The world of Hindi cinema is peppered with names that anyone familiar with the industry (at least the industry of the 50s and 60s) can quickly slot into categories. Star. Villain. Comedian. Character actor. There are many, many names that automatically fall into (almost exclusively) one of these categories. Those that have shifted from one category to another—like Pran, for instance, once the quintessential villain but in later years the more interesting ‘good man’, or Ajit and Premnath, both initially hero and later villain—have again usually not done too many shifts.
Abhi Bhattacharya is one of those relatively rare individuals who seem to have appeared in a wide variety of roles, a wide variety of films. He was the idealistic school teacher of Jagriti, the ‘other man’ of Anuradha. The kind-hearted, principled example of the bhadralok in films like Amar Prem, and the straying older brother of Dev Anand in Love Marriage. He played Krishna and Arjun and Vishnu (the latter in a slew of mythologicals). He even played the villain, in the Vinod Khanna-Yogita Bali starrer, Memsaab.
This year marks the birth centenary of Abhi Bhattacharya (as far as I’ve been able to find out, he was born in 1921, though I’ve not been able to discover exactly when in 1921). To commemorate his career, I wanted to watch a Bhattacharya film, but a dilemma presented itself: which one? Hindi or Bengali? (since Bhattacharya had what seems to have been a very successful career in Bengali cinema as well). Eventually, I homed in on this film, a rare whodunit in Hindi cinema that’s pretty well made too.
Apradhi Kaun centres round a wealthy man named Srinath (Gajanan Jagirdar), who lives in a grand mansion in a place called Jeetpur. Also among the inhabitants of this home are a doctor (Tarun Bose, in his film debut) who is also a trustee of Srinath’s estate; a manager (?), a deaf-mute servant (Dhumal), and a pretty maid named Champa (Kammo), whom we never actually see doing much in the way of work.
The story begins with the arrival in this house of a man named Dinanath (also Gajanan Jagirdar). Dinanath is Srinath’s long-lost older brother, who had left home and gone away many years earlier and hasn’t been heard of ever since. He’s now partially paralyzed and obviously quite poor. All he wants, he tells Srinath, is to now spend the rest of his days in comfort back at home.
Srinath, however, is none too happy. He is quick to point out to Dinanath that their father had disinherited both Dinanath as well as their youngest brother Pitambar (Srinath is the middle one of the three brothers) and had willed all his substantial wealth to Srinath. Dinanath, he grudgingly admits, can stay here, but he makes it clear that this is Srinath’s magnanimity speaking, not Srinath’s admission that Dinanath has any claim to the place. Dinanath agrees; he seems too far gone, too exhausted and ill to care much.
The truth, though, is that Srinath is lying. Pitambar (who was disinherited because he married against his father’s wishes) had left home, never to be seen again, and Dinanath too had gone away, but in his later years, their father relented and made a fresh will, reinstating Dinanath and Pitambar as the heirs to his legacy.
A man named Rai Bahadur Jankinath (Murad) has got that second will (how and why it’s with him isn’t explained; perhaps he stole it?), and Srinath has paid him money to keep quiet about it. Now Srinath, worried that the will still exists, and that Dinanath might hear of it, goes to Jankinath to ask for it. Jankinath, as greedy and self-serving as Srinath himself, refuses; why should he let go of a cash cow such as this?
So Srinath, along with his girlfriend Lily (Lillian, in her debut role), decides to try and steal the will from Jankinath. Lily is given the task of getting Jankinath well and truly drunk. Once she’s achieved that, she steals the keys to Jankinath’s safe and hands them over to Srinath, so that he can burgle the safe while Jankinath is tottering about, all tipsy…
Unfortunately, this very tipsiness of Jankinath’s proves the undoing of Srinath’s plan. A befuddled Jankinath, searching desperately for more liquor, goes reeling through his home, and stumbles into the room where his safe is kept—just in time to catch Srinath red-handed. Jankinath may be drunk, but he’s not too inebriated to be fooled. There’s a fight, Srinath draws a pistol, and in the scuffle, the pistol goes off and Jankinath falls down dead.
Srinath makes his escape without being seen, but it seems Lily hasn’t been so lucky; when Srinath meets her the next day, she points out a newspaper article: the police have mentioned that in connection with the murder of Jankinath, they’re suspecting a woman whose description—Lily knows—matches hers. It may just be a matter of time before the police turn up, wanting to question Lily.
In the meantime, we are introduced to a couple of other characters. Private detective Rajesh (Abhi Bhattacharya) and his assistant Balram (Kumud Tripathi) receive a visitor at their office. This woman (Mala Sinha) doesn’t say what her name is or where she’s from, but from a transport ticket she lets drop outside the office, Rajesh surmises that she’s come from Jeetpur. The woman tells Rajesh that she wants to hire him—to help her steal something. She doesn’t say what, she doesn’t say why, and Rajesh firmly turns down the offer. He doesn’t help people commit crimes.
The mysterious woman leaves, and shortly after, Rajesh receives another summons, also to Jeetpur. This time, it’s Srinath who wants Rajesh to come there, as soon as he can. Rajesh, intrigued by the coincidence of two people from Jeetpur, both requiring his services, goes to Jeetpur along with Balram.
There, Rajesh meets Srinath and is told the reason for the summons: Srinath is certain that he’s going to be killed. He’s scared for his life, but when Rajesh asks questions—whom does he suspect? Why?—Srinath cannot provide any answers. He’s just very worried, and he wants Rajesh to help him. Rajesh senses there’s something the matter, and agrees to stay on in the house…
… where he soon runs into the woman again. It turns out that her name’s Shobha, and that she’s a nurse. Srinath had been ill, and had hired her. She’s stayed on even after he’s recovered.
And there’s the doctor. This man has a bitter argument with Srinath; it emerges that Srinath had appointed the doctor as a trustee and had allowed him to carry out research in the room that functions as the doctor’s office and laboratory in the mansion. The doctor’s long research has enabled him to formulate a one-injection cure for asthma; and Srinath has managed to lay his hands on the formula. Srinath is now intent on reaping the benefits of that formula, claiming that he’s been financing the doctor’s research all these years, and so he has full rights to the profits from this formula; the doctor has been getting a salary all these years, and should be satisfied with that.
Later that night, there is a banging on the door. The police have arrived. Inspector Sinha (Paul Mahendra) has come bearing a warrant for the arrest of Srinath, who is suspected to having murdered Rai Bahadur Jankinath. For once, it seems the police have been quick in following up a lead (has Lily squealed?). Rajesh, who often works alongside Sinha and knows him well, accompanies the cops to Srinath’s room, Srinath having already retired for the night.
The servant and the cops bang on Srinath’s door, but to no avail. The rest of the household, curious, gathers round, and eventually they end up breaking the door down… to find Srinath lying dead, murdered, with a dagger sticking up out of his back.
Who killed Srinath? Could it be the doctor, who had reason to loathe him? Or Shobha, who wanted to steal something (and whom Rajesh catches shortly after, stealing out of Srinath’s room, clutching the second will in her hands)? Or Dinanath, whom Srinath had tried to do out of what was rightfully his? Or someone else, entirely?
… like the mysterious black-clad figure, whom everybody soon dubs ‘Kaali Chhaaya’ (‘Black Shadow’), who flits menacingly about the house, and is obviously up to no good?
Tarun Bose’s daughter Shilpi Bose wrote a superb post about this film, some delightful behind-the-scenes trivia, and more, here. I won’t repeat all that Shilpi has already mentioned, about the provenance of the film, what it was based on, and so on, since that would be mere repetition. I will say, though, that this is one of the better Hindi mystery films I’ve seen. It does have its share of song and dance, but it’s mostly all fitted together well.
What I liked about this film:
The Agatha Christie ‘country house murder’ sort of feel: a mansion, a murder, several suspects (and each with plausible possible motives), and the detective in the midst of it all. The story moves fast and there’s very little extraneous stuff, other than a somewhat low-key romance, and the sort-of love triangle of Balram, Champa, and the deaf-mute servant. These romances don’t take up much more than a couple of songs and a few brief scenes here and there, so they don’t really intrude on the main story.
Also, the mystery is mostly pretty well constructed. There are a couple of plot holes, which are mainly in the form of things left unexplained (how did Shobha know that Srinath had the second will? How did she even know a second will had been made? Why was such a big hoo-ha made about Pitambar having vanished, never to be seen again, if nothing came of that?)—but other than that, it all makes sense. I have to admit I did figure out who the murderer was, pretty early on; but from the comments on Shilpi’s post about the film, it seems most people actually couldn’t figure it out. Director Asit Sen (not the Asit Sen of Deep Jwele Jaai-Khamoshi fame, but the Asit Sen who is better known as the Hindi film comedian) and producer Bimal Roy (who played a major hand in the making of the film) did a good job with Apradhi Kaun; it’s not the type of film Bimal Roy was known for, but it did make me wish he’d done more films of this genre.
And, the music, composed by Salil Choudhury and with lyrics by Majrooh Sultanpuri. Apradhi Kaun doesn’t have any songs I recognized as having heard before, but still, there were some very good songs here, my favourites from the score including the delightful Phir wohi dard hai phir wohi jigar hai; Baat koi matlab ki hai zaroor, and Koi dekhe toh kahe tujhko kahin deewaana na.
What I didn’t like:
Nothing, really. Those minor plot holes I mentioned earlier were irritating, but they didn’t really impact my enjoyment of Apradhi Kaun.
On the whole, a satisfying film. Interesting, engrossing. And it’s fun to see Abhi Bhattacharya as the detective.