Ten Great Bollywood Mysteries

If you began reading this in happy anticipation of gems like Mera Saaya and Teesri Manzil, allow me to disillusion you. The mysteries I mean are those that occur in Hindi films of just about any conceivable genre from the 50’s and 60’s. They’re plot contrivances that have puzzled me for a long, long time, and made me wonder if sometime, around the genesis of Bollywood, some little-known scriptwriter laid down rules which, idiotic and illogical though they may be, became gospel truth and continued to be followed faithfully for the next few decades.

So what's the answer?

Here we go.

Mystery 1. Why is it that women need simply tuck their hair up under a cap or turban and wear trousers, and they can pass themselves off as male? Doesn’t anyone wonder about the high-pitched voice? Aren’t they astonished at the youth’s well-endowed chest or his rather shapely waist? Don’t they wonder why he’s so paranoid about remaining clothed from head to toe?

Women disguised as men

Mystery 2, in a similar vein. Why are men’s disguises so cursory? Clothes maketh a man, I know, but they don’t work miracles. Neither do a paan tucked into one cheek; a patently false moustache and beard; a turban; or spectacles. But in the convenient world of Bollywood, even such contrivances successfully fool people—wives, parents, girlfriends, etc—who should be able to recognise the man in question. His height and width hasn’t changed; his voice is the same; and if you look closely, so are his nose and his eyes behind all that shrubbery. Even I can identify these guys:

Men in disguise

Mystery 3, a little gory now. Why do even educated people (who presumably have watched enough cinema or read enough books to know better) act so dumb when confronted with a bloody corpse? Why must they:
1. Touch all that blood and gore (Ewww). It’s obvious the poor creature’s dead; wallowing in all that blood isn’t going to do them any good.
2. If there’s a weapon—dagger, gun, etc—around, quickly grab it, preferably with bloodied fingers. Why?
3. Run, and that too only after someone (nosey neighbours, the police, a watchman, etc) arrives in the vicinity. Again, why? Isn’t this vaguely indicative of guilt?
And all this, mind you, while completely innocent.

Innocent murderer

Mystery 4, and this often crops up in rife-with-crime films, which feature a good-at-heart vamp, a girl who drinks, smokes and flirts, though she doesn’t sleep around or kill people. Why does this type of girl always fall for the hero, and why does she, usually towards the end of the film, end up dying trying to save the hero’s life? Yes, I know she’s the awkward and unwanted third in a love triangle, but surely there are less gristly ways… and this, by the way, seems also the usual way to get rid of the `other’ girl, even if she’s not bad, just pesky. Why?

In the way - and then out

Mystery 5, a little risqué. Why is it that if a girl sleeps with her boyfriend—or husband whom she’s married secretly—(though I don’t see how exchanging garlands in a deserted temple, with no witnesses around, can be classified as a marriage), the following is bound to happen:
1. She gets pregnant. What timing! What fecundity!
2. The poor bloke either cops it, or is presumed to have copped it, or in some cases, vanishes (due to circumstances beyond his control) from the girl’s life.

Pregnant at the drop of a hat - or whatever!

Mystery 6. Why are hotels such dens of iniquity? I have come across some hotels where the food might have been better for a splash of poison or where the staff was surly enough to make me think they’d happily murder me in my room. But why do Hindi films make every hotel out to be a front for smugglers, murderers, traitors and gangsters of the worst sort (with, of course, the slinky dancer—invariably Helen—being responsible for distracting pesky policemen/amateur detectives)?
Another question: how on earth do hotel managers find time to manage their hotels and their nefarious activities? I worked in a hospitality company for four years, and spent most of it trying to juggle a million different tasks. I didn’t have the time to leer at any dancers (the hotel was obviously pretty duh, since we didn’t have a dancer anyway), or smoke cigars, or do any of the other stuff filmy hoteliers do.

Seedy hotel zindabad!

Mystery 7. On a different, more domestic note: assuming a parent gets separated (ideally, at the Kumbh ka Mela!) from his/her child and doesn’t see the offspring until he/she is grown up. Why does the sight of the offspring (even if he/she looks nothing like either parent) make the estranged parent feel there’s something `familiar’ about the person? And why (and Nasir Hussain was particularly good at adhering to this rule in the films he wrote and directed) is the parent:
1. Suspicious of, or downright belligerent towards, the offspring?
2. Guardian to the offspring’s beloved?
3. Keen on his/her ward marrying someone other than the person he/she loves?
These questions are getting to be a tad too many.

