One day in August, I checked my blog roll and discovered that not one, but two, of my favourite bloggers had posted reviews of films based (even if only in spirit) on The Arabian Nights. Anu had reviewed Ali Baba aur 40 Chor, and Ira (aka Bollyviewer) had reviewed The Thief of Baghdad. Coincidence? Planned? If the latter, then why hadn’t I, the third of the three soul sisters, been included in the plan?
It turned out to have been sheer coincidence, but Anu, Ira and I decided it would be a good idea to actually do a themed set of posts. And what better theme than the one Ira suggested: long-lost siblings, such a favourite trope in Hindi cinema.
So here goes. Head over to Anu’s blog to read her review of the delightful Yaadon ki Baaraat (singularly appropriate, considering the link between Anu and me) and to Ira’s blog to read her take on another extremely popular (and superb!) lost-and-found-siblings film, Seeta aur Geeta. And here, of course, is mine: a review of a film which just manages to make the cut for my blog when it comes to time period. A classic story of long-separated brothers who grow up, unknown to each other, on opposite sides of the law.
Johny Mera Naam [which I personally think should have been spelled Johnny Mera Naam] begins at a school boxing match, where brothers Mohan and Sohan are battling it out for the championship. While their mother (Sulochana Latkar) winces at every blow, their father (?) and his friend/colleague Mr Mehta (Iftekhar) cheer the boys on. The fight ends in a tie: the two brothers are both champs, as in previous years.
But disaster waits round the corner. That evening, Sohan and Mohan are sent by their mother to fetch Father home from Mehta’s, where he’s gone for a chat. The boys’ father, as he’s leaving, confides in Mehta about a threat to his life, received from a gang, one of whose members he has just arrested. Mehta tries to caution his friend…
… but, moments later, just as Sohan and Mohan reach their father, a killer comes out of the dark and stabs him in the back. Mohan, the elder of the two boys, grabs the dagger, pulls it out of Father’s back, and sets off in pursuit of the killer. Some twisting and winding through the alleys, and Mohan ends up holding out the dagger, its tip pointing outward, when the killer obligingly runs headlong onto it and unwittingly commits harakiri.
On the heels of the now-dead killer comes a car containing his cronies, and Mohan, to avoid being caught by them, gets into the boot of their car. [Yes, well. Very smart. But since he’s a kid, I suppose it’s forgivable]. At any rate, what happens is that when the car boot is opened, Mohan finds himself facing the big goon (Premnath).
Freeze frame. And another freeze frame, now with Mohan grown up (into Pran). He now calls himself Moti and is the right-hand man of Premnath, whom we soon discover is called Rai Sahib Bhupinder Singh.
At the same time, Sohan has grown up (into Dev Anand), now – like his long-dead father – a police officer. Sohan reports to Mr Mehta, now the commissioner. They are on the track of a gang of international smugglers, of whom they’ve just received news: a certain Heera Lal ‘Heera’ (Jeevan) is coming from Hong Kong to Bombay, bringing with him 80 lakhs worth of diamonds. Heera checks into a hotel (and, while he’s out of his room, his room is searched – unsuccessfully – by the cops).
Heera is obviously aware that the cops may be keeping an eye on him. He plays tennis at the nearby courts, leaves his racquet behind in an open rack there [of course one can guess why. Risky thing to do, no? What if some clueless passerby collects it?] and goes back to his room. The cops are no fools, though, and soon turn up to arrest him (Mr Mehta has suggested a perfectly valid reason to nab Heera: he’s a drunk, and is easily caught drinking without a valid permit). Along with the inspector is a constable, the loony Pehle Ram (IS Johar, in an award-winning triple role).
So Heera is arrested and put into the lockup. There he soon makes the acquaintance of his neighbour in the next cell: Sohan aka Johny. ‘Johny’ gives Heera a complex rigmarole about how he landed up in the lockup, and how – for the past four days – he’s been trying to quietly saw his way through the bars. Heera is impressed. So impressed, in fact, that he entrusts an important task to Johny: when Johny breaks out, will he go to the tennis club, collect a tennis racquet – red handle, a telephone number printed on it – and phone that number? He’ll be given instructions on where to deliver the racquet. In return, he’ll get Rs 5,000.
All of which Johny carries out faithfully, ending up having to deliver the tennis racquet to the lovely Rekha (Hema Malini) in a hotel room. He flirts shamelessly with her, watches as she unscrews the handle of the racquet and counts the diamonds as they spill out of it [beats me how people in Hindi films tend to carry loose diamonds around like so many pebbles], and manages to convince her he’s honest. For a thief.
