Having spent most of my life avidly watching Hindi films—especially pre-80’s—I’m inclined to be indulgent. I don’t bat an eyelid when a heroine’s hairdo goes from stylish bob to flowing tresses from one scene to the next. I don’t wonder how an arch villain can defy the cops of an entire nation (occasionally, most of the world) and still fall before the combined efforts of the hero, his comic sidekick, and a faithful pooch. I forgive completely illogical turns and plot elements, ascribing them to artistic license. I mumble a puzzled “What the—!” or “How the—!” or even a “Why the—!” and move on.
Leader is one of those (thankfully rare) films that’s a “What/Why/How the—!” moment from beginning to end.
The film starts going berserk from the word go, when we’re introduced to an upright political activist, Acharyaji (Motilal), who, in between giving speeches, takes time out to chastise Sunita (Vyjyantimala), for posing in a swimsuit for a newspaper. Sunita, we learn, is the princess of Shyamgarh and has come to Bombay to study, along with her younger brother Shailendra `Shalu’ (I have no idea who this actor was, but since he appears in only one scene, he’s easily forgotten—obviously by the writer as well).
Sunita tells Acharyaji that a certain Vijay Khanna, the editor of the newspaper, has pasted a photo of her face on the photo of another girl’s body. Why the—!
Anyway, next we know, Acharyaji, with Sunita in tow, is at a political rally when someone pitches what seems to be a bomb at Acharyaji. A minor stampede ensues. This is stilled by a young man (Dilip Kumar) who jumps onstage and starts singing, with Sunita etc providing the chorus. What happened to the bomb? What happened to who threw the bomb? Aren’t these guys worried? What the—?!
Sunita is impressed by the man, though he doesn’t introduce himself. A day or so later, though, Vijay Khanna phones, wanting to talk to Shalu. Sunita gives him a piece of her mind for printing dirty pictures of hers, little aware that the man she’s ranting at is the same one whom she met onstage the other day. Vijay flirts outrageously with her until: (a) she bangs the phone down, and (b) his father (Nasir Hussain) sends for him. For some reason not divulged, Vijay’s father is attended on by a guy in a Ruritanian uniform, complete with swish helmet. Why the—!
From here, the film skips briefly to a college classroom, where Vijay’s father is a professor teaching law. Vijay is one of his students, and a heckler of the first order. Okay, I’m not being nitpicking, but seriously: isn’t Dilip Kumar a bit old to be convincing as a student? How does Vijay fit all his activities—editing a daily, gatecrashing political rallies and flirting—into his schedule? And we’re told he’s even been coming first in class all along. How the—!
Within the next ten minutes, plenty happens. Vijay’s father and mother (Leela Misra) forcibly (yes, really: they pin him down) get him engaged to a girl he doesn’t know:
To escape from the wedding, Vijay runs away, along with all his followers, of whom Shalu is one. Sunita and the distraught parents of the other boys wonder where their darlings have gone, and Sunita sets out to find them all. She runs into Vijay at a political rally (yes, fat lot of escaping this guy’s done). He stows away in her car and on being discovered, tells her he’s an astrologer who knows where the boys have gone. She believes him. What the—!
She takes him to meet the other parents, and they’re convinced too. What the, what the.
Sunita doesn’t seem very anxious for the company of her little brother. While he’s away (which, by the way, the film never gets around to accounting for; where did Shalu disappear?), she sulks and moons about in turn. One evening, the pesky Vijay Khanna phones and sings to her a song that mixes dewy romance with farce: he pours orange juice into the mouthpiece, and the juice comes out from the mouthpiece of her telephone. Hmmm. What? How? Most important, why?? [At this point, I’m wondering if all of this is a deliberate farce and supposed to be funny. If it is, then my sense of humour is abysmal].