Parent vs. Long-lost child

Mystery 8. How come makeovers are such a cake walk? I don’t mean the makeovers where you go get a new hairstyle and slather on lots of greasepaint. I mean big time makeovers, where an illiterate villager—someone who’s spent their life herding goats or washing clothes at the local ghat—becomes hip and happening in a twinkling. If it’s a girl, one totter across the room and she’s perfectly balanced on stilettos; if a man, knotting a tie becomes second nature after one try. And the intricacies of dancing (from the twist to the waltz), of playing a piano, of knowing which cutlery’s what, of being fluent in not just English but also often a handful of foreign languages—seem to be mastered in a jiffy. How?

Magical makeovers

Mystery 9. Why is buying a train ticket tantamount to signing a death warrant for one’s fellow passengers (this is valid only if the person in question is the hero or heroine, especially if wronged, heartbroken and wanting to run away from it all)? How come, in such a case, the train always either plunges down a gorge or falls off a broken bridge into a river? The casualties may run into the hundreds, but why is it that the hero/heroine:
1. Is given up for dead by all and sundry
2. Is rescued by strangers
3. Loses his/her memory (sometimes) and is able to begin a new life
I’m thinking the Indian Railways should protest. This isn’t exactly good publicity for the corporation.

Trains = accidents

Mystery 10. How do people fall in love with people whom they’ve never seen, sometimes never even met? This seems to be particularly popular with women when the beloved happens to be either a poet or a writer. For men, especially in Muslim socials, just a glimpse of the hand (or foot) of a burqa-clad girl can result in the love of a lifetime, without a word passing between the two people involved. Slightly tricky, I’d think.

The case of the unseen lover

Ah, how I love Hindi cinema!

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50 thoughts on “Ten Great Bollywood Mysteries

  1. Ha ha ha!!!
    Thoroughly interesting read.
    I laughed out at the mystery of;
    “Why is buying a train ticket tantamount to signing a death warrant for one’s fellow passengers …” LOL

    There’s an eleventh one. :-) Why don’t people speak up and tell the other the truth.
    The hero sees the heroine with a child (her friend’s/neighbour’s etc etc) and thinks its hers. “tumne mujhe dhoka diya”! He shouts. She in turn stares at him dumbly and silently. He walks off and discovers the truth in the last few shots.

  2. memsaab: Thank you! And yes, if it weren’t for these mysterious plot contrivances, half the fun would be gone from Hindi films. ;-)

    pacifist: Ah, yes… that one too. People are so wary of telling their nearest and dearest the truth, often on the flimsiest of pretexts. And the nearest and dearest are, in turn, so quick to believe the worst… actually, I’m planning a ‘Ten great mysteries Part 2’: there are just so many other puzzling plot elements that one sees again and again in old Hindi cinema! That’s what makes these old films so endearing, I think: too many of these plot elements have simply disappeared over time.

  3. rofl! great list, Dustedoff! Cant wait for your next instalment of unsolved mysteries of cinema.

    I wonder if these mysteries will ever be solved? The make-overs arent quite as miraculous as all that, though. Dont all these characters undergo special training (in compressed time) to be made-over? Dev Anand was great at breaking conventions though. He needed one whole movie to make-over Tina Munim (Manpasand) – or was she particularly make-over resistant? And I hate to sound like a gullible Bolly-film character but I am not sure who the person in the first pic of Mystery 2 is – is it Shammi Kapoor?

  4. And we are so used to these that we dont even notice them. I guess it becomes our comfort zone, not needing to think much. Heroine hops into a train, something is bound to happen. If a disguise is too clever, the audience wont know whats up. I am sure these tricks were thought up by the Greeks !

  5. bollyviewer: Thank you :-) I always thought some of these makeovers were truly miraculous because most of them happen in record time – for instance, the Mala Sinha one (from Pyar ka Sapna) happens in what appears to be a few days (or maybe a few weeks, at the most) because she has to then go to Europe… and she not just gets a new look, but also becomes fluent in French and English! Considering I spent three years learning French and still am barely able to make sense of it, I consider that a miracle!

    And yes, that’s Shammi Kapoor – from An Evening in Paris, where he got to sport other disguises as well.

    Ava: All part of escapism, I guess! One can enjoy the film more if one doesn’t have to think much, as you say.

