I had no particular film review or song list in mind for this week, but when Anu declared August Dev Anand month over at her blog, and Harini reviewed Duniya, I saw a bandwagon that I liked—and decided to jump on to it. With a film that reminds me of Duniya in some ways: Dev Anand, late 60s, suspense.
Mahal begins with a short scene featuring a bad photo of a tacky-looking palace [it looks like a terribly amateurish model, probably made by a clumsy apprentice, out of cardboard and poster colours]. Three men, of whom we never see faces or even profiles, sit around the table on which the photo is propped, and one of them says, in a flat and toneless voice, that this palace is the stake in some big game. And that they must plan well in order to win that game, blah blah.
Cut to some less befuddling stuff. We are introduced to Rajesh (Dev Anand), who is very lucky when it comes to gambling of any sort. Rajesh’s tips help his boss—he is secretary to the wealthy aristocrat Shyam (Abhi Bhattacharya)—make a killing at the races, and whenever Rajesh’s pal Pyare (Sundar) is in dire straits and in need of money (always for noble reasons, such as medical treatment for ailing relatives, or education for children), Rajesh comes to the rescue…
…by winning at gambling tables. At the gambling hall he frequents, Rajesh’s never-ending run of good luck is noticed by Moti (Rajan Haksar) who owns the place, and Moti’s henchman Jimmy (Siddhu). Moti files this bit of information away.
Rajesh’s gambling—even though he asserts that he doesn’t keep a single paisa of his winnings for himself—is a sore point with Rajesh’s mum [no, not Sulochana Latkar, Achla Sachdev, Nirupa Roy or Leela Chitnis. Pratima Devi, who could rock the petulant/loving mum as well as the rest of them]. She is so upset that she refuses, this time, to eat. It is only the intervention of Rajesh’s younger sister Chanda (Azra, in a bad wig) that restores happiness and forced laughter to the dining table.
We now meet the female lead of this story: Rupa [Asha Parekh, also in bad wig, and—to top it all—inconsistent wig, which changes lengths and volume from one frame to the next]. Rupa lives with her mamaji [no, not because—as one would expect—she’s an orphan, but because her parents stay in some as yet unnamed place where there apparently aren’t any good colleges]. Rupa has just finished college—her BA results have been declared [no prizes for guessing; she’s got a ‘first class first’], so she and her friends have decided to go on a picnic to celebrate.
Mamaji throws a spanner in the works by telling Rupa that he has to go out, but a visitor will be arriving soon: Shyam, the aristocrat whom her parents and mamaji both think would make a fine husband for Rupa. Rupa is thoroughly miffed by this—she has no wish to be paraded in front of some man for his approval—so mamaji assures her that her wishes will be of course taken into consideration. If she says no, it will be no. Rupa is too annoyed to be mollified by this, so decides to play a trick on Shyam, whom she has never seen.
And who should turn up but Rajesh? The Shyam in question is Rajesh’s boss, and since he was suddenly called away on some urgent business, has sent a letter to Rupa through Rajesh, begging her pardon for not keeping the appointment. Rupa—disguised [rather badly] as her own bossy grandmother—doesn’t give Rajesh a chance to speak, so doesn’t realize that this isn’t her intended. She bosses him about, but at the same time ends up being charmed by him, so much so that she when she realizes Rajesh is on to her disguise, she invites him to come along on the picnic.
Which is really just a reason for a good song, after which Rajesh hands her Shyam’s letter, leaving Rupa fuming and vowing to get even with Rajesh for having pulled a fast one on her.
That romance having been set up, we get back to Rajesh’s family. Mum has accidentally got her hands on a love letter addressed to Chanda from someone called Ramesh, and is livid as well as heartbroken. What will happen of their family’s honour? Rajesh puts on the righteous brother act and promises to confront this lecherous villain who dares to make passes at Chanda…
…only to find, when he comes face to face with Ramesh, who is a cop (Sudhir) that this is none other than Rajesh’s own childhood friend Ramu. There is much hugging and back-slapping, and Rajesh is very happy that the lecher has turned out to be a bosom buddy [the hypocrisy takes my breath away]. He takes Ramesh home to be introduced to Mum and to meet Chanda [who Ramesh only now realizes is Rajesh’s sister]. And, just like that, the wedding is fixed.
