For anybody who’s been following my idea of ‘linked posts’ – each post connected to the one before, and to the one after – this probably comes as no surprise. And Then There Were None was based on Agatha Christie’s highly popular novel and play; Gumnaam is, in turn, an adaptation of And Then There Were None. Not a completely faithful adaptation, but a vastly entertaining one, as you’ll see if you scroll through the comments on my And Then There Were None post: most of my readers, even if they’ve not seen the Hollywood film, have had something to say about Gumnaam.
So, here are my two paise.
Gumnaam starts off in good, time-honoured crime-riddled way: on a dark night, wealthy Seth Sohanlal, stepping drunkenly out of the Hotel Metropole, is mowed down by a speeding car. He expires right there on the sidewalk, and the scene shifts to a seedy room, overlooking the Metropole. This room is occupied by Khanna (Hiralal), who smirks in a satisfied way to himself. A man – whose face we never get to see – arrives shortly after, and is given a hefty wad of currency notes by Khanna.
Khanna now sets about making a series of phone calls: to a doctor, whom he tells that a medical certificate will have to be made; to a mysterious woman, telling her to send the will to the ‘right place’; and to another man, whom he tells that the will will reach him the next morning; after that it’s his job. In no case do we see whom Khanna is speaking to.
He finally phones Seth Sohanlal’s niece Asha (Nanda), and breaks the news to her. Asha is obviously very fond of her uncle, because she breaks into loud sobs and shrieks…
… which get amplified when she hears the shots at the other end of the line. Someone – another faceless figure, in hat and coat – has entered Khanna’s room and shot him point-blank. Khanna dies, his blood dripping grotesquely onto the receiver of the dangling phone.
Cut to later, this time to the Princes Hotel. Here, in the wake of a very peppy song-and-dance, the MC announces that the winners of the ‘lucky draw’ held earlier that evening are now going to be announced. These fortunate people have won a free fortnight-long trip to an unspecified destination abroad, and will be going in a chartered plane. We now get introduced to these people, one by one. The first is Barrister Rakesh (Pran):
Then a certain Dharamdas (Dhumal – with a name like Dharamdas, you can bet he’s anything but religious, honest and upright)… Kishan (Manmohan), Kitty (Helen):
Dr Acharya (Madan Puri); Madhusudan Sharma (Tarun Bose):
And, finally, someone we’ve encountered before, though she now seems more composed: Asha.
These seven people are, a few days later, in their chartered plane, off for their vacation abroad, when the pilot announces that they’re going to have to make a forced landing. When they do, he comes out of the cockpit to let them know that it’s going to take a couple of hours to set the plane right and take off again. He tells the passengers – and the only flight attendant who is on board, Anand (Manoj Kumar) – that they can go explore the area and stretch their legs a bit.
They do that, only to discover, as soon as their backs are turned, that the pilot’s taken off without them! (He’s been kind enough to dump their bags out, fortunately, so they needn’t wander through the rest of the film in just the one set of boring clothes). They sit around, bemoaning their fate and wondering what to do, until Asha decides to take matters into her own hands and sets off looking for some means of getting out of here.
(Incidentally, though none of the camera shots so far have indicated that the plane ever went over water, it seems they’re on an island. And therefore stranded).
Spookiness happens, now. First, they find themselves being heralded by some unseen female, who, accompanied by odd sounds (crickets? Jackals?) sings an eerie song. Then, after much stumbling through bamboo thickets and whatnot, they finally arrive at a vast and spooky mansion (shades of Madhumati here?)
Inside, lying on the huge dining table, is a figure enshrouded in white. Before their very eyes, it rises – stiff as a poker all the time – and by now most of the group is close to hysteria.
This, however, turns out to be all (seemingly) innocuous: this is a butler (Mehmood), who is in charge of the mansion. In fact, he’s the only one around. He says he’s there to cook and clean and wash for them. And – this is where things start getting even weirder – he knows each of these people by name. It turns out that he has been given a letter (nobody thinks of asking him by whom) listing all of these people. Except Anand.
