Howrah Bridge (1958)

Hurrah for Helen!

The only thing I knew about Howrah Bridge was that it featured Helen’s famous item number Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu, and that was the reason I picked it up in a collection of classic Black and White films. Although Helen’s appearance is a highlight, there is plenty more to enjoy, including great performances by Madhubala, Ashok Kumar and Om Prakash as well as some beautiful songs featuring Asha Bhosle and Mohammad Rafi. The story moves along at a steady pace without any unnecessary diversions from the main plot and despite knowing ‘whodunit’ from the opening scenes there is still intrigue and anticipation as events don’t unfold quite as expected.

Howrah Bridge is an Indian take on film noir, although the story is perhaps not as dark and the characters less ambiguous than in the classic American films of the forties and fifties. However it follows the basic path of a crime drama with a leading lady of somewhat questionable background, and a villain who happily disposes of anyone who stands between him and his fortune. The lighting is generally subdued in film noir style and director Shakti Samanta makes excellent use of shadows to highlight the more dramatic moments in the film. While most of the action takes place in a number of seedy hotels and dimly lit streets in Calcutta, Howrah Bridge appears from time to time and looms effectively over the characters as well as providing the location for the climax chase.

The film starts with the theft of an heirloom from Prem Kumar’s family in Rangoon. It turns out that the jewel encrusted dragon mask has been stolen by eldest son Madan (Chaman Puri), who has taken it to Calcutta to sell to the villainous Mr Chang (Madan Puri). Mr Chang wants the dragon but doesn’t want to pay for it, so he arranges for his chief henchman Pyarelal (K.N. Singh) to dispose of Madan and steal the dragon. Hearing of his brother’s murder, Prem Kumar (Ashok Kumar) heads to Calcutta to try to recover his family heirloom and en route he meets up with Uncle Joe (Dhumal) and his beautiful niece Edna (Madhubala) who sings and dances in Joe’s hotel. Prem is dismissive of Edna and her dancing while she is piqued by his resistance to her charms which gives her at least one reason to pursue Prem when she meets him again in Calcutta.

Prem hooks up with Tangewala and old employee Shyamu (Om Prakash) and together they attempt to unravel the mystery surrounding Madan’s death and the disappearance of the dragon mask. This involves Prem assuming the name of Rakesh and following in his brother’s footsteps on the night of his murder while Shyamu uses the opportunity to get commissions from as many people as possible along the way. Added in to the mix of characters are Shyamu’s opium smoking nephew Bhiku who saw the murderers on Howrah Bridge, and his cheerful fiancée Chhamia who add some more conventional Bollywood drama to the story. I always love shots of newspapers and did pause to read the other headlines and the ads!

Madhubala plays the role of an Anglo-Indian, perhaps to explain her Western style clothing and account for her less than respectable position as a singer and dancer in her Uncle’s hotel. While she doesn’t do very much dancing, she is convincing as a singer doing her best to entertain the crowd and attract the attention of Prem. She looks beautiful in swishy skirts and Chinese tunics, and gives Edna charm and vulnerability despite her profession and unsavoury connections to the local criminals.

Some of the noir element creeps in here as Edna obviously knows about the various shady deals going on between Uncle Joe and Mr Chang. Her attempts to lure Prem to the hotel seem initially to be to expose him to some theft or extortion attempt perhaps in revenge for his previous treatment of her. Prem is also less than honest as he encourages Edna’s advances to learn more about the smuggling gang run by Mr Chang and Pyarelal. But that’s about it for any noir-ish character ambiguity and rather quickly a real and genuine attraction forms between the two. After a few cups of tea and a boat trip on the river (a Bollywood staple always guaranteed to result in romance) Edna confesses her love for Prem. While Prem does take a little longer to declare his love, the relationship feels warm and affectionate with excellent chemistry between the two actors.  Ashok Kumar is always a very competent actor and here he shows his romantic side while Madhubala looks gorgeous and seems to relish her role as Edna turns sleuth and starts to help Prem with his investigation.

