar offers Ashok better, bigger employment and takes him to House No. 44, a dilapidated wreck occupied by the sinister, bare-bellied Kaptaan (K N Singh). Kaptaan is in a foul mood because one of his henchmen, Jebu (Rashid Khan) has just quit the gang. Interestingly, unlike in other films where this would have meant Jebu being summarily despatched, in House No. 44 Kaptaan’s main worry seems to be the resultant shortstaffing, since Jebu’s daughter, who also helped out the gang, has deserted along with Daddy.
Ashok joins the gang and is given an advance to get his kit (he must look a `gentleman’).
That night, Ashok and Jamoora are wandering around near the railway tracks when they spot Sundar and one of his cronies trying to break into a railway shed. Ashok and Jamoora go investigating (though it’s never explained if Ashok recognises Sundar), and at the same time, a chowkidar arrives. Sundar and his buddy run, bang into the chowkidar, and kill him, leaving the corpse to be found by Ashok. Ashok, fortunately, has the good sense to inform the police.
The chowkidar, of course (and where would Hindi cinema be without its coincidences?) is Nimmo’s father. She is now all alone, and among the neighbours who come to console her are Sundar and his mother. Sundar remembers that with Jebu’s daughter now no longer part of the gang, they are in need of a girl to do all the tasks only a ‘woman can do’ (an ambiguous explanation he’d given Ashok earlier). So Sundar persuades his mother to take Nimmo under her wing. Nimmo, who should’ve had the sense not to trust a man who looks so oily, is grateful and agrees to go live with them.
We’re now given a taste of what Ashok’s expected to do as part of Kaptaan & Co. This consists of dressing up in a suit, going to a club and sitting near a wealthy woman wearing a supposedly expensive necklace. Ashok smiles at the woman, blows smoke around her from his cigarette, and hovers expectantly around her back while a dancer (Sheila Vaz) struts her stuff.
The song ends with the necklace in the dancer’s hands (the actual stealing isn’t shown and one is expected to imagine that Ashok managed to slip a heavy necklace from around the victim’s neck in the middle of a well-lit room, while surrounded by people. I’m sceptical). The dancer slips the necklace into a guitar which she later hands over to Ashok, with instructions to pass it on to a woman Sundar will send.
This happens to be Nimmo. They recognise each other, and are also obviously attracted to each other in a friendly, sweet sort of way. Ashok escorts her back home—or rather to her foster home, since she’s now staying with Sundar and his mother.
Sundar isn’t overjoyed to see Ashok being so chummy with Nimmo, and after Ashok tells him off for sending a lone girl out on errands so late at night, he gets even more irritated and advises Ashok to mind his own business.
Meanwhile, the local police has figured out that Sundar was most probably responsible for the old chowkidar’s murder (don’t ask me how they know; we’re just given a glimpse of an officer—Jagdish Raj—telling his subordinates that. Very mysterious). Sundar’s photograph’s put on a Wanted poster, and he decides it’s time to lie low.
After trying to make a pass at Nimmo, Sundar sends her off on another errand, this time to deliver a package to Ashok. What this package consists of is kept a mysterious secret; to me it seems a mere pretext to have Ashok and Nimmo meet again and walk around in the moonlight.
The main outcome of all this mooning about is that Ashok decides enough’s enough and Sundar had better stop using Nimmo for his nefarious activities.
(Another mystery: I can’t see why a woman is needed to fetch and carry stuff like a guitar or a packet in the middle of the night; Sundar’s explanation that there are some tasks only a woman can do doesn’t hold water here). Also, why is there such a difference in Dev Anand’s and Kalpana Kartik’s heights in this shot? They’re supposed to be walking together, not him standing on a box. Something wrong there.
The next morning, Ashok comes to meet Sundar and warn him to stop using Nimmo for these potentially dangerous errands. Sundar laughs in his face, and when Nimmo enters the room, tries to manhandle her. Ashok, of course, rescues her by knocking Sundar down. He tells Sundar, and later Kaptaan, that he’s out of the gang and will be leading an honest, upright life from now onwards.
Ashok rents a room for Nimmo to stay in (what, by the way, happened to the house where Nimmo used to stay with her father? Where other films conveniently forget minor details and characters, this one takes the cake by forgetting an entire house). He then sets off to find a job, and ends up in a succession of jobs—all of which he loses because Kaptaan & Co. sabotage stuff so that the blame falls on Ashok.
Finally at the end of his tether, with no money either for himself or to pay Nimmo’s rent, Ashok goes to the police. The reward money for information leading to Sundar’s capture is Rs 500, and Ashok lets the police know where Sundar lives. The police reach Sundar’s home, he panics and shoots at them—they shoot back, and Sundar dies. Good riddance to bad rubbish, I say, but Ashok, with the Rs 500 in his pocket, can’t get rid of the thought that this is tainted money.
From this point onwards , as if it wasn’t already incoherent enough, the film slides into what memsaab refers to as “the curse of the second half”. It gets more and more difficult to keep up with the events that follow—and more importantly, with the logic behind those events. If it hadn’t been for the songs, and for the fact that I was hoping to see a reason emerge for the convoluted story, I’d have given up well before the end. As it was, the last 45 minutes or so proved very difficult to sit through.
What I liked about this film:
The music. S D Burman has always been one of my favourites, and this film has some lovely songs, including the beautiful Chup hai dharti chup hain chaand-sitaare and Phaili huin hain sapnon ki baahein.
Dev Anand and Kalpana Kartik look great together. His acting is accomplished, though hers is a little stilted and overdone by turns: she’s nowhere as good as she was in Nau Do Gyarah, just two years later.
What I didn’t like:
The sheer pointlessness of much of the film. There is just too much that doesn’t make sense, too many mysteries. For example, why does Sundar use Nimmo to run these useless errands which could so easily have been entrusted to one of his other goons? Where does Nimmo’s father’s house disappear? What was in the package Sundar got Nimmo to deliver to Ashok? Why do Kaptaan’s goons waste so much time and energy in trying to discredit Ashok when they could be more gainfully employed in other illegal activities?
I could ascribe (and I think with reason) some of these discrepancies to Shemaroo, notorious for editing that verges on the criminal. Unfortunately, too much is obviously just never explained in the film, or explained in a way that’s cursory, illogical or just plain unconvincing. And, as I mentioned earlier, there’s a series of utterly irrational events that follows. In hindsight, I have a feeling this was supposed to resemble the sort of clever plotting that falls into place at the end of a good suspense thriller, when you have a sudden “A-ha!” moment and realise where all of those seemingly mysterious actions were leading up. In House No. 44, this falls unbelievably flat: all that convoluted and puzzling action leads up to a climax so unsatisfactory it made me want to kill someone!
Such a disappointment. I’m usually kindly disposed towards Navketan: they made some delightfully entertaining films. But after this one, I’m going to be giving them something of a wide berth for a while at least.