Because they have very little money, Mum starts fretting: how will she get Chanda married on this pittance? Rajesh decides therefore to put his gambling skills to use. He ends up losing to Jimmy [who cheats], but this gives Moti the opportunity to approach Rajesh. On discovering that Rajesh needs the money for his sister’s wedding, Moti proposes a deal: he will give Rajesh the money, in return for some work Rajesh must do for him.
Moti then tells Rajesh that his (Moti’s) uncle, Raja Dinanath, lives in Darjeeling. Moti and his poor parents had been pretty much looked after by the very wealthy Dinanath when Moti was a boy, but Dinanath’s high-handedness and constant assertions of doing them all a favour finally got on Moti’s nerves.
He ran away, and has since never met Dinanath. But now a dying Dinanath is repentant and wanting to make amends, and Moti—who used to be called Ravi when he was a child—feels obliged to go and meet the old man. But he can’t stomach the thought, really. So, will Rajesh, calling himself Ravi, do that? Go and meet Dinanath? With adequate tutoring, of course, so that Dinanath doesn’t suspect this is an impostor. Rajesh agrees.
As soon as Chanda’s married (and even before her bidaai), Rajesh takes the train to Darjeeling. He’s carrying with him a fat diary containing all the notes Moti has supplied to help prepare him to be ‘Ravi’.
En route, Rajesh meets two odd people. The first is a mysterious, pretty girl (Farida Jalal) who doesn’t say anything, but gives Rajesh some very pointed looks before—while he’s busy reading a newspaper—disappearing, leaving behind her only a diaphanous white scarf.
The next is a bluff elderly man (David), who sits down next to Rajesh, takes a peek at the sketch pad Rajesh is drawing Rupa’s portrait in, and lets it be known that he is the father of Rupa. Rajesh is surprised, but Rupa’s daddy doesn’t seem to mind [yes, Hindi filmi fathers appear to be less protective about their daughters than Hindi filmi brothers about their sisters]. Before they can chat or get better acquainted, however, the train steams into the station, and they alight.
Rajesh is met by Dinanath’s driver, who drives Rajesh to a grand [so we’re told, though it doesn’t look it] hotel, where Dinanath has reserved the most luxurious suite for Rajesh. The driver tells Rajesh that he will come the next morning exactly at 9 to pick up Rajesh and drive him to Dinanath’s palace. Dinanath will meet him, Rajesh, at 9.33 AM: he does everything important at that hour.
So the next morning, Rajesh goes off to meet Dinanath [and, God help us, but that awful cardboard model-like castle shown at the beginning of the film is Dinanath’s house. For real].
Rajesh meets Dinanath (DK Sapru) at 9.33, and is put through an informal, undeclared test [which Rajesh recognizes as such] to see whether he really is Ravi or an impostor. Is he still as good a shot as before? [Shooting the wicks off six candles with one bullet isn’t something I would have expected anyone—barring possibly Rajnikanth—to be able to do, let alone the 10-year old Ravi]. What was Dinanath’s pet name for Ravi? Why does Dinanath hold 9.33 AM sacrosanct?
All tests cleared, Dinanath is convinced that this is his long-lost Ravi. There are many tears of joy, a happy reunion. All with Dinanath’s pretty young nurse—yes, that same girl Rajesh had travelled with on the train before she vanished—looking on. She gives Rajesh an odd look when she wheels Dinanath out of the room, but doesn’t say anything to him.
Dinanath has told Rajesh that he needn’t attend to him all the while: after all, Rajesh is young and should be enjoying life. Go see the sights! So Rajesh goes off to a local ice rink—and there runs into Rupa’s father, who renews their acquaintance and invites Rajesh to Rupa’s birthday party. [All just an excuse for a party song which isn’t even very good].
Back at his hotel room after the party, Rajesh finds an unexpected visitor waiting: the nurse, all black fishnet stockings and little red dress.
