Mera Saaya (1966)

Mera Saaya-title

Raj Khosla directs Sunil Dutt and Sadhana in a courtroom procedural with a bit of a twist. Despite the melodramatic conceit at the centre of the plot, this is a sensible and well plotted film that is very satisfying.

Geeta (Sadhana) is lying ill in a very ornate room. The doctor sends a cable for her husband Thakur Rakesh Singh (Sunil Dutt) to come home immediately as the prognosis is poor. The Thakur arrives home – he puts his head down and power walks past the other passengers, urgency in every step. He opens the car door before it even stops. But it is too late and Geeta expires in his arms.

Rakesh mourns, sunk in grief, listening to ‘their song’ – Mera Saaya (My Shadow). Nothing seems to reach him. Until the inspector shows him a photo of a suspected female bandit who is the very image of Geeta.

The woman claims to be Geeta, which of course the Thakur rejects. But she seems to know so much, and looks so much like his recently deceased wife. When she goes on trial, her only defense is that she is Geeta not Raina the bandit, so the judge gives her some leeway to prove her identity. Since her husband is a famous lawyer, she wants him to represent her. But as he is a witness for the prosecution, instead she decides to defend herself and has him called as a witness.

How could she know so much about him? And about Geeta for that matter? And she looks so much like Geeta that he cannot help but feel drawn to her. The words of their shadow song have extra meaning for Rakesh now he is seeing the image of his wife everywhere, in memories, dreams, and in the dock. But who is she? And is she really a killer?

The servant, Sargam (the minxy Kumud Bole), seems to be up to something. And an old lady got arrested so she could pass a note in jail to Raina (and then ate the evidence). There are stories within stories and the evidence seems to point first one way then the other. I often find filmi law a bit unconvincing but the arguments within Mera Saaya are fairly logical. The avuncular judge (Jagdish Sethi) is a genial man. He is interested in a fair hearing for all rather than pushing a predetermined agenda, so he encourages the questions and reminds witnesses of their obligations. The dialogues have the ring of truth and the questions and revelations fall out so that the plot complications are developed and resolved in a sequence that helps reinforce the central question as well as hinting at the solution. There are questions I might have asked in addition to the ones in the script, but not many that I wouldn’t have thought relevant. Plus, you just can’t argue with a Significant Mole.

Sunil Dutt is quietly compelling as Rakesh. He desperately wants a reason to believe his wife still lives, but is a rational man and knows he cremated her. There are flashbacks of Rakesh and Geeta together, their happiness juxtaposed with the dreary days of waking alone. Even in the most confrontational moments in court Rakesh acts with his integrity and tells the truth though it might undermine his own position that the woman is an impostor. Dutt and Sadhana are warm and physically demonstrative in the flashback scenes. Rakesh’s loss and anger at the sheer presumption of this woman taking his wife’s name are born out of an equally passionate grief, and Dutt delivered with restraint. It’s a lovely, intelligent performance.

Sadhana plays her double role with gusto. Geeta is the sweet and dutiful wife, but she has personality and a cheeky streak. Raina is suspected of being in league with the local bandit gang leader. Nothing about her story makes much sense, but when Raina is trying to persuade Rakesh that she is his Geeta her desperation seems genuine. Both characters have enough similarities that Rakesh cannot outright say that Raina is nothing like his wife. But there are a few things that don’t add up and Sadhana’s expressions convey that there might be something dubious going on. Like her co-star, she focusses on delivering a balanced and believable characterisation that helps sustain the mystery.

As befits the story, this is not a movie chock full of big item numbers but the soundtrack has plenty to offer. The songs range from romantic ballads to more boisterous fare.

It was quite handy that Raina had a dark past as a dancer (and a good use for Asha Bhosle’s flirty upbeat vocals). The songs are often used to amplify the characters emotions, like giving Rakesh a glimpse of his happy past before the present crashes back in.

The support cast is generally excellent. I really liked the scenes between the police inspector (Anwar Hussain), the family doctor (Shivraj) and the prosecutor (K.N Singh) as they would sit around in the evenings and talk about the case, what they thought would happen, and how Rakesh was bearing up. They were gossipy, opinionated and yet pragmatic. Bankeji (Dhumal) and Munshiji (Mukri) are the comedy sidekicks – less entertaining although I was mildly taken aback by the casual references to Bankeji’s opium use. Ratnamala is warm and caring but quite ineffectual as the aunt. And while I am trying to avoid spoilers, Prem Chopra has a small role so you can guess who one of the bad guys is.

Partly filmed on location at the Lake Palace, Udaipur, this is a beautiful looking film. Sunil Dutt and Sadhana bring their characters to life and give a solid emotional core to the story.  Plus there is a lovely lush soundtrack by Madan Mohan with the golden trio of Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle and Mohammad Rafi lending their vocals. 4 ½ stars!

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.