Revert to Sunita and the gatecrasher/astrologer/whatever she’s fascinated by. They meet beside a fake lotus pond and sing a bit, in the course of which we realise they’re in love. He tells her that if her love for him is true, she’ll meet him at the Taj Mahal on the next full moon night. Huh? But she does love him, and so she arrives (Shalu is still missing, but who cares?), and they sing another song. All this singing is getting on my nerves.
Just as they’re finishing off the last verse, the parents of those disappeared boys turn up and let the cat out of the bag: this is Vijay Khanna, printer of dirty pictures and instigator for the running away of their boys. How this lot found all this out isn’t explained. How they knew where to find him isn’t explained. I’m also a little bewildered at this easy-as-pie whizzing between Bombay and Agra. The Taj Mahal, from what I gathered from this scene, is like Colaba Causeway or the Gateway of India: just tell a Bombay cabbie, and he’ll drive you down. What the—!
The gist of the matter is that Vijay’s arrested and taken to court where he fights his own case, and wins.
This is followed by some romancing, in the form of: (a) flirting with other people in order to make the beloved jealous; (b) thrashing each other with a long and dangerous-looking bamboo; and (c) singing. Eventually, Sunita’s appeased (I’m heaving a sigh of relief) and Vijay takes her home to meet his parents, who’re thrilled. (Hey, wasn’t this guy engaged? Where’s his betrothed? What the—?!)
Vijay’s father wants to meet Sunita’s father, but Sunita and Vijay realise this is going to be tricky. Sunita’s father, the Maharaja of Shyamgarh (D K Sapru), isn’t going to take kindly to having riffraff like Vijay for a son-in-law. The solution is to pass off someone else as the Maharaja. Who?
Acharyaji, of course! Vijay goes to meet him and to convince Acharyaji of his virtues.
What nobody knows all this while is that Acharyaji’s ace rival for the elections has the backing of the unscrupulous and corrupt Dewan Mahender Singh (Jayant), the dewan of Sunita’s father. Mahender Singh’s now decided that enough’s enough, and he sends his henchman to murder Acharyaji. Which the man duly does, leaving Vijay as the sole suspect, pursued hotly by the police and by Mahender Singh’s goons.
So, just when one thought this film was settling into being a romantic comedy, it suddenly turns thriller—and completely lunatic. In his attempt to outrun the police, Vijay is helped by Sunita. In getting out of the way of rampaging elephants (Whaaat the—!), doing a song and dance with some tribals (What the—? Aren’t these two on the run?!)… these tribals, by the way, have fancy sets, complete with giant seahorses, seashells and more.
And dodging planes à la North by Northwest…
They arrive at Sunita’s father’s palace in Shyamgarh, where she passes Vijay off as Dewan Mahender Singh’s son.
…Little aware that Vijay’s father, with his Ruritanian crony, is also here. Both of them are disguised as waiters. How and why is anybody’s guess.
At which point, utterly exhausted, I throw in the towel. I’ve seen some cheesy and utterly unconvincing romances; I’ve seen terrible comedy; unbearably melodramatic and moralising films; bad thrillers and patriotic flicks that didn’t arouse an ounce of sentiment in me. But I’ve never before seen a film that manages to be all of those at one go. Leader truly leads.
One last question: What the— were usually discerning people like Dilip Kumar and Motilal doing in a film like this?!
What I liked about film:
The music. It’s by Naushad, and there’s plenty of it—a song just about every five minutes in the first half of the film, and fairly frequently post that too. Some of the songs are really nice, too: my favourite is Apni azadi ko hum harghiz mita sakte nahin.
Dilip Kumar, in a few odd comic scenes. Tragedy king or whatever, he has a flair for comedy (see Ram aur Shyam), and in a couple of scenes in Leader he has funny dialogues that he carries off well. Hey, he got the Filmfare Award for Best Actor for the film.
What I didn’t like:
Above. Re-read the synopsis.
Okay. Maybe I’ve got this completely and totally wrong. Maybe this was supposed to be farce, funny all the way. If so, then why the melodrama? Why the appeals to patriotic fervour? Why the painful `romance’? Why the—!