After all the melodrama of the recent Hindi films I’ve been watching, I decided it was time to sit back and enjoy one of my favourite genres: the thriller. And a thriller the way only the Bollywood of the 1950’s and 60’s could manage: with lots of romance thrown in, a gorgeously vampish Helen, hummable songs, a comic side plot starring none other than the inimitable Johnny Walker—and, interestingly enough, a supporting actor who manages to steal the limelight from the hero.
Naresh (Ramesh Deo) is a wealthy bachelor who owns the Timli Forest Estate, somewhere in the Himalayan foothills. Timli’s manager, Ajay Singh (Dharmendra) is also a good friend of Naresh’s. One day—shortly after Ajay’s killed a tiger that mauled a local woman—Naresh tells Ajay he’s made his will, leaving all his wealth to an aunt who lives in Africa. Naresh’s secretary Veera (Helen) is in the office too, looking at some files.
While they’re talking, Naresh reads a letter he’s received; he burns the letter but throws the envelope into the wastepaper basket, and Veera takes away the basket to be cleared. She comes by later to tell Naresh she’s leaving for the day. But before going, she surreptitiously places the envelope—which she’s retrieved from the wastepaper basket—in a book in the office library. She doesn’t realise that Naresh is watching her all the while.
That night, the local tribals celebrate the killing of the maneater with much dancing and drumming. It starts raining, and what with all the din, Ajay wakes up—just in time to see a jeep come careening down his driveway, crash into a tree and topple over. He dashes out and finds only one occupant, now unconscious: a beautiful girl (Asha Parekh), whom he picks up and takes into his house.
The girl’s out cold, but comes awake, terrified, when the tribal drums start again. She’s incoherent, and soon lapses into a doze again. Ajay, by now worried, drives off to fetch a doctor. En route, he notices that the gate to Naresh’s house is broken, and that Naresh’s jeep is parked outside. Ajay smells a rat and goes in to check if all’s well—and finds Naresh’s corpse. The man’s been shot through the heart.
Good (and thankfully aware!) citizen that he is, Ajay doesn’t touch anything, not even the pistol he sees lying beside the corpse. Instead, he goes to inform the police, and returns with Inspector Rai (Sanjeev Kumar) and his team. Ajay tells the inspector that Naresh owned two pistols, both of which have vanished. One, he’s sure, was the pistol he’d seen next to Naresh’s corpse, but that’s gone now. The police find a mud-soaked handkerchief pressed into the tire tracks in the driveway, and a red rose lying in the hall. They also notice two pairs of footprints leading up to the house: one a man’s, the other a woman’s, wearing high-heeled shoes.
It’s already morning, and Ajay remembers the girl he’d left behind at home. He rushes back, with Inspector Rai in tow, to find she’s vanished without a trace, overturned jeep and all. Inspector Rai is inclined to treat it all as a figment of Ajay’s imagination. (This is farfetched in the extreme; the jeep crashed into a tree, for heavens’ sakes. Didn’t it leave any scars on the tree? No broken twigs? Not even tire tracks in the wet earth? Really.)
After the inspector’s gone, Ajay discovers a clue: a stub of ash from a cigar, lying in the room where he’d put the girl down. He picks it up, but doesn’t hand it over to the police. (Why, I wonder? Has Ajay lost his faith in the police after Rai’s scoffing at his tale of the mystery girl?)
Two weeks later, Ajay goes to meet Naresh’s lawyer to follow up about the will. The lawyer invites Ajay to come along with him to a charity show. Guess who’s the lead dancer there?
The lawyer tells Ajay the girl’s Kiran, daughter of the retired police commissioner Mr Sharma (Rehman). Ajay follows Kiran home after the show and confronts her—but she denies everything. She wasn’t in any jeep on the night in question; she has no idea what he’s talking about. Mr Sharma too comes by and tells Ajay he’s talking through his hat. He says there’s probably a girl around who’s Kiran’s lookalike.
Ajay, confused, lands up at the police station the next day and confides in Rai. He’s sure Kiran had something to do with Naresh’s death; why, otherwise, is she denying it all? Rai tells Ajay he’s barking up the wrong tree; Kiran was at the Police Club Ball the night Naresh was murdered; there are photographs to prove it, too.
Ajay borrows one of the photos from Rai and mails it to Kiran, with a covering note, asking her to meet Ajay Singh if she wants to know who her lookalike is.
Kiran has no idea who Ajay Singh is—he hadn’t introduced himself the night he came to the Sharmas’—so she goes to meet him. Ajay confesses this was a ploy to find out if Kiran is guilty (he feels she’d never have come if she had been guilty). All’s forgiven, Ajay and Kiran become friends, and before you know it, they’re in love.
