Years ago, in the good old days when the single channel on Doordarshan was our main source of entertainment and we therefore watched everything that was telecast, I watched 12 O’Clock. I’d already seen Guru Dutt’s big films—Pyaasa, Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam, Kaagaz ke Phool, Chaudhvin ka Chaand. I assumed, based on those (I had yet to watch Bahurani or Saanjh aur Savera, and had thought Mr & Mrs 55 a flash in the pan), that 12 O’Clock would be along the lines of the serious stuff Guru Dutt churned out.
… which this is not. Because this is one of a handful of the films Guru Dutt acted in but did not direct.
The film starts off a little abruptly, on a staircase in a large mansion. An incensed Baani Chowdhury (Waheeda Rehman) is coming down the stairs, and is followed by her brother-in-law (her cousin’s husband), Rai Mohan (Rehman, looking exceptionally handsome). Rai Mohan is trying to reason with Baani: she shouldn’t rush off like this, she knows he and Maya are very fond of her. Baani snaps back at Rai Mohan, saying that Maya (who, it’s obvious, is her cousin, Rai Mohan’s wife) cares no more for Baani than does Rai Mohan. After all, it’s been seven months since Maya went off to Delhi, and she hasn’t, in all that time, written even one letter to Baani.
With one last angry remark that she (Baani) will get her inheritance—they can’t withhold it from her—she flounces out. Some time later, she turns up at the home of her mamaji, her maternal uncle (Hari Shivdasani), who is more than happy to have Baani stay with him. Baani tells him she’s got a job, too, and will be starting work the next day.
The job is that of secretary to a lawyer named Ajay (Guru Dutt). Baani arrives at Ajay’s chambers and is met by Ajay’s assistant and childhood friend Motilal ‘Moti’ (Johnny Walker), who initially mistakes Baani for a client and jumps to the conclusion that she’s come seeking a divorce. This gets sorted out swiftly, what with Baani showing him her appointment letter [it’s never explained who interviewed Baani and got her this job, which is puzzling, since Ajay and Moti seem to be solely in charge of this place].
Ajay, when Baani is ushered into his office, is immediately entranced. This attraction, helped along by a couple of songs—and by the fact that it turns out that Baani’s mamaji is Ajay’s neighbour—soon grows into love. Ajay begins to spend evenings playing chess with mamaji, while Baani sits by and the two young lovers exchange banter that completely goes over mamaji’s head.
Meanwhile, two things happen. First, we see Baani’s jijaji Rai Mohan at his workplace, a hotel [Naturally. If you’re looking for vice, a hotel is the obvious choice]. Several business associates, from whom Rai Mohan is seeking investments to help open new hotels, have come. They see a dance performance [a young Helen lip-syncing to Arre tauba], and one of the men asks Rai Mohan where the previous dancer has gone. Oh, she’s on leave, says Rai Mohan, and that’s the end of that particular conversation.
Later, however, we discover the reason for that ex-dancer’s absence: she’s away in Delhi. Rai Mohan too lands up in Delhi and makes two visits. One is to his wife, Maya (Sabita Chatterjee), who is very happy to see him. Rai Mohan is the very image of the loving husband who’s been missing his wife. It’s time to come back to Bombay, he tells her. He’ll book tickets for them both, and they’ll go home. Maya is happy; she’s also been missing Baani, and wonders if all is well: she’s written so many letters to Baani, and not one has been acknowledged or answered. [Ah-ha].
Rai Mohan also visits Neena (Shashikala), who is the dancer, currently on leave, at his hotel. She, it turns out, is not just Rai Mohan’s girlfriend, she’s also recently given birth to his child—which is why she’s been on leave all these months. Rai Mohan tells her he’s booked a train ticket for her from Delhi to Bombay. He goes on to give Neena some more instructions. She is booked into the same compartment as Maya, and is to make sure that in the course of the journey, Maya spends as much time with the baby as possible. In essence, Maya should get the impression that Neena trusts her (Maya) implicitly with the baby.
Then, when the train chugs into Dadar Station at midnight and comes to a halt, Neena is to get off the train immediately, leaving her baby behind in the compartment with Maya. Rai Mohan will look after the rest.
In Bombay, Rai Mohan has already met up with a henchman of his named Khanna. Khanna has been given his orders, along with a pistol and the payment for a job he must carry out. Khanna too arrives in Delhi, at the same hotel where Maya (and now Rai Mohan, since he’s in town) are staying. Rai Mohan introduces Khanna to Maya as an old and reliable friend; Khanna dines with them a few times. Thus, when Rai Mohan suddenly springs it on Maya that because of some urgent work, he won’t be able to go with her, Maya accepts (though with annoyance) his suggestion that Khanna accompany Maya instead.
Having given this excuse to Maya, Rai Mohan sneaks back to Bombay.