Kashmir Ki Kali

This is one of my favourite Shammi movies, although I’ve never been able to clearly decide why I prefer it over some of his other equally fabulous films. Maybe it’s because there is plenty of Shammi shimmying and trademark contortions going on? Or perhaps because Sharmila is beautifully innocent and the love story is sweet with a fantastic soundtrack? Whatever the reason, it’s always a film I watch to the very end and enjoy every second.

The film opens with Seth Rajiv Lal gaining control of his father’s businesses. He is a millionaire’s son and wants to give the business profits back to the people who actually do the work. His mother is appalled by this regrettable instability in her son and decides that the most appropriate way to curb his socialist tendencies will be to marry him off. Almost overnight, the house is full of prospective brides and their hopeful parents but Rajiv manages to get rid of them all by a not very convincing display of madness.

Deciding that he has to get away from his mother and thus avoid more potential brides, Rajiv leaves to visit the family holiday home in Srinagar with his friend Chandar (Anoop Kumar). Along the way he has to spend the night on the veranda of a small hotel as the rooms are full with Champa and her friends who have come to dance at a local fair.  Rajiv’s first meeting with Champa isn’t too auspicious as she empties a bucket of water over him and his smoking stove, but her kindly nature is revealed when she later takes him a  blanket to stop him from freezing overnight.  It’s not long before Rajiv has succumbed to her charms, but he is a wealthy man and she is a flower seller who has no time for the indolent rich. At their next meeting, he pretends to be a driver so that she will look more kindly on him.

There is a slight diversion here as the family caretaker Bola Ram (Dhumal) has rented out Rajiv’s house to a party of 3 girls and their guardian Rama Devi (Tun Tun). In an attempt to get rid of them all Rajiv reveals his true identity and then immediately has to pretend to be the insane friend of Chandar, who in turn pretends to be the real Seth Rajiv, to make sure that Champa doesn’t find out the truth. This allows for some mix-ups between the three girls, Chandar and Rajiv as the former try desperately to snare a rich man as a husband, Chandar enjoys the attention, and Rajiv only has eyes for Champa. Confusing? Well, not really, as most of the time Rajiv just acts insane unless he is with Champa, so it all makes sense – honestly!

This is a wonderful song where Rajiv romances Champa while sailing on the lake – only Shammi could get away with these contortions in a boat!

Just as Ravi and Champa are falling in love, intrigue is added as local bully Mohan threatens Champa’s blind father Dinu. Mohan is also determined to marry Champa and  warns Dinu that he will reveal the truth about her parentage if he doesn’t get his way.  The plot thickens as Mohan does some investigating and finds out exactly what did happen the night that Champa’s father lost his sight.

There are many complications on the way to the film climax but naturally there is an old family servant who reveals the truth just before she dies and almost everything is explained by the end. The obstacle of Mohan in the way of Champa and Rajiv’s romance does make for some great disguises such as this one at a local fair.

While the story is improbable at best, there is so much going on that the many plot holes don’t really matter. I adore Shammi in this film. He cavorts around with plenty of trademark hair twitching, and looks to be having the time of his life. And really, who can blame him when Sharmila looks so totally fabulous. This is one of her very early films and she does look very sweet and natural as a Kashmiri flower girl,  instilling her with grace and beauty which contrasts well with Shammi’s more over-the-top persona. She has a wonderful collection of massive earrings and hair adornments. I would love to know how she managed to dance without them either hitting her face or getting caught in her hair as this is a skill I’ve never mastered!

Pran is suitable slimy and conniving as the villain, although I do wonder how he always knew the right place to be lurking at precisely the right time. Nasir Hussain does a very good job of being blind Dinu here and in the flashback scenes is very convincing as the alcoholic father. I’m not entirely sure that Dinu’s blindness was enough of a reason for him to change his ways, but there were enough shades of grey in his later actions to make him a more plausible character. The comedy track with Chandar, Bola Ram, Rama Devi and the girls works well for me within the main story, although with so much else happening in the plot it probably was an unnecessary addition.

Another highpoint of the film is the soundtrack. Mohammed Rafi and Asha Bholse are perfect as the playback singers for the two leads, and the music by O. P. Nayyar is beautiful.

This is probably a film more for the Shammi fan as he really does throw himself into the role with great gusto and it might be a little too much for anyone not accustomed to his mannerisms. But Sharmila is excellent, the pair have good screen chemistry as a couple together and the story really does have almost everything. A 4 ½ star film for me.

Temple says: I like Shammi but I don’t think this is his finest work. Every time I watch this film I remember, just a bit too late, that I hate the first hour. Shammi is just so annoying with his zany animal noises Paagal Act!Ing! and Sharmila looks about twelve years old and that creeps me out a bit. But once all the characters are settled in Kashmir, things improve greatly. The location is one of the biggest attractions for me – I love being able to see places that I may never get to visit and the lake scenes are very pretty. The O.P. Nayyar soundtrack is beautiful and all the songs are delightful, especially Isharon Isharon which I think is a perfect romantic duet. After the first hour, for some reason Sharmila looks less like a schoolgirl, there does seem to be some appreciable non–creepy chemistry with Shammi, and