Meanwhile, a certain Ranbir Singh `Robbie’ (Manmohan) arrives at the Timli Estate office. Ajay recalls that Naresh had mentioned this guy wanted to stay at the estate for a month and spend his time hunting. The contract’s prepared and Ajay leaves it with Veera, who gives it to Robbie to sign. Robbie, it transpires, is well acquainted with Veera; in Ajay’s absence, he starts bullying her and trying to force her to give him a specimen of Naresh’s signature which he can forge onto a fake will.
At the police station, Inspector Rai has been doing some thinking. He’s recalled the muddy handkerchief they’d found outside Naresh’s house, and now (a little late in the day, in my opinion) he decides to clean it up and examine it more closely. Rai discovers it’s embroidered with a V. There’s only one V he can think of, and armed with a search warrant, he goes off to turn Veera’s house upside down. The cops don’t find a thing, and Veera flirts outrageously with Rai, mocking him so much that he finally carts her off to the police station.
Now there’s another unexpected turn: an old lady called Vimla Devi (Mridula Rani), newly arrived from Africa, comes to the police station and confesses to the crime. In her suitcase—fetched from her hotel—the police find more V-embroidered handkerchiefs. Vimla Devi says she killed Naresh because he’d `ruined’ her niece; but she’s not willing to say who the niece is. Veera, faced with the old lady, disclaims all knowledge of who she is. Rai, despite the evidence and the confession, is inclined to think Vimla Devi is innocent and is simply trying to protect her niece, who must be the real culprit.
Much more happens: Ajay finds Veera fighting with Robbie (though Ajay doesn’t know the reason: Robbie’s stolen a paper signed by Naresh, and is now getting ready to forge a will bequeathing all Naresh’s wealth to Veera. Veera, clever girl that she is, realises this will almost certainly land her in jail). And Ajay’s servant Tejbahadur `Teju’ (Johnny Walker) in a chat session with his tribal girlfriend Mahua (Bela Bose) discovers that Mahua’s found a stylish gold handbag, with a letter in it—addressed to Naresh, signed Veera.
While Robbie bribes Naresh’s crooked lawyer into agreeing to file the fake will, Veera invites Inspector Rai home for a meeting. What follows is a seductive little number (Haai mere paas toh aa), which has little significance as far as the story is concerned.
Veera does, however, manage to pass on to Rai the long-forgotten envelope that she’d tucked into the book at the office library. (I haven’t yet figured out why she needed to flirt and dance around Rai to do that. But then, there’s not much point having Helen in the film if she doesn’t dance, is there? And Sanjeev Kumar is certainly worth dancing to!)
But the crux of the matter is that Rai, back at the police station, examines the envelope and finds that Naresh’s address is written in a familiar handwriting: Mr Sharma’s.
What on earth is happening? Is Vimla Devi the murderess? Or is it her niece? And anyway, who is the niece? What does Mr Sharma have to do with all of this? And—before one forgets—who’s Kiran’s lookalike, the girl who vanished so utterly on the fatal night?
Lots of questions, and lots of twists and turns in the plot to follow.
What I liked about this film:
Sanjeev Kumar. The cast as a whole is very good, but Sanjeev Kumar sizzles (he won a Filmfare award for Best Supporting Actor, by the way). Rai is an interesting character: one of the few policemen I’ve come across in 50’s and 60’s Hindi cinema who’s neither the stuffed shirt, nor the caricature of a highly principled cop, nor (as is so common) a moron who’s outwitted by the hero at every turn. He’s likeable, a man and not just a uniform, and Sanjeev Kumar plays him very well. And he looks so good, too!
Johnny Walker. Qazi Sahib is superb in just about every film, but he’s scintillating in this one as Ajay’s part-dumb, part-street smart servant. The comic side plot, by the way, is beautifully restrained: it’s brief and it fits in with the story.
What I didn’t like:
The gaping holes in the plot. The bit about the vanishing jeep is one of the worst, but there are others too, which I won’t divulge here. The story isn’t a bad one; there’s loads of suspense and the twists in the plot are intriguing—but I got the feeling the writer got carried away when it came to putting in red herrings. There are too many clues that complicate matters, and that end up being forgotten in the course of the film. A simpler story would’ve been way more effective and would have had fewer holes.
The scenes with the animals in the forest. There are a couple of these; Timli Forest Estate apparently has its share of wild animals, elephants and tigers included—which makes me wonder why all the ladies traipse through the woods in their diaphanous clothing and high heels with such gay abandon. One of the scenes in particular has people being chased through the woods by animals, and it’s so obviously staged, it isn’t funny. Painful. And so unnecessary, to my mind.
Still, good time pass, as they say. Highly entertaining, and I for one couldn’t guess till the end who killed Naresh and why.