  6. Ah but Dustedoff, heroines (and heroes) are waaaaay more intelligent and quicker at picking up new things, than mere mortals like us!

    Mystery #5 has always been a puzzle to me, as well. Before marriage it takes but one encounter for the heroine to get pregnant, but if she waits for marriage, then she frequently never does conceive! It does give out the opposite of the moral message that movies are eager to propagate.

  7. LOL! Point noted. ;-) I am a mere mortal, after all!

    Yes, I’m surprised at how it takes just one encounter for an unmarried heroine to get pregnant. Also noticed how such encounters always seem to happen when it’s raining?

  8. lol true! I was watching Amar this weekend and rain played a big part in inflaming passions there! Poor Dilip Kumar would never have done the fell deed with Nimmi, not without the rains. ;-) Maybe failed monsoons do have their uses?

  9. Yes, Amar would probably have remained faithful to his beautiful girlfriend if it hadn’t been for the rain. And remember Aradhana, Ek Phool Do Maali and Phoolon ki Sej? All had people getting drenched in the rain and then succumbing ;-)

  10. memsaab: Much better than simply taking off one’s jacket and draping it over the beloved, huh?

    pacifist: I haven’t seen Dhool ka Phool… but the imdb synopsis seems to suggest it should probably have been called Baarish ka Phool ;-)

  11. And more often than not, the reason for a woman being disguised as a man is really flimsy. If she’s on the run, I’d think wearing a burqa would probably be more effective – an obvious ‘woman pretending to be man’ disguise is more likely to draw attention!

  12. Kya fabulous post hai, i was nodding in agreement and laughing out loud to myself, indeed such mystereis are indeed what make bollywood what it is, when we used to watch Bollywood films in my younger years in Africa it was such mysteries that kept people puzzled and entertained and ‘aahhiing’ and ‘ooohing’ at the screen, there was a sense of ‘hell no you can’t do that’ but in hindi films you have to hand it to them for making this things look entertaining i don’t think any other film industry can pull off such nonsensical plots and mysteries

  13. Thank you! :-)

    You’re so right – only Hindi cinema can manage to pull it off! The other day I was watching an old Hollywood film (West of the Pecos) in which a girl successfully disguises herself as a young man, and I kept thinking, “gosh, this is corny,”. But somehow Hindi films, with all of that – and more – are just so utterly escapist and entertaining, I’ll gladly forgive them all these sillinesses!

  14. What puzzles me is something very prosaic: why is every lampshade put at a jaunty angle? Why are they never leve? Are there particularily energetic cleaners on the sets of Hindi movies. I know, it’s not much of a mystery put once I started noticing it, I realised how common these angled lampshades are.

  15. That was one I hadn’t noticed! But then, the decor in old Hindi films is always puzzling: those hideous wallpapers (I hadn’t seen wallpaper in India before I began working at a hotel – wallpaper isn’t common at all here), that terrible gilded plaster, the heavy curtains and bright pink-and-blue interiors: I’d do crazy things too if I had to live in a house like that.

  16. I can think of a few more:
    # Heroines do not have mothers, they only have fathers. The only film I can think of in which the female characters were part of a functional, loving family is “Aah” .

    # When the hero or heroine is parentless, they are brought up by an elder brother and his wife who are old enough to be their parents.

  17. Harvey: Thank you! Good to have you back on this blog :-)

    Mudita: I think I’d change #1 to something like: Heroines (or heroes, for that matter) ever only have one parent – either a mother or a father. The number of films where there’s only a widowed mother (Professor, Intequam, Aan, Junglee, Mere Humdum Mere Dost, etc) are legion. But I agree completely with #2!! And if it’s a B/W film, you can be pretty sure the older brother is Balraj Sahni ;-)

  18. WONDERFUL post! I can envision a whole series of these focused on particular types of films or characters. :)

    Re: #4: sadly I think there’s actually social commentary going on with this one. Women who indulge in decadent and/or somewhat masculine behavior – and, even more importantly I think, the unattached women who will not, cannot be married and become a mother, i. e. contributing member of society in an approved way – must be punished and/or eliminated. Preferably both, apparently. They’re threats not just to the main romance but to the stability of the social system.

