The first time I began watching this film was on Doordarshan, many years ago. It surprised me, largely because it featured Waheeda Rehman in a very Westernised avatar I had never seen before. It also had an intriguing story. And Dharmendra, always one of my favourites. And Helen. And Johnny Walker.
Sadly [or not, depending on how one looks at it in hindsight], I wasn’t able to watch the entire film back then. This was in the good old days before invertors, so when the electricity went kaput halfway through the film, that was it. I relegated Baazi to the list of films I had to look out for and watch someday. I found it the other day on YouTube.
The film (which, by the way, was produced by Johnny Walker’s brother, Tony Walker aka Kamaluddin Kazi) hits the ground running. This story is set in Goa. In quick succession, we are introduced to a whole bunch of characters. There’s Joe (Johnny Walker), for instance, who is an insurance agent and quite a ladies’ man. Joe stays at a boarding house run by a Lucy Fernandes [Shammi, in a bad wig—bad wigs are the order of the day in Baazi, (dis)gracing everyone from poor Waheeda Rehman to Manmohan]. Lucy is smitten by Joe, totally unaware that her younger sister Susan ‘Suzie’ [Helen, who somehow managed to carry off even pretty bad wigs] is also in love with Joe—and vice-versa.
The film begins with Joe chatting with his boss at the insurance agency. The boss is suspicious about an insurance policy which has been bought by a certain Mr de Silva. De Silva has insured himself for the whopping sum of Rs 2.5 lakhs, and the beneficiary of his policy is his niece, Elizabeth de Silva. Elizabeth de Silva, wonders Joe? Why, there’s a fellow lodger at the Fernandes sisters’ lodging house, named Elizabeth de Silva (Waheeda Rehman). Could it be the same woman? Joe’s boss says this must be investigated because it sounds fishy.
Meanwhile, the scene shifts to Ajay (Dharmendra), a Deputy Superintendent of Police. Ajay is Elizabeth’s boyfriend [and, in an unusual departure from the norm, we aren’t treated to interminable scenes of fake arguing, stalking-disguised-as-wooing, and too many details about the progression of their romance]. Ajay attends a charity show in which Elizabeth ‘Liz’ and Suzie are dancing [respectively as Snow White and her evil stepmother]. After the show, Joe turns up, festooned in false beard and wig, passing himself off as a journalist and trying to get an interview with Liz.
There’s a brief interlude in which Ajay and Liz get engaged [not at a fancy party with Liz and/or Ajay playing the piano, but on the beach, all by themselves, with Ajay slipping a ring on to her finger]. Neither of them realizes that a sinister someone hiding behind an upturned boat is watching them all the while.
Punctuated by some unnecessary and irritating scenes regarding Joe, Lucy and Suzie and their tedious love triangle, the story now proceeds with leaps and bounds. The day after they get engaged, Ajay receives a telegram from Liz, followed by a phone call from her. Liz is distraught and tells him that the previous evening, after she’d got home, she’d received news that her uncle was ill. When she reached Uncle’s home, she found that he’d had a heart attack, and now he’s dead.
Ajay gets Uncle’s address from Liz, and sets off at once. Little does he realize that he’s being watched by someone [Ulhas; we are never told this man’s name, and since there are others of his ilk popping up every now and then, I’m going to arbitrarily assign names. This one, therefore, I dub Shady Character#1]. Further along, Shady Character #2 (Jagdish Raj) has strewn tacks on the road; Ajay drives on, has a flat tire, and is therefore delayed somewhat.
Driving on after repairs, Ajay stops to ask for directions from a passing motorcyclist (Shady Character #2). Shady Character #2 points him to an imposing and fascinatingly historic-looking mansion down a rather lonely lane.
By the time Ajay arrives at Mr de Silva’s house, it is past sunset. Inside, he can’t find Liz, though he calls for her. Instead, a doctor [NA Ansari, so you can safely assume this is Shady Character#3] appears, and shows Ajay Mr de Silva’s corpse. Ajay has barely had time to nod sadly when the doc also shows him Liz, who has collapsed with the shock and is currently out for the count. No chance of her helping out with Uncle’s funeral.
Ajay asks what he can do to help, and the doctor suggests he go to the church nearby and search out the priest to arrange for the funeral: the sooner it’s done, the better, since Uncle’s corpse won’t last long. Ajay is fortunate enough to find the priest (Nasir Hussain) outside the church. They have a quick chat, Father Gonsalves expresses his sympathy, and reassures Ajay that he will arrange for the coffin, the pall bearers, everything.
So—while Liz still sleeps on—Ajay attends Uncle’s funeral [at night? Not something I’ve seen] and sees Uncle ritually interred, while the priest rattles on in Latin and a bunch of mourners stand around looking solemn. Suddenly, a drunk interloper (Manmohan, in a bad wig) arrives, weeping and looking very out of place among the suited-booted fraternity. Ajay whispers to the man beside him, asking who this newcomer is, and is told that he’s a poor man whom Mr de Silva had been very good to.