Even more unexpected, she congratulates him on having pulled off the impersonation so well. And she has a proposition: they (she and Rajesh) should combine forces to bump off Dinanath. As it is, Dinanath has willed all his wealth to Ravi; once that inheritance is his, they can split it two ways. Rajesh declines. He may be low enough to impersonate Ravi, but he won’t help murder Dinanath.
So the girl, with a last farewell—in which she addresses him by name, Rajesh—goes off.
And Rajesh is so shaken by that (how does she know his name?), that he follows her back to her home, which is an opportunity for another song, after which they get down to business. No, nothing naughty; just that Rajesh agrees. Yes, he will help get rid of Dinanath.
The next day, however, when the nurse tries to kill her patient—by offering him poison in the guise of his medicine—Rajesh obstructs her, accidentally knocking the poison away. When, after Dinanath’s gone away, the nurse asks him why he did that, Rajesh fobs her off.
Rajesh now gets back to the business of wooing an unwilling [or at least, putting up a show of being unwilling] Rupa. She’s soon won over, and after they’re caught in a thunderstorm one night [not that they succumb to temptation…], when Rajesh escorts Rupa home, her very encouraging father comes out to say hello. And in their conversation, the reason for his unstinted approval of this match emerges: like everybody else, Rupa’s dad is under the impression that Rajesh is Ravi, the crorepati Dinanath’s nephew and heir.
Rajesh realizes that this can’t go on any longer. He doesn’t want to take people he loves for a ride. He will go back to Calcutta and tell Moti that he won’t act as him any more.
So Rajesh goes back to the hotel and into his room to pack. And who should be there but the nurse [how does this girl keep getting into Rajesh’s room? Does she pick the locks, again and again? Has she bribed a houseboy? Does she climb in through the window, sheer stockings and all?]—and she holds a newspaper with a startling headline.
What is going on? Who killed Moti, and why? And, since this is just the first of several deaths, why this sudden spate of murders, and what is the connection between them?
Puzzles galore, many mysteries, and much action to follow. And, remember: Ramesh, Rajesh’s old friend and now brother-in-law, is also a cop. There has to be a reason for that.
What I liked about this film:
The ‘What on earth is happening?’ thing that hits fairly early on in the film. Although the first scene does try to be intriguing, it’s too brief to be impactful, but from the moment one sees the nurse—the same fashionable girl who’d shared Rajesh’s compartment on the train—there’s the definite realization that something is up. And when the pace picks up with one murder after another… there’s no looking back.
Three of the songs. While Kalyanji-Anandji are not favourites of mine (and a couple of the songs in Mahal are quite forgettable), three songs are worth a mention, and more. Yeh duniyawaale poochhenge is sweetly romantic, as is (even better) Aankhon-aankhon mein hum tum. And Aaiye aapka thha humein intezaar rates, as far as I’m concerned, as one of the most seductive come-hither songs of its time, at least when it comes to the audio.
What I didn’t like:
The last 45 minutes. Mahal suffers from a serious case of the ‘curse of the second half’—not because the revelation (when it comes) is a let-down, but just because the execution of it is so bad. The slow buildup of suspense till about ¾ of the way through the film isn’t bad, though (since it keeps getting punctuated by the Rajesh-Rupa romance and some very silly dialogues between her parents—her father goes on and on, telling his wife that he is her “most obedient, henpecked husband”)—it does get diluted a bit.
But after a big revelation at about the 40 minute mark, the scripting suddenly goes south. There’s some unnecessary melodrama, a needless disguise, another hard-to-believe disguise [and, really, how good is a bright red achkan and cap when it comes to keeping a low profile? And why on earth do people in Hindi films, when they should be lying low, burst into song in public at the slightest provocation?] There is a clumsy attempt to disguise an actor’s voice by having someone else—and a toneless, flat-voiced someone, too—dub for them. There is lots of general hamming and idiocy and mysterious motives. It’s almost as if the scriptwriter and director (KA Narayan and Shankar Mukherjee, respectively) ran out of steam.
And yes, there are plenty of plot holes [for example, who were those three men at the start of the film? I can guess, but it’s never explained. And why certain people fell in with the felon’s plan is also never quite clarified].
No, despite the songs, and despite some decent suspense elements, not one of the best.