  19. Thank you!

    I agree with you on the underlying theme behind #4 – it’s obvious that a `bad’ girl like Helen’s character in Teesri Manzil or Sheila Ramani’s character in Taxi Driver – or even the Aruna Irani gypsy in Caravan are not `marriage material in a socially acceptable’ sense – a wicked, non-traditional woman was taboo, and so had to literally sacrifice herself. One pleasant change from the usual is in Kala Paani, where the Nalini Jaywant character, though a tawaif (and an abettor of a crime), isn’t killed off in the film! Well, she doesn’t get the hero either, but at least she doesn’t die dramatically in his arms.

  20. Hey. I thought of one. “How come every person in the movie has a skill to open any kind of lock using any kind of pin – a hairpin, some aluminum /copper wire etc?”

  21. Yes! I wish I could manage that. I remember once getting locked out of the car and trying for half and hour (helped by various friends) to open it… eventually had to get a mechanic who twisted a bit of wire into a J and opened the door. Hindi film characters must be based on that mechanic and his kind, I think!

    • Yes, I know. When I said “Nasir Hussain was good at adhering to…” I meant that he (the director) often used that plot element in the films he wrote and directed (Tumsa Nahin Dekha, Jab Pyaar Kisi Se Hota Hai, Phir Wohi Dil Laaya Hoon, etc). I did not mean that Nasir Hussain (the actor) often played that type of parent. I do know that the actor and the director were two different people.

  22. What a delightful blog – thank you! My addition to the list – why after pyar suddenly the till then ‘western’ attired girl suddenly becomes a ‘typical’ bhartiya nari dressed in a sari!

    • Thank you! :-) And yes, that is certainly another of the great mysteries of Hindi cinema. Will put it into part 2 of this post, whenever I get around to writing it!

  23. I’ve got another one: In song sequences, what is the running together for? It seems whether it is Shammi-Sadhana, Shammi-Sharmila or Shammi-Asha, they have to run together through a garden, a beachfront or a busy public place. :))

    • Heh! :-D That’s how they remain in shape, I guess!

      But yes, it does seem odd, doesn’t it? Why not simply walk? In any case, if you’re singing also as you run along (which they invariably are), it makes more sense to save your breath for your song than waste it all on running, and end up panting and puffing. ;-)

  24. :) Zigackly. They obviously did it as visual fillers for those orchestra allegros and cadenzas…
    Or maybe to give color to the heroine’s cheek to match Shammi’s :)

  25. What a superb subject and post! Am seeing it only now.

    How about this one? Whenever there is a stage show (or any group dance for that matter), the heroine is always the main character. Ok, she is the heroine of the film but does it mean she has to be the main performer even in a stage show? (Am assuming, of course, that her rank in the dance hierarchy has no bearing on the story).

    Come to think of it, I do recall seeing one movie where the heroine was just one of the dancers, not the main one. I cannot, for the life of me, remember which movie it was. I almost fell off my chair when I saw that scene – I SO wish I could remember the name of the movie. That was quite daring of the director! ;-) And truly “hatke”. :-)

    And why does the hero who pass an exam, never come second? Why is he either “first” or “first division”? Ok, maybe that’s just to emphasise his “hero” status but still… And this, usually after he’s been flirting with the heroine, dancing in gardens with her, up to all sorts of tomfoolery in his college! But hey, there’s a reason reel life is very different from real life. :-)

    • Yes, the heroine is always the lead dancer – I don’t recall seeing any film in which she was anything but that. In Hollywood, yes (for instance, in Waterloo Bridge, Vivien Leigh is a ballerina – but only one of a group) – but never in Bollywood. I wonder which film that was where you saw a lead actress in the chorus… if you remember, do tell!

      Ah, and the whole point of being a hero is that you are maha-intelligent. If you’re stupid or lazy or both, you can’t be a hero! So, no matter how you spend the days before your exams, you will always pass with flying colours – ‘awwal darje mein! :-)

  26. As an addendum to No: 7, why is it that the kids are lost for *exactly* twenty years?

    Or for that matter, any thing that happened in the past, happened twenty years ago. Not 19, not 21, *20*.

