Hindi cinema has a tendency towards stories that stretch over long periods of time. Days, at the least, but often months, often many years too (that old trope of children growing up has been a part of too many films to name). It is the unusual film, especially in the 50s and 60s, that extends over just a few hours. Solvaa Saal was one such; Gateway of India is another. Both films are about runaway girls who meet the loves of their lives in the course of one night. That, though, is where the resemblance stops.
Gateway of India begins with some ominous business. In a large house, some clandestine conversation is in progress. A wily old man is telling his minions how his wealthy brother, having died, has left all his wealth to his daughter Anju, but there are some papers too. Some papers, which this wicked old fellow is certain his niece knows the whereabouts of. All he needs is to get hold of those papers, and he will be all set. The problem is the faithful servant, Ramu, who is helping Anju and shielding her…
Unknown to this dastardly lot, Anju (Madhubala) and Ramu (?) are eavesdropping, horrified, on this conversation. Having heard enough to realize that both of them are in danger, they scurry away, Ramu to phone the cops.
But Bad Uncle’s men find him before he can do that, and kill old Ramu. Bad Uncle instructs his men to dump the body at Gateway of India (Anju overhears this), and goes off to start questioning Anju. Where are the papers? A terrified Anju says she has no idea, but Bad Uncle isn’t convinced. This girl knows more than she’s letting on. He has his men bundle her into their car and gives them orders to take her away to a safe place—where, obviously, more ruthless measures will be adopted to make Anju squeal.
Sometime later, Bad Uncle receives a frantic phone call from one of his henchmen: Anju pulled a knife on them (atta-girl!) and escaped. Bad Uncle is furious but he’s reassured that they are chasing her and bound to catch up sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, Anju has turned for help to the first in a series of men she will be approaching in the course of this night. Kishore (Pradeep Kumar) is driving by in his car, and agrees to give her a lift.
A little further on, though, he stops at a roadside tea stall—he tells a nervous Anju that the tea here is exceptional—and just then Anju sees her pursuers arrive. She dives down and hides near the dashboard, pleading with Kishore to drive on because some hoodlums who are chasing her have arrived. By then the chaiwallah has come to ask what Kishore would like, and though Kishore fobs him off and drives away, the chaiwallah has spotted Anju.
…so he tells Bad Uncle’s men that yes, he did see a girl fitting the description they offer. In that car there. Bad Uncle’s men drive off in pursuit.
Meanwhile, Kishore having asked where she’d like to go, and Anju having said anywhere, he takes her to a nightclub where he begins to sweet-talk Anju. This invites the ire of the local dancer (Anita Guha), whose song seems to spell WARNING in no uncertain terms.
Later still, Anju happens to overhear a violent exchange between Kishore and the dancer, who has assumed that Kishore and Anju are an item. The woman isn’t merely upset that Kishore has dumped her for Anju; she is furious, threatening Kishore that she’ll reveal all his ugly secrets, the murders and other crimes and so on.
She’s gone straight from the frying pan into the fire, Anju realizes. After an abortive attempt to escape (Kishore’s men don’t let her go), Anju goes to Kishore and pretends she’s fallen for his charm. She is so convincing that he happily agrees to carry on this acquaintance and meet her the next morning, at 6.30, at Gateway of India (Anju is the one who suggests the time and place). Anju is allowed to leave, and she slips outside only to discover that Bad Uncle’s henchmen are waiting in a jeep.
Anju manages to sneak her way past them and climb into the back of a parked car. The driver gets in right after and drives away. When he finally stops the car and gets off, Anju tries to slip by unobserved. No such luck—the man, Chandar (Chandrashekhar) had seen her even before he started driving. When he asks her where she needs to go, Anju rattles off a random address in the building beside which they’re standing.
Chandar insists on escorting her upstairs, and it’s only when they ring the doorbell of the flat Anju has pronounced as her own, and have entered, that Anju realizes this is Chandar’s own apartment. Her luck is terrible. Especially as Chandar’s elder sister (Manorama) runs a ‘dancing school’ and within moments has bulldozed Anju into getting dressed up, being renamed Darling (it’s a far more fashionable name, says Didi), and singing for a customer (Raj Mehra).
This is followed by another conversation on which Anju eavesdrops. The customer and Didi decide on Rs 10,000 as a fair price for Anju.
Anju, though horrified, dons a suave nonchalance and goes to Chandar. This customer is a very wealthy man, right? And he is obviously quite besotted with Anju, right? So why is Didi settling for such a paltry sum as Rs 10,000? Chandar must not settle for so little. Actually, even better, pretend that he, Chandar, is married to Darling; use that as a means to blackmail the customer. The man will be ready to give lakhs just to have his name cleared of trying to buy off another man’s wife.
Chandar, who is easily brainwashed, agrees readily. Meet me tomorrow morning at 6.30 at Gateway of India, Anju says, and confront the customer. I’ll be there, acting the part of your wife.
So Anju successfully leaves yet another shady bit of business and runs away. But again Bad Uncle’s men are around, and she flees—to the home of the ‘Spiritualist’, Johnny Walker (Johnny Walker). Though it’s not commented upon in the course of the following interaction, this ‘Spiritualist’ epithet is a tongue-in-cheek, punny reflection on Johnny Walker’s true occupation: a smuggler of Johnny Walker and other spirits.
Along with his colleague Tony (Tony Walker), Johnny is completely sozzled when Anju comes knocking frantically at their door. After some initial misunderstanding (they are convinced she’s a cop, and so are eager to get rid of her), Johnny and Tony accept that Anju (who calls herself ‘Darling’), like them, is on the run, and so decide she must be a drinking partner too. Anju proves good at both tossing away her drinks into a potted plant, and singing and dancing with Johnny while Tony bangs away at a piano.
Anju soon makes her escape from the Spiritualist’s. (Either there’s some inept editing at this stage or somebody messed up with the plot, but it later emerges that Anju promises Johnny a huge cache of diamonds—she implies a wealthy seth will bring them to Gateway of India next morning at 6.30, so if Johnny is there, he can no doubt find some way to lay his hands on those diamonds).
Bad Uncle’s henchmen are still in the vicinity, and this time Anju takes shelter in the home of Seth Laxmidas (Bhagwaan). When Anju first enters his home, this man is busy praying and thanking various women for the money they’ve brought him. Another eavesdropped conversation (between Laxmidas and his sister), and Anju realizes just how full Bombay seems to be of criminals.
This man, it turns out, has been married six times. Each time, he’s taken out an insurance policy in his wife’s name, and then calmly and cold-bloodedly murdered the woman: this one was poisoned, that one was pushed off a mountain, and so on. As a result, he and his sister are very comfortably off, their safe filled to the brim with money. The only problem is, Laxmidas has no children, and he so wants one to inherit all these ill-gotten gains…
Shortly after, Anju’s presence is revealed (much to her consternation) because of some mice creeping about. Laxmidas, after he’s got over the shock of finding an intruder at home (Anju introduces herself as ‘Lajwanti’), is quietly given some advice by his sister: this girl might be a good candidate as a wife. She might be able to provide him the heir he so yearns for.
So, egged on by his sister, Laxmidas shows off the contents of his safe—all of ten lakhs—to ‘Lajwanti’, and then somewhat shyly starts flirting with her. Anju catches on fairly fast. When Laxmidas proposes, she agrees after some initial hesitation. Why don’t they do it fast, she says? Tomorrow, at the civil court? Meet me at Gateway of India at 6.30. I will bring my mother along, because after all she would want to meet you too.
Anju then gets Laxmidas to drop her home—some unnamed address somewhere along the way, and when he’s gone (she’s shooed him off from outside the door), she lopes off too…
… and there come Bad Uncle’s henchmen. Anju, seeing a chaadar-covered figure asleep on the pavement, quickly lies down next to it and hijacks the chaadar. When the henchmen take themselves off, Anju introduces herself—as Chanchal, a debutant thief—to the fifth man she’s met this night: a gunda named Shankar (Om Prakash).
Shankar is a big fan of the popular singer Leela Mukherjee (Lata Mangeshkar, whose photo we see on the cover of an album he carries around). He even insists that ‘Chanchal’ sit and listen to a Leela Mukherjee song (this song is missing from the versions I’ve seen online, and is probably Sapne mein sajan se do baatein).
Anju, having realized just how brutal Shankar can be (he comes close to knifing her) decides to give him the slip—but this can only be done by offering some incentive. She tells him that she knows of a seth who has a safe full of money, ten lakhs of it, and who will be coming to Gateway of India the next morning. At 6.30. Shankar should come there; between them, they’ll grab the money.
Now it’s close to dawn, and Anju encounters the last man she’s going to be meeting in the course of this long, adventurous night. Prakash (Bharat Bhushan), an impoverished poet.
What next? What is going to happen at 6.30 at Gateway of India?
What I liked about this film:
A lot, actually. Much more than I’d expected, considering Gateway of India was a flop.
To start with, the story, which is so very unusual and offbeat. Yes, there are some plot holes here and there, but the story otherwise flows fairly smoothly. And it’s entertaining.
Then, the ensemble cast. There are some fairly big names here, what with Madhubala, Anita Guha, Bhagwan, Pradeep Kumar, Bharat Bhushan, Johnny Walker and Om Prakash, and all of them get pretty interesting sections. (It’s also fun to note that with each of the men, Madhubala gets one song—not necessarily sung by either of them, but part of the segment nevertheless). Madhubala herself is a joy, and her Anju is a far more feisty female than most that are passed off as such in Hindi cinema: she doesn’t merely run about or hit out, she also uses her wits again and again to get out of sticky situations. Very clever.
Last but not least, the music, by Madan Mohan. My favourite song from this film is the beautiful Do ghadi woh jo paas aa baithe, but several other songs—Yeh raah badi mushkil hai, Na hanso humpe zamaane ke hain thukraaye hue, and Dekhta chala gaya main zindagi ki raah mein—are very good too.
What I didn’t like:
The storyline gets a little repetitive after a while. You know that Anju will encounter another crook, and she will manage to give him the slip by telling him to come to Gateway of India at 6.30 the next morning. Of course, how she does this, and the entertaining interactions between Anju and the men, compensate—but still. Also, there’s some needless shrieking and melodrama at the end which I didn’t like, and some (seeming) plot holes that emerge at this point, or were possibly a result of poor editing of the video by whoever converted it to digital.
Despite that, though, a delightful film. Entertaining, with good songs, and a heroine who’s a delight to watch. What beats me, then, is why Gateway of India was such a flop. Was the story too offbeat for an audience used to the standard tropes of the masala film? Did they not like that the protagonist was a feisty woman? Did they not like Madhubala in this deglamourized avatar?
Why? Personally, I would happily watch this film all over again. If only a good quality version were available.