The butler shows his ‘guests’ up to their rooms, and provides dinner for them. In the course of the meal, they discover that the butler has a diary. This, besides containing a daily expense account, also contains a message, addressed to the entire group. It accuses each of these people of having conspired to kill Seth Sohanlal. It blames them for the seth’s murder, and passes a death sentence on them: they, now, have to pay up, with their own lives.
There’s instant consternation, disbelief, fear – and then the unknown lady starts singing again.
That night, Anand goes on a recce of his fellow guests’ rooms, peering in through the key holes to have a look at what they’re up to. Rakesh appears to have taken a liking to Kitty, and is busy flirting with her – and pleading with her to join him in a drink. He seems to be very fond of drink himself.
The doctor is cradling a bottle of poison in his hands…
And Dharamdas has a fearsome-looking dagger which he slips under his pillow. Anand is caught out in his night-time perambulations by Kishan, but neither says anything to the other, each satisfying himself with a curling lip and a knowing lift of the eyebrow.
The next day passes uneventfully; but at dinnertime, the butler is annoyed when he sees that Kishan hasn’t bothered to come for the meal the butler’s gone through so much effort to prepare.
Following dinner, Anand takes a torch and goes searching for Kishan. Asha accompanies him through the ruins scattered across the island. So there are two of them when they stumble onto Kishan, stabbed to death.
Anand finds a bit of half-smoked cigar next to Kishan’s corpse, but that’s all the clue there is. There is also, next to Kishan, a letter addressed to the group. When they get back to the house, Anand reads it out: it emerges that Kishan was the driver of the car that ran down Seth Sohanlal, and that is why he’s now been killed. A second fact is revealed, this time by Anand: that the dagger used to murder Kishan was none other than the one Dharamdas kept under his pillow.
Everybody immediately corners Dharamdas and tries to get him to confess to Kishan’s killing, but the man pleads his innocence. Nobody believes him. But Dharamdas’s innocence is proved, the very next evening. Anand and Asha have spent their time falling in love (quick work!) and are busy singing a love song in a ruined church when they stumble onto Dharamdas’s strangled (? That’s what the doctor says, later) corpse – and the unseen lady begins another verse of her creepy song.
What is happening? Who is avenging – or so it appears – Seth Sohanlal’s murder? Anand is certain, since the island is deserted, that it is one of them. But who?
What I liked about this film:
The sheer ‘interestingness’ of it all. I’m not a patient person when it comes to watching films at home: though I will sit and watch an entire film, no matter how boring, without pressing Fast Forward (though I may take a lot of breaks in between), and though I have seen Gumnaam plenty of times before, I still watched it all at one go. There is lots of suspense here, and plenty of good entertainment to be had.
The songs. Shankar-Jaikishan, at their best. The title song – played throughout the film, at the spookiest moments – is excellent, but so are Jaan-e-chaman shola badan (though I do wish it had been Asha Bhonsle singing the female part instead of Sharda, whose voice is not among my favourites) and Is duniya mein jeena ho toh: Helen at her best! Another popular Helen song is Hum kaale hain toh kya hua; I’ll have to admit I’m not very fond of that.
And – the best saved for the last: Jaan-pehchaan ho, jeena aasaan ho. Awesome song, awesome Rafi, awesome Laxmi Chhaya, awesome Herman Benjamin, awesome Ted Lyons and his Cubs. Awesome everything. I can understand why this found an appearance in Ghost World.
The cast. Tarun Bose. Pran. Helen. Mehmood: these are my favourites from this film. Tarun Bose because he gets to be a somewhat different character from the usual roles he played. Pran because he is – well, Pran. Mehmood because, as the Hyderabadi butler (with a superb accent, and some delightful dialogues), he’s in one of his best roles – and this from someone who often finds Mehmood very annoying.