The other characters all fit their parts well. Madan Puri’s Mr Chang is an interesting villain and somewhat different from the usual swaggering, self-confident bully seen in most Bollywood films. He has a limp and walks with a cane, demonstrates a number of affected mannerisms and speaks Hindi softly in a high-pitched voice with a touch of an accent to accentuate his Chinese origin. Chang demonstrates a cold and callous nature when he casually orders the deaths of various lackeys he feels may be a threat but becomes agitated and afraid when he knows that the cops are on his trail. It’s an excellent portrayal and provides a good contrast to K.N. Singh as Pyarelal who plays his role as a more conventional gangster very competently. The oriental touches suit the overall look of the film and of course Helen is perfect (and looks so very young and totally stunning too) as the wonderful Chin Chin Chu when she dances in Mr Chang’s hotel.

The music by O.P Nayyar fits the feel of the film perfectly and ranges from romantic duets to a very jaunty song Shyamu sings as he drives through Calcutta. Mehmood and his sister Minoo Mumtaz also pop up in a fun song at a wedding where Mehmood indulges in some excellent uncle dancing.

I really enjoyed Howrah Bridge and wasn’t surprised to find that it was directed by one of my favourite directors from this era. I liked the touches of film noir and the variation between light and shade in Chandu’s cinematography, although it’s possible some of the dim lighting may just be due to some deterioration in the film with age. Madhubala is always a pleasure to see in any film and she tends to steal the show whenever she appears. While Ashok Kumar is an actor I enjoy watching, he really does suit this type of role and I think this made me appreciate his performance rather more than usual. I was a little disappointed that despite secret doors and an intricate hiding place for his safe, Mr Chang didn’t have a suitably villainous lair, but the dimly lit room with its statues and heavy furniture was probably more in keeping with his character. It’s not the most exciting story but with excellent performances by some of the most renowned actors of the day, it’s a film worth watching for more than just Helen’s fab appearance. I give Howrah Bridge 4 stars.

Temple says:

I am a huge admirer of Ashok Kumar and have been gradually working my way through his filmography. Of course, Helen in any appearance also pushes a film up the to-be-watched pile. And I’d watch Madhubala if she was watching paint dry so I had high hopes when I first watched this. Sadly, the stars and the songs are really the only highlights for me. Ashok Kumar and Madhubala have a delightful chemistry and their scenes together crackle with life and are full of emotion. Unfortunately the story is not particularly interesting as it is obvious what will happen and who will do what. The pace is leisurely at best, and there is just not enough tension as things plod along so my attention kept skipping to what I knew was going to happen down the track. I found the villains characterisations particularly unimpressive and they lacked purpose – they were just generic bad guys and the addition of all the silly mannerisms did nothing to make Chang more credible or threatening. I do like a lot of the supporting cast, especially Om Prakash, but they generally aren’t doing enough in terms of the story to hold my interest. The songs are excellent, and Madhubala can certainly work the camera!

I watched the movie again last week and I found it quite dull. Unless Ashok or Madhubala was on screen, preferably both, or it was one of the fabulous songs I was itching for the fast forward. I am happy I have seen it as it is often referenced as a classic of its era, but it’s not a favourite for me and I think it is just an OK film. I would recommend or rewatch a number of other films released around the same time – for instance the thriller 12 O’Clock, Madhumati or for a change of pace, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi – over this. 3 stars.

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Pyar Kiye Jaa

Pyar Kiye Jaa is my favourite film starring Shashi Kapoor and I think he’s at his absolute Shashilicious best here. It’s a very funny comedy with a couple of romances thrown in for good measure and a fantastic star cast.  Sridhar takes the opportunity of a plot line involving making a movie to poke gentle fun at the film industry as well as relying on more conventional comedy scenes and the excellent comedic talents of his stars to make this a very entertaining film. Great songs, funny dialogue,  excellent performances and plenty of dramatic Shashi Kapoor – what more could you possibly want?

