There were various reasons for my wanting to see this film. One was that it’s a historical (okay, faux historical, considering it’s set in some undefined supposedly Middle Eastern land named Sherqand). The other was that its music was scored by Sardar Malik, one of—in my opinion—Hindi cinema’s very underrated music directors. The main reason, however, was Shammi Kapoor. Though still in his moustached pre-Tumsa Nahin Dekha days, he is one of my favourite actors. So just about anything starring Shammi Kapoor is, for me, worth watching at least once.
Chor Bazaar begins in the appropriate setting: a chor bazaar (which the film interprets as a market where thieves abound, as opposed to the more usual concept of a chor bazaar: a market where stolen goods are sold). Here, we are introduced to the chief thief, Yusuf Ustad (Om Prakash), who boasts about how skillful he is at his work. His fame has obviously spread far and wide, for shortly after the start of the story, Yusuf Ustad is approached by a powerful nobleman, Amir Abukaan (Munshi Munakka) and charged with a secret mission…
…which is to murder the infant prince, the Shahzada Murad. [Why it is presumed that an adept thief will also make an efficient murderer is beyond me, but Yusuf doesn’t think it strange, so who am I to disagree?] Yusuf is offered a mouthwatering sum—10,000 dinars—for the job, and readily agrees to it.
While Yusuf is gearing up to carry out this mission, we are given a behind-the-scenes peek at who has actually commissioned him. Abukaan reports to Mustafa (WM Khan), the regent of Sherqand and from their conversation we discover that:
(a) Arsalan, the ruler of Sherqand and Murad’s father, has died six months earlier
(b) … leaving the baby, Murad, as his heir
(c) However, since Murad is so small, Mustafa (Arsalan’s brother) has been appointed regent; and
(d) Mustafa has decided he’s had enough of keeping the throne warm for this baby, and if Murad is conveniently gotten rid of, he can become ruler himself.
Thus Yusuf’s commission.
As they say, however, about the best-laid plans of mice and men: they tend to go adrift. Yusuf, creeping into the baby prince’s chamber that night, lifts his dagger to stab the child, and is dumbstruck by the child’s cuteness [I can think of cuter onscreen babies I’ve seen, but let’s not nitpick].
Before he leaves, however, Yusuf [being the canny thief he is, and realizing that Mustafa will look for evidence of Murad’s death] cuts himself and lets his blood drip on to Murad’s bed sheets. This, when Abukaan discovers it, causes great joy in the heart of the blackguard, who immediately reports it to the regent. Mustafa, in turn, has it proclaimed that someone has murdered the baby ruler, and therefore Mustafa is now the Baadshah. [It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Mustafa or Abukaan that they should ask Yusuf for the corpse].
The once-regent, now-king immediately orders his accomplice—Abukaan—to have Yusuf killed. The na rahega baans, na bajegi baansuri principle.
Little do they know that Yusuf, while not smart enough to have wondered what he’ll say if a corpse is demanded, is smart enough to have realized that it’s stupid to hang around in Sherqand with such a bloodthirsty monarch on the throne. He has therefore gathered up his little family—two daughters named Shakila and Jamila, and little Murad [whom Yusuf names Salim—with Shakila immediately shortening this bhaalo naam to an idiotic-sounding Sheemu; strains of a Bengali heritage, what?]—and has fled Sherqand.
A little aside: while introducing Shakila and Jamila to the little prince, Yusuf discovers that the child has, on his upper arm, a tattoo depicting the coat of arms of Sherqand. [The tattoo looks metallic, by the way: rather like a stick-on].
This, if spotted, can prove fatal, he realizes; and Shakila, who is a canny kid, quickly finds a solution. She points out that Jamila and little Murad/Sheemu are the spitting image of each other [they aren’t, but anyhow]: Yusuf can easily pass off Sheemu as his own son.
18 years pass [and, wonder of wonders, not in seeing Sheemu grow from toddler to man while running]. Yusuf decides the time is ripe for Sheemu to come back to Sherqand and claim his heritage; so the family—Yusuf, his daughters, and Sheemu (now Shammi Kapoor, and looking very dashing indeed) relocates to Sherqand. Sheemu has been brought up to be a thief, though [and this is surprising for a Hindi film] Yusuf has also told him, well and proper, who he really is: Shahzada Murad, rightful heir to the throne of Sherqand.
When we first see the grown-up Sheemu, he is slinking –through an underwater passage—into the royal treasury. While he manages to slip through the very narrow grille and even creates a diversion by alarming a flock of geese down in the tunnels [no, the geese aren’t there to provide meals for peckish guards, but to act as sort-of watchdogs, sounding the alarm], Sheemu’s attempt to loot the treasury falls flat. He is seen and races out of the treasury, chased by a bunch of guards.
En route, trying to hide from the guards, Sheemu climbs up onto a balcony—and finds himself looking into the private chamber of the princess, Shahzaadi Gulnar (Sumitra Devi). Gulnar is surrounded by some sickeningly sycophantic maids who go on and on about how beautiful she is [and Gulnar seems to concur]. Sheemu, looking on, is quite smitten.
When he gets back home, the first thing Sheemu does is to ask Yusuf if—since Gulnar, being the daughter of the king, Sheemu’s uncle—it is permissible by law and religion for him to marry his cousin. Yusuf agrees that it is, but warns Sheemu: Gulnar is the daughter of his enemy! Her father had tried to have Sheemu killed as a baby. Remember?!
Yusuf’s younger daughter, Jamila (Kammo) is equally against a Sheemu-Gulnar romance. This, because [horrors! Is this a Hindi film or what?] – even though she’s grown up with him, she doesn’t regard him as a brother: quite the opposite; she has her eye on him. Sheemu too flirts with Jamila, even after admitting that he is besotted by Gulnar.