And Helen, just because this is one of her best roles, not a film where she just gets to be a pretty vamp who does a good dance and that’s it. She got a Filmfare Award nomination for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Kitty. And if it’s sheer eye candy you want, Helen is deliciously stylish:
While other reviewers think Manoj Kumar and Nanda were bad choices for the lead roles in Gumnaam, I tend to disagree. Nanda’s role, for instance, requires not much more than screeching every time they find a corpse; Helen actually has a more interesting role than hers. Of course, one could argue that that meant not utilising Nanda’s considerable histrionic talent, but it’s not such a bad casting decision, anyway. I would personally have felt more unhappy if an actress I liked more – say, Asha Parekh, or Sadhana – had been relegated to a role as restricted as this one.
And Manoj Kumar, though he was already in patriotic mode (Shaheed was also made in 1965), was good at suspense films. Remember Woh Kaun Thi? Remember Anita? Poonam ki Raat? Saajan? All good films (okay, nearly all – Poonam ki Raat can be exempted), and with plenty of suspense. This genre was right up his street.
One last plus point: Gumnaam has what I listed as one of the ten most memorable scenes in classic Hindi cinema.
What I didn’t like:
The holes galore in the plot. The killer’s motive for murdering this group of people is not merely farfetched, it’s ludicrous. After all that waiting to see who is going around, one by one, killing off these people, it is immensely disappointing to be presented with a motive so weak, it falls absolutely flat.
Then there are the unanswered questions. I’m fine with these in a drama which is meant to make its viewers think, but in a mystery, you do want things cleared up. Here, there’s too much that’s left a mystery. For example, how did Anand manage to get onto the plane as a flight attendant? Why did someone steal the photo Asha kept in her room, of her with Seth Sohanlal? And why, anyway, would anyone go on a vacation armed with poison or a dagger?
Oh, and the mysterious woman who sings Gumnaam hai koi? Another let-down. I expected this, the first time I watched Gumnaam, to end up being something along the lines of Woh Kaun Thi or Yeh Raat Phir Na Aayegi. But the explanation is, again, unfulfilling.
How come the butler’s sister sings in good, pure khari boli, while he speaks in Hyderabadi Hindi?
So, which is better? And Then There Were None, or Gumnaam?
I think that’s a difficult question to answer, because though they’re both based on the same premise – ten strangers stranded on an island, are mysteriously killed off one by one – they are actually very different films, too. And Then There Were None is more of a classic Hollywood suspense film: tightly scripted, not much in the way of diversion (other than those brief and rather avoidable digressions into humour). Gumnaam is what I think of (and no, I didn’t coin this phrase) ‘Bollywood noir’. Here’s what I wrote about the genre in my article for The Popcorn Essayists:
“‘Film noir’, according to the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘a style of film marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace’. Merriam-Webster goes a little further, by providing hints on what to expect from film noir (‘… a sleazy setting and an ominous atmosphere that is conveyed by shadowy photography and foreboding background music’).
Pessimistic? Fatalistic? Sleazy? With shadowy photography and foreboding background music? Not quite… If, however, the all-important prefix, Bollywood, is added to that morbid definition, everything suddenly gets turned around. Because Bollywood is emotion and escapism and all that erases—even if only for three hours—the dull reality of life. So noir, Bollywood style, has the shadowy photography and some of the sleaze, but it’s easier to relate to for an audience that likes its singing and dancing around the trees, its pretty ladies and its happy endings.”
Which is pretty much how I’d describe Gumnaam. It has the dark ruins dotting the island, the night-time finding of corpses, the cold-blooded killing of not just Sohanlal but everybody after that – and it has romance, great songs, an often-hilarious Mehmood. Loads of entertainment.
If that’s what you want out of cinema, see Gumnaam. If you want more gritty, enthralling, real suspense, watch And Then There Were None.
A note of caution: Steer clear of the Moser Baer DVD of Gumnaam. Besides the fact that the colours are very wonky and dark, they’ve clipped two of the best songs—Jaan-pehchaan ho, and Jaan-e-chaman shola badan—down to just the chorus. That is something I find impossible to forgive.