I didn’t realise until recently that Pyar Kiye Jaa is a remake of the 1964 Tamil film Kaadhalikka Neramillai which was also written and directed by C. V. Sridhar. Rajashree starred in this original version as well and reprised her role in the Telugu version Preminchi Choodu the following year, so I hope she enjoyed the role! One apology as well – I’m sorry the screen caps here are so blurry, but my DVD copy of this film is really poor quality.

The film opens with a song where Shyam (Kishore Kapoor) and Malti (Kalpana) dance along the beach in a last meeting before Shyam heads back to work for his rich father Devraj (Chaman Puri) and Malti leaves Mumbai to go home with her sister Nimala (Rajasree).  Malti and Nimala are the daughters of Ramlal (Om Prakash), the owner of Ramlal estates and the employer of Ashok (Shashi Kapoor) who just happens to be good friends with Shyam. All that in the first 20 minutes! But these first few scenes effectively set up most of the main characters, their relationships with each other and their social standing which leaves us free to concentrate on the mainly very funny comedy. It’s an excellent way to open the film and this first song is very catchy and upbeat with great moves by Kishore Kumar.

Ashok has a run in with Malti and Nimala when he crashes his wreck of a car into their vehicle. Despite his winsome smile, the sisters are not impressed and once they get home demand that their father sack Ashok immediately. To his credit Ramlal is reluctant to fire someone he thinks is a good employee, but he cannot stand up to his daughters’ persuasions and has no choice but to go ahead and dismiss Ashok.

Unfortunately for Ramlal, Ashok knows his rights and is not about to take his dismissal lying down. He sets up a rather magnificent striped tent opposite Ramlal’s house and armed with a set of expressive signs sets about protesting and demanding his job back.

His next step is to hire a band and some supporters which leads to this wonderful song.  This is the ‘best Shashi song ever!’ for me and nothing can beat Shashi’s gyrations as he demands his job back and berates Ramlal while Malti and Nimala fling buckets of water at him. His support crew groove away in the background and the band rather wisely keep well back to avoid the deluge. The Tamil version from the original film is almost as good and is filmed at exactly the same location, but I have to say that I think Shashi beats Ravichandran in terms of cuteness and the Hindi song is has a bit more pep as well.

Meanwhile Ramlal’s son Atma (Mehmood) has set up a film production company named vah vah productions in the hope that this will be the audience reaction to his films (although my sub titles call it wah wah productions, which has a totally different meaning and may in fact be more accurate!). He’s relying on his father to bankroll his first production but Ramlal is rather slow at handing out any money. So vah vah productions at this stage consists of Atma as director, producer, screenwriter and everything else besides. Atma spots the beautiful Meena (Mumtaz) as she’s walking home and decides she would be perfect for his heroine despite her lack of acting talent.

After witnessing Ashok’s rhetoric as he protests outside the house, Atma engages Ashok as his scriptwriter and the scene is set for a number of possible storylines to be explored. These scenes may be where Farah Khan got her inspiration for Om Shanti Om as Sridhar does an excellent job of sending up the film industry including some wonderfully bad dialogue delivery and acting by Meena and many clichéd scenes described by Atma. These culminate in Atma’s final description of his film, which has been a tragedy and a romance in previous incarnations, but has morphed into a ghost story as he relates it to Ramlal. Atma adds in appropriate sound effects and the combination of Mehmood’s voice and Om Prakash’s facial expressions is both brilliant and hilarious.

Meanwhile, Ashok and Nimala have patched up their differences and fallen in love. After all who could resist Shashi when he starts to strip off to jump into a canal in a daring recue of a transistor radio? The couple know that there is no way Ramlal will consent to their marriage and Ashok has to come up with a cunning plan. For this he needs his friend Shyam, plenty of make-up and Devraj’s Chevrolet car, which Ashok hopes will make the right sort of impression. Relying on his friend’s good nature Ashok persuades him to act as his rich millionaire father to win Ramlal’s approval for the marriage. Atma also takes the opportunity to try and solicit more funding for his film from the visiting millionaire, which means another great song.

The plan is working well up until Devraj happens to come to the area to look at some property. He meets his old friend Ramlal and decides that Malti would be the perfect match for his son. So Shyam has to find a way to be both himself and Ashok’s father and explain why the eccentric millionaire Mr Raibahadur Ganga Prasad is driving his father’s car. It all works out in the end of course, but not before Shyam and Ashok have to concoct various other tall tales and even end up in jail.

I love this film, partly because Shashi is fantastic and totally irresistible, but also because everything comes together perfectly. It’s a well written film where the story flows consistently and the comedy is cleverly integrated into every scene. The plot devised by Ashok requires constant revision as events unfold, and Shashi’s character is funny as well as resourceful and inventive. Despite his con-artist ways, Ashok is so engaging and charming that it’s possible to forgive him for lying to his potential father in law. This is helped by the fact that he confesses all to Nimala early on and she’s equally happy to hoax her father to get what she wants. Kishore Kumar plays a great straight man to Shashi’s Ashok and his performance as the pompous and eccentric billionaire Raibahadur Ganga Prasad is superb. Shyam enters in to the deception with some reservations, but is unable to resist Ashok and then makes the most of his disguised . Both Rajashree and Kalpana are good in their roles although they intermittently seem to be wearing so much make up that it’s amazing they can move their faces at all. Neither character is reluctant to stand up for what they want and they both are strong and determined women. They both look beautiful in the songs and in the later romantic scenes and I like the way the two different romances develop.

Mumtaz only has a small role as Meena but she is funny as she tries to follow the instructions given to her by Atma and she is very good at being a bad actor! Mehmood is on top form as the wannabe director with plenty of wonderful expressions and Om Prakash is excellent as the rather hen-pecked Ramlal. Another major plus of the film is the fantastic music by Laxmikant and Pyarelal. All the songs are well placed and each is utilised to develop the story further. Everyone gets their chance to shine and there is a song here for every possible occasion. I love every single one and it’s been very difficult to decide which to add in here.

I just wish the quality of the film was better, since there are many places where black spots and lines appear, and that my copy had subtitled songs. Otherwise there is nothing I don’t like about this film – it’s perfect Shashi Kapoor fare and a real classic. 5 stars.

Temple says:

I do love Pyar Kiye Jaa but I have to say it edges towards my maximum tolerance for slapstick and silly disguises. Heather has described the plot in some detail but it isn’t the story as much as the actors that I enjoy. There is something in the dynamic between the male stars, a balance of energies, that is very pleasing. Shashi seems to be having a ball, playing the filmi hero and making sure his performance is appreciated – mock fainting in distress and surreptitiously checking how his audience react before swooning a bit more. Of course he is also the perfect clean cut romantic lead which doesn’t hurt in a fluffy love story. There is an extra sparkle in Shashi’s eyes when he and Mehmood are sending up their own industry. Mehmood’s Atma is strangely reminiscent of Tony Curtis with his quiff, terry-towelling leisure wear and Capri pants. Mumtaz brings a squeaky exuberance to Meena and is the only memorable female cast member for my money. There is such a thing as too much Mehmood, and sometimes even too much Kishore Kumar, but good writing and well matched performances avoid that pitfall. Laxmikant-Pyarelal excel at the swinging big band style. This soundtrack stands up really well without the visuals, and is even more fun with them. Kehne Ki Nahin Baat is just the best unfair dismissal protest song ever (and has Beth’s vote for greatest song in the world). There are a few negatives – a bit too much slapping, stalking and shouting in some ‘comedy’ scenes and a very unsurprising plot. But see it for the charm and good humour of the cast, and some stylish retro rom-com fun. 4 ½ stars!