  27. I love this list. Had me ROTFL. Would be great to know which films all the pictures are from. I recognized a few, but not all of them. Here are some of my additions (several years too late for the original post, but what the heck)
    One mystery that I have always encountered is that no hotel/restaurant that I have been to has EVER had a dancer like the Bindus and Helens of Hindi cinema. Maybe I am just going to the wrong ones – or maybe Dustedoff, those are the ones that are an aDDa of smuggling and drugs and what not.
    Laughed very hard at the potency of the heros and villains who manage to get the woman pregnant after the first rainy outing. And have you noticed that the rainy night hook-up and the “jism ki garmi” to prevent hypothermia are mutually exclusive? The latter always happens with the noble hero who never takes advantage of the situation – though I guess the potential hypothermia victim is a turn-off.
    The other big mystery for me in Bollywood is why the hero or the heroine who is trying to get into the villain’s lair always does it by disguising themselves as the lead dancer/singer in the group? This is tied to the earlier comment about the hero or heroine always being the lead. But that is a much bigger mystery when they are trying to remain incognito. Why wouldn’t you blend into one of the background dancers and then slip away?

    • “The other big mystery for me in Bollywood is why the hero or the heroine who is trying to get into the villain’s lair always does it by disguising themselves as the lead dancer/singer in the group?

      Wow. That never occurred to me. But yes, so true. Why draw attention to yourself?! Hmm. Looks like a sequel to this post is needed (actually, I do have a list of other ‘mysteries’ ready to be posted, so will do that one of these days. :-)

      As for the films from which the screenshots are taken:

      Mystery #1: Taxi Driver/Ji Chahta Hai/Junglee
      Mystery #2: An Evening in Paris/Pyaar Kiye Jaa/Munimji
      Mystery #3: Kala Paani/Ji Chahta Hai/Kismat
      Mystery #4: Teesri Manzil/Taxi Driver/Aan
      Mystery #5: Phoolon ki Sej/Aradhana/Ek Phool Do Maali
      Mystery #6: Nau Do Gyarah/China Town/Aar Paar
      Mystery #7: Mere Sanam/Phir Wohi Dil Laaya Hoon/Dil Deke Dekho
      Mystery #8: Raja Jaani/Jab Jab Phool Khile/Pyaar ka Sapna
      Mystery #9: Woh Kaun Thi?/Kati Patang/Jahaan Pyaar Mile
      Mystery #10: Chhaya/Mere Mehboob/Barsaat ki Raat

  28. I need to stop browsing your blog at work, it’s really cutting into my productivity! But I love how I keep ending up at random posts on this blog!

    The tampering with the crime scene trope always drives me nuts. I always think DON’T TOUCH THE DEAD GUY! But they do it every time. And I’m always shaking my head at when the heroine instantly falls in love with hero if he saves her. Are you kidding me–she doesn’t even know the guy and she falls in love with him? What kind of logic is behind her decision? She wants to repay him for helping her?

    It makes no sense to me. I understand that when someone saves your life you’re going to be very thankful and appreciative, but falling instantly in love with them is a bit extreme, no? I always wonder if maybe our heroine is just too stupid and naive to know what the difference between gratitude and love is. Well it must be that or she finds the hero to be irresistibly sexy and wants to jump his bones.

    And the heroine fainting when she’s pregnant. I always think it’s odd that she doesn’t not know up until then–there are so many symptoms of pregnancy she should know (or at least be aware that she could be pregnant) before it gets to fainting, right? I mean they’re usually shown as being well educated women–heck, sometimes they’re even doctors– so they should at the very least be aware of the signs!

    And is there no such thing as Doctor-Patient Confidentiality?
    Why are doctors always so eager to announce that she’s pregnant to the whole world? The doctor will tell everybody in the waiting room before telling the patient what the diagnosis is, why?

    Thanks Dustedoff, you just got me through my afternoon slump! I feel so much better now lol.

    • Thank you so much! I love it when somebody stops by to say they like what I’ve written. This post had to be written because there was just so much about Hindi films that is completely baffling. And which didn’t happen in just one film, but film after film after film… you’d have thought some writer/director/producer would’ve said, “Look, this doesn’t make sense; why have it?” But no; they went merrily on.

      • Yes! There are so many things in Hindi films that make absolutely no sense. But in all honesty, I love those stupid plot devices and tropes. I think it’s part of why I find hindi films so endearing– I don’t think that they’d be the same without them. Bollywood definitely has its own unique method of storytelling which IMO is what makes it so memorable.

        • So true. :-) I don’t mind a lot of these tropes – yes, I don’t like sexist or racist or otherwise classist stereotypes. but a lot of this was completely harmless, and just contributed to the general unbelievable-but-entertaining nature of these films.

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