There’s more in store for Ajay. Back at Uncle’s mansion, he finds Liz, now conscious; after consoling her and letting her know that Uncle has been given a fitting farewell, he retires to his room. And, looking out of the window a while later, sees a woman hurrying away towards the nearby cemetery. From this distance [and in the night, too? Ajay has phenomenal eyesight] she appears to be Liz, so Ajay follows after…and finds her weeping on Uncle’s grave. Poor Liz!
But no. When Ajay reaches out and touches her shoulder, the woman whips around, and Ajay realizes he’s mistaken. The woman (Chand Usmani) is a complete stranger.
The next morning, when Ajay tells Liz of this odd encounter and wonders aloud who this strange woman mourning Uncle could be, Liz recalls having heard rumours that Uncle had been having an affair with someone. Who, she does not know.
What Liz is more interested in, it turns out, is the money she will inherit now that Uncle has copped it. [For a Hindi film heroine, Liz is surprisingly mercenary; she’s out shopping and rejoicing over her newfound wealth far too soon for comfort. When it comes to grieving for the dearly departed, our girl obviously believes more in quality than in quantity; one day’s focussed weeping and fainting away is enough].
Ajay, having phoned his boss and asked for a few days’ leave, stays on in order to comfort Liz [who, in any case, is more interested in going shopping, once she’s received an advance on her inheritance from the lawyer].
While Ajay is there, a newcomer arrives: Joe, minus his moustache [and with the addition of a truly horrible wig], calling himself Liz’s cousin Joe from England. He tells Liz that Uncle had wanted the two of them to get married, which is why he’s come. Liz admits to Ajay that she does have a cousin Joe in England, but she’s never even seen a photo of the man, so this may well be him. At any rate, it gives Joe the chance to stay on [and presumably investigate the case, though the scriptwriter seems to forget that that is the reason for Joe’s coming here].
Once Liz seems to have sufficiently recovered, Ajay reports back on duty and is handed a case to be investigated. A distraught old man (Nazir Kashmiri) had reported that his elder son, Prakash, had gone missing. Prakash has a younger brother named Rakesh, a rotter who had left home years ago. Recently, in an attempt to bring the lost sheep back to the fold, Prakash had travelled to meet Rakesh—and has disappeared. Nobody knows where he is. The old man had reported this to Ajay’s boss, who had asked him to provide a photo of Prakash.
Now the old man comes to meet Ajay, bearing with him a photo of the missing Prakash. And who should it be, but—Mr de Silva, whom Ajay has himself seen buried! Ajay is so flabbergasted, he asks some silly questions about whether this really is the old man’s son, a Hindu named Prakash, not a Mr de Silva? The old man is too sweet to punch Ajay and confirms that yes, hard to believe as it may appear, this is Prakash.
So who is it Ajay helped bury? [yes, well; Prakash, obviously, but how did he end up masquerading as Mr de Silva?] Where is Uncle? And what on earth is going on—since this isn’t the first of several mysterious deaths…
Up to this point, Baazi is pretty engrossing. A veritable whodunit, and one which raises loads of deliciously puzzling questions. Who are the shady characters spying on Ajay as he drove to Uncle’s mansion? Who was the mysterious woman sobbing over the faux Uncle’s grave? How did Prakash end up buried as Mr de Silva?
The sad part is, the second half of the film—devoted to the unravelling of the plot, actually does allow the plot to unravel. Completely, until one doesn’t know where’s what. Important plot points fall by the wayside, holes riddle the story, and you realize that there’s a reason why Baazi, despite having a decent cast, is never mentioned in the list of great Hindi suspense films.
What I liked about this film:
Dharmendra and Waheeda Rehman, who look great, the latter despite some not very flattering wigs. Helen is lovely, though sadly wasted in what is too short a role.
And, some of the songs, which were composed by Kalyanji-Anandji. Baazi isn’t one of those films with a brilliant score. But a couple of the songs—like Aa mere gale lag jaa or Main haseena naazneena—aren’t bad.
What I didn’t like:
The appalling wigs, for one.
But, more than that, the butchery of the plot. This is the sort of storyline of which people say that someone “lost the plot”. The first half of the film—the setting up of the puzzle, the mystery regarding Prakash/Uncle, etc—is intriguing enough (even if the Joe-Lucy-Suzie angle is completely pointless). It’s in the second half that things start falling apart. The denouement, while it does contain a major surprise, leaves a lot of things unexplained. Who, for instance, are all the shady characters, and where do they fit in besides lurking about and occasionally coming up to talk out of the corners of their mouths with Ajay? How, really, was the villain planning on benefiting from the crime he set up? And why was such a meticulously planned crime dependent on a chance death? (surely such a clever and obviously unscrupulous villain could have found a more reliable way around?)
And more. The plot holes in this story make it almost sieve-like.
Despite my oft-admitted love for suspense films (and for Waheeda Rehman, Dharmendra, et al), not a film I’d want to see again. Be warned.