On the night when the train is to arrive, Baani comes to meet Rai Mohan. She is no more kindly disposed towards him than she was the last time, and tells him bluntly that once her didi (Maya) is back, she’s going to claim the inheritance her chachaji had left. Rai Mohan, in his charmingly reassuring way, tells Baani that of course that will happen; in the meantime, will she come with him to the station to meet Maya, who will be arriving shortly?
So Baani goes along with Rai Mohan to the station. En route, Rai Mohan manages to surreptitiously slip a pistol into Baani’s handbag without her noticing.
At the station, when the train steams into the platform and stops, Maya comes to the door. Baani, feeling hot and sweaty, reaches into her bag for a handkerchief—and pulls out the pistol instead. In the very same instant, Khanna, who’s alighted earlier from the train, fires at Maya, killing her. Baani, frightened, fires the pistol she’s holding in her hand, too. Maya dies, Khanna flees on a motorbike, and is shortly after rammed by a passing vehicle and dies in the accident.
Baani is arrested. When interrogated, she—already a bundle of nerves—begins to cry and insists that she did not kill Maya. She does not even know where the pistol in her bag came from, and she didn’t shoot. Ajay, summoned, comes rushing to comfort Baani and to find out more, but there’s little Baani can tell him; she herself doesn’t know what has happened.
The case goes to court, and there, some revelations are made.
Firstly, the ballistics expert’s report comes in. Maya was hit twice; one bullet grazed her, the other killed her. The bullets came from two different pistols, both .38s. The pistol that was seized from Baani—and which Baani denies all knowledge of—is a .38. It’s not commonly available, says the ballistics expert; licenses for a .38 are not given out easily.
Then comes the revelation of Maya’s father’s will. It turns out that Maya’s father had willed his entire fortune to Maya. In case of Maya’s death, her fortune was to pass to her offspring. And, in case Maya did not have any children, the fortune was to pass to Baani. This, then, seems to be a plausible reason for Baani to have bumped off Maya. Except that—another revelation—Baani does not know that Maya had actually given birth while in Delhi. She came back to Bombay in the train with her baby, who was in the compartment with her…
Baani is well and truly framed, and Rai Mohan has concocted a neat enough plan to get his hands on his late wife’s wealth and get Baani out of the way. Will Ajay be able to discover the truth and save Baani?
What I liked about this film:
The basic premise of it. It shows a smart and unscrupulous criminal at work, who works out a good way to have his cake and eat it too. The pace of the film is good too, with only a few digressions for songs, a wee bit of romance, and some brief comic scenes. The focus is pretty much on the main story, of Rai Mohan’s crookedness and how Ajay (aided by the faithful Moti) gets to the root of the matter.
Rehman. Yes, the rest of the cast is good, too, but Rehman in particular stands out as the suave criminal who is utterly ruthless (he doesn’t even really care for Neena, even though he’s convinced her that she’s his true love: all he wants is a baby he can pass off as his and Maya’s, so that it can inherit the wealth he has his eye on). The charm, the concern for Baani and her welfare, the faux mourning for his dead wife: Rai Mohan (or Rehman, really) pulls it all off with consummate ease.
The songs, composed by OP Nayyar to lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi and Majrooh Sultanpuri. Tum jo hue mere humsafar is probably the best-known of these, but there are several others which are good, including Arre tauba, Main kho gaya yaheen kaheen, and Kaisa jaadoo balam tune daara.
What I didn’t like:
The main problem with far too many Hindi suspense films is that they fall prey to the need to add commercial elements—the romance, the comedy, the songs, even the more sensational bits expected of thrillers. Scripts end up catering to these to such an extent that the mystery suffers. That is what happens with 12 O’Clock as well: the basic plot, while good, goes haywire in the details. There are plot holes galore, and too many things left to chance, unexplained, or otherwise just plain implausible.
As an example, the framing of Baani by Rai Mohan leaves too much to chance. First of all, Baani arrives at Rai Mohan’s place on that particular evening by chance. Secondly, there’s the coincidence that when she puts her hand into her bag to take out the handkerchief, what emerges is the pistol—and it goes off. Chance upon chance upon chance. Could Rai Mohan have been certain that Baani would start feeling so hot just then? And that she would open her bag (and not have the handkerchief already clutched in her hand)? And that she would draw forth the pistol and it would go off? That’s a bit too much.
Plus (and this wasn’t unexpected for me), the courtroom scenes are a mess. Lawyers (especially the prosecution) rely on bluster and shouting down the accused to prove a point, rather than presenting solid proof; objections are raised (and sustained) without giving any reason for the objection, and it’s all generally pretty painful.
Besides, my personal opinion was that if we, the audience, had not been made privy to Rai Mohan’s plotting from the very beginning, this would have made for a much better film. Here, because we already know who did it (and the motive emerges soon after, too), it’s simply a game of sitting back and watching how Ajay gets Baani acquitted. Not as interesting as it could have been.
Still, though, an enjoyable enough film. You could watch worse.