He convinces her to the extent that Rekha invites him to take on another job – this time, for Rs 10,000, and involving meeting her in Nalanda. [Rather out of the way, isn’t it, for a gang in Bombay? But this turns out to be a pretext for a good song, even though Jagdish Raj and his cops look ludicrous trying to half-pretend they’re not trailing Rekha].
The upshot of this is that Rekha informs Johny that he is now to accompany her to Kathmandu. In the interim – before they board the flight – Johny is whisked away by a local police officer (Jagdish Raj, quintessential cop), who takes him to Mr Mehta, currently in town. [Everybody seems to have moved base from Bombay to Nalanda/Patna].
Mehta, pleased that Johny is succeeding in infiltrating the gang, gives him some gadgetry to help: a camera hidden in a cigarette lighter, and a bugging device which can be heard through a large radio. Pretty unwieldy, but Johny is happy.
A lot of things now happen in quick succession. Johny discovers that Constable Pehle Ram is one of triplets [and no, while they don’t live together, they aren’t long-lost: in case you thought this was a bonanza in the lost-siblings plot line]. One of Pehle Ram’s twin brothers is a purser (Rekha and Johny encounter him on the flight to Kathmandu); the other is a bartender in the hotel where they check in.
And shortly after they check in, Johny finds himself taken prisoner and being tortured – by Moti [who, unknown to Johny, is of course actually his elder brother Mohan. This ‘Moti’ appellation seems to be a good way to fit in with the gemstone-smuggling nature of the gang: remember Heera, too? There’s probably a Jawahar and a Panna lurking somewhere among the rank and file]. Moti, unlike Rekha, is not convinced that Johny is who he claims to be – a petty thief. Johny, under duress, owns up: he is actually Jugal Kishore, the son of a palmist/astrologer in Bombay.
Moti falls for it, and phones a henchman in Bombay who goes to check up the address Johny supplies. Here, Constable Pehle Ram and his inspector put up a fine show for his benefit, and the message is passed back to Moti in Kathmandu: Johny is above board. Which makes it all well for him, since he can now go about more or less unsuspected. Not completely, because Moti is still not absolutely certain of Johny’s dedication to his nefarious work.
Meanwhile, the diamonds that Rekha has smuggled into Nepal are sold off to a buyer, and one of the gangsters, Babu (Randhawa, Dara Singh’s brother) is given the briefcase full of money – 80 lakhs – to take to the big boss, Bhupinder Singh. Johny has, during all the coming and going, managed to sneak a bug into the briefcase. Now, with his radio on, he is able to listen in as Babu goes off with the money.
What he discovers is that Babu, transformed by his love for a dancing girl named Tara (Padma Khanna), has decided to chuck up this buraai ka dhanda and escape to Singapore along with Tara [taking the bulk of that moolah with him – his conscience doesn’t extend that far]. Babu and Tara stop very briefly en route to hand over some of the money to Tara’s mother, so that she can bring up Tara’s little siblings in some form of comfort. Then they’re off.
… and we get to see what Bhupinder Singh is capable of. Bhupinder Singh has Babu thrashed in front of Tara, who – because of her love for Babu – pleads, promises to return the money, promises even to do whatever Bhupinder Singh wants [yes, actually carte blanche, and he accepts] – anything, as long as Bhupinder Singh will spare Babu. So the lecherous boss agrees, and Tara dances for him (Husn ke laakhon rang, not a bad song, but I can just imagine a sultry Helen doing a more seductive job of this than Padma Khanna does, even though Ms Khanna does manage to infuse it with the desperation of a woman fighting for her lover’s life).
All to no effect. Bhupinder has his wicked way with Tara, while Babu is taken away by his minions and shot dead [though Bhupinder Singh tells a startled Tara that the shot they’ve heard is of his men “killing birds”].
Basically, all of this is a means of showing us:
(a) just how ruthless Bhupinder Singh can be;
(b) why it’s a bad idea to try and double-cross Bhupinder Singh; and
(c) why Johny, even though Rekha believes him and Moti too is coming round to his side, had better be very, very careful.
Moti, as I said, is coming round to Johny’s side; but a couple of other tests lie in wait before Johny can be fully trusted. This, he being Johny, breezes through. In the process, he also one evening eavesdrops on Rekha’s conversation with her mother (Mridula Rani), who’s come visiting. From the conversation, Johny realises that Rekha is the daughter of Rai Sahib Bhupinder Singh [yikes! The fact that Johny isn’t fazed by the thought of having a father-in-law like that speaks volumes for his love for Rekha].
Rekha, catching Johny in the act of listening in on the conversation, confesses: she is not really a smuggler. Johny then contributes his two paise: he happens to know that 5 years back, Rai Sahib Bhupinder Singh, who worked for a bank, had been arrested for embezzlement – and vanished before he could be tried and sentenced.
Exactly. Very mystifying, says Rekha, who has, in all these years, never been able to figure out why her father would do something like this: first, the embezzlement; and then, the running away. So, in an attempt to get at the truth and confront her father, she has infiltrated this gang and is trying to make her way to her father.
How will Rekha manage that, and what possible explanation [worthy of the father of a heroine] can Bhupinder Singh have to account for the way he makes his living? And how will Sohan/Johny and Mohan/Moti finally come together, considering they weren’t equipped with identical tattoos or taaveezes and weren’t even taught a signature song before they parted ways?
Directed by Vijay Anand (who also wrote the screenplay for the film), Johny Mera Naam is the last of the Dev Anand starrers that I think of as being ‘old school’: not old school as in the sense of CID (which is far more noir), but old school as in the Jewel Thief style: glamorous, colourful, glitzy. And yes, thoroughly entertaining. Total, as they say, paisa vasool.
What I liked about this film:
The pace of it, and the story. Unlike Jewel Thief, Johny Mera Naam isn’t a mystery: we do know what is happening [in fact, much more than the protagonist himself, since we know that Moti is really Mohan]. Much of the film consists of Johny’s efforts to infiltrate Bhupinder Singh’s gang, by convincing them (especially Heera, Rekha, and Moti) – often through rather convoluted methods – that he is as crooked as any of them. This is coupled with Moti’s attempts to discover the truth about Johny – and what ensues is a somewhat cat-and-mouse game which acquires an almost Where Eagles Dare-like audacity about it in the climactic scene, where Johny and Heera both set out to prove that the other one is the traitor.
Initially, the story can seem very complicated and with unnecessary twists and turns; it is complex, but nearly all of it – except possibly with the exception of the Nalanda song – does make sense. It all adds up: Johny trying to prove his mettle [and his dishonesty]; Moti/Rekha trying to test him.
Interestingly, while it does use a trope so well-loved in Hindi cinema, Johny Mera Naam does not follow too many of the other tropes associated with it. For example, there aren’t any very visible (or audible) means by which the separated siblings can identify each other. Secondly – and this I found more bold than in a lot of other films – Johny Mera Naam does not take the moral high ground and try to excuse the behaviour of some of its characters. Moti/Mohan does not become part of Bhupinder Singh’s gang in order to avenge his father’s death; he hasn’t been lurking there waiting for an opportunity to kill. He actually is Bhupinder Singh’s right hand man, and he is guilty of various criminal activities. It’s the same with Rekha: she is, despite having a reason to get involved in the gang’s activities, a smuggler, all said and done.
Then, there’s Premnath. I must admit that in a cast that includes stalwarts like Iftekhar and Jeevan, I would not have expected that Premnath [who, while very handsome in his younger days, never struck me as anything out of the ordinary when it came to acting] would steal the show. He does, though: his character is one of the most deliciously vile and immoral (yet suave, when he needs to be) I’ve seen in Hindi cinema from this period.
And: the songs (scored by Kalyanji-Anandji), which, while not superb, are still hummable: O mere raja; Pal-bhar ke liye koi humein pyaar kar le; and Govind bolo hari gopal bolo, one of the few bhajans that I like.
What I didn’t like:
Not much I can think of. Yes, Johny Mera Naam isn’t one of those absolutely flawless films that I love from beginning to end. It has its shortcomings: Rai Sahib Bhupinder Singh’s muscled henchmen [in leotards that highlight their paunches] make me wince; Hema Malini’s wigs are frightful [though her saris are lovely], and it is hard to believe that both Dev Anand and Pran are supposed to be in their late 20s. There are also some unnecessary comic digressions involving the triplet brothers that could have been shortened.
Despite that, Johny Mera Naam is very entertaining – and it’s a classic example of Hindi cinema’s love for the lost-and-found trope.