Little does Sheemu know that Gulnar’s marriage has already been fixed. Her prospective bridegroom is Shahzada Hyder (Wasti) of Marakash [Marrakesh?]. The shahzada has come to meet his bride-to-be for the first time, to finalise the match, and has brought, as a token of his agreement to the betrothal, a large pearl.
This, he says, gifting it to a simpering Gulnar, is traditionally given to the bride of the ruler of Marakash by the ruler. And she, in turn, passes it on to her firstborn son. Instead of asking him what happens if the woman never has a son, Gulnar thanks him and shows all the signs of being quite content with the match…
…even going so far as to sleep with the precious pearl in an open box on her bedside table [Just the most obvious thing to do when given a priceless treasure].
And, sure enough, in the middle of the night, a thief, a lithe young woman named Cheeku (Chitra) creeps in, steals the pearl, and makes off with it.
The princess wakes up right after and raises a hue and cry. There’s a furor in the palace and the city; the Kotwal (Ram Avtar) is told to get his men looking for the pearl; and—worst of all—Gulnar’s betrothed, Shahzada Hyder, flies into a rage. He raves and rants about how matchless that pearl was, and vows that if—within a month—the pearl hasn’t been found and restored to him, his armies will attack Sherqand and raze it to the ground.
Yusuf and Sheemu have a great idea [they think it’s great; I think it’s iffy, but it works, so that’s what counts]; they decide to lure the thief by suspending a large piece of glass in a bag over a water channel. They announce loud and clear to everybody that this is a valuable diamond, and whoever wants it may feel free to try to get it.
Sheemu hides nearby, and sure enough, Cheeku [who’s really pretty dumb to fall for a trick like that] soon comes along and tries to steal the ‘diamond’. She’s quickly caught and overpowered by Sheemu and Yusuf (with Shakila and Jamila also having to pitch in because Cheeku puts up such a fight and is slippery as an eel).
They soon discover that she’s come all the way from Marakash. She also turns out to be a rather silly, childish sort [that was how she struck me; the character, I think, was meant to be impish and energetic and effervescent].
Sheemu and Yusuf are able to retrieve the pearl from Cheeku. Seeing her skill as a thief, they realize she can be of great assistance to them in their endeavour to break into the treasury (which, as Yusuf says, is necessary for Sheemu to muster an army, mount a campaign, and regain his kingdom).
Sheemu points out that Cheeku is also much slimmer than him and so should have no problem sliding through the narrow grille and into the royal treasury to let Yusuf and Sheemu in. [For some odd reason, Sheemu has told Yusuf that the grille was too narrow for him to enter the treasury, although the earlier scene in the film does show him having crossed a too-narrow grille. Some gaps there, in editing].
Cheeku, who hasn’t been told yet who Sheemu really is, has, in the meantime, gone and fallen in love with this handsome thief. She’s quite an unprepossessing creature, impulsive and wild (she admits quite readily that she hasn’t bathed for the past six months, and throws a tantrum when Shakila and Jamila try to bathe her). After much coaxing and wheedling, however, she agrees to help Sheemu and Yusuf break into the treasury—provided they buy her whatever she wants…
Which, of course, is a bit of a problem, since Sheemu is in love with Gulnar (who, mind you, hasn’t even met him yet).
What will happen? Will Sheemu be able to claim his throne? [of course he will; a long-lost child with a distinctive tattoo doesn’t have that tattoo for nothing] And how? How will Sheemu balance his love for Gulnar with his enmity against her evil father? And what of Cheeku? [What, also, of Jamila, who is left pretty much high and dry by this point in the film]?
What I liked about this film:
Shammi Kapoor. Having praised him so much in my introduction to this post, I must add a disclaimer: most of the early Shammi Kapoor films I’ve seen—Shama Parwana, Rail ka Dibba, Rangeen Raatein, etc—are fairly forgettable, and invariably have him playing characters far removed from the sort of charismatic, slightly loony but charming heroes of his films Tumsa Nahin Dekha onwards.
It was therefore a pleasant surprise to find Shammi Kapoor’s role in Chor Bazaar somewhat like a sneak preview of later films: Sheemu/Murad is the attractive, swashbuckling hero who is a thief of sorts, flirts left, right and centre, yet has his heart in the right place. A likable character, and definitely one of the best of Mr Kapoor’s characters from his early films that I’ve seen.
And, lastly, the music by Sardar Malik (who, for those who aren’t familiar with him, was the father of music director Anu Malik). Even though the songs of Chor Bazaar aren’t very well-known, there are some lovely tunes here. My favourites include the melodious Chalta rahe yeh kaarvaan; the very peppy Yeh duniya ke mele magar hum akele; and Hui yeh humse naadaani, teri mehfil mein aa baithe.
What I didn’t like:
The two female leads, and their respective characters. Neither Sumitra Devi nor Chitra are among my favourites, and the women they play in Chor Bazaar do nothing to boost my appreciation of these actresses. Sumitra Devi’s Gulnar is wishy-washy and assumes a fragile sort of air which is just too artificial for words. Chitra’s Cheeku is the exact opposite: too high-pitched and hot-tempered and impulsive to be believable.
The scripting. While the storyline itself is fairly interesting—presumed dead prince tries to regain his throne with the help of thieves—the scripting is clumsy, and some of the motives of characters extremely puzzling.
Still, if you’re a Shammi Kapoor fan, you might want to watch this one. It’s not the best historical out there, but it’s fun, nevertheless.