Let’s say you’re a film maker in the Hindi cinema of the late 1960s. You’ve set your heart on making a thriller. You have some money, but not enough to be able to hope to churn out something with Shammi Kapoor, set in Europe. You see all these glittering films—Teesri Manzil, An Evening in Paris, Jewel Thief—being released, and it irks you. If they can do it, why can’t you? So one day you gird up your loins, and inspired by all of these, and all the James Bond movies you can lay your hands upon, you set out to make your own thriller.
You cannot afford Shammi Kapoor [or is he perhaps too discerning to agree after he’s read the script?], so you settle for Biswajeet instead. You don’t have the budget to shoot abroad, but that doesn’t matter. You will make do by bringing abroad here to India, by plonking a bronze wig onto Biswajeet and having him pretend to be a Parisian named Robbie for much of the film.
Every now and then [with distressing frequency], I come across a film that, just by looking at its cast and crew, sounds mouthwatering enough. This was one of those. Saira Banu, when she still looked pretty. Joy Mukherji, still at the height of his career. Ashok Kumar. Motilal. Ravi as the composer. RK Nayyar as the director. Europe.
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.
Considering ‘arranged marriages’ were—and still are—so common in India, the fact that old Hindi cinema tended to focus mostly on ‘love marriages’ seems rather odd to me. It’s more romantic, I suppose, to imagine that one will fall in love and end up, after various trials and tribulations and having encountered sundry obstacles, married to one’s sweetheart.
There were exceptions, though, the occasional film about people getting married first, and falling in love later. There was Ghoonghat, Saanjh aur Savera, Blackmail, or those examples of child marriages, Chhoti si Mulaqat and Ji Chaahta Hai. Most of them about people who are forced—because of their own submissiveness, and because they can’t pluck up the courage to say no to bossy elders—into getting married to near or complete strangers.
Unlike this one. Mohabbat ZindagiHai is one of the few examples (Mr & Mrs 55 was another) of someone getting married for a very mercenary reason. And, as in Mr & Mrs 55, the heroine here is an heiress who needs to get married in a hurry in order to inherit. No husband, no money. But, unlike Mr & Mrs 55, the heroine here doesn’t marry because she thinks she can easily divorce her unwanted husband soon after; she marries him because he’s on death row. He won’t be alive three days after their wedding.
For anybody who’s been following my idea of ‘linked posts’ – each post connected to the one before, and to the one after – this probably comes as no surprise. And Then There Were None was based on Agatha Christie’s highly popular novel and play; Gumnaam is, in turn, an adaptation of And Then There Were None. Not a completely faithful adaptation, but a vastly entertaining one, as you’ll see if you scroll through the comments on my And Then There Were None post: most of my readers, even if they’ve not seen the Hollywood film, have had something to say about Gumnaam.
One thing that has long puzzled me is Bollywood’s reluctance to do real life stories. Where Hollywood has created films on the lives of people ranging from Napoleon’s one-time fiancée to an obscure British missionary in China, we have, to show for years of fascinating history… Shahjehanand Changez Khan, both so badly warped that they bear little resemblance to fact. Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani is a refreshingly unusual film in being relatively accurate, as well as entertaining—but a flash in the pan.
Our generally avid enthusiasm for the freedom movement and its exponents gave me hope that Shaheed, the story of Bhagat Singh, might be worth a watch. This, after all, was the young man who inspired an entire slew of films, beginning with (or so Wikipedia would have us believe) a film in 1954, followed by a 1963 film starring Shammi Kapoor, and this one: the first of Manoj Kumar’s many patriotic films. There have been later films—2002, for instance, saw two films, one a superb one starring Ajay Devgan and the other with Bobby Deol as Bhagat Singh—but Shaheed was the first major Bhagat Singh story.
After all the melodrama of the recent Hindi films I’ve been watching, I decided it was time to sit back and enjoy one of my favourite genres: the thriller. And a thriller the way only the Bollywood of the 1950’s and 60’s could manage: with lots of romance thrown in, a gorgeously vampish Helen, hummable songs, a comic side plot starring none other than the inimitable Johnny Walker—and, interestingly enough, a supporting actor who manages to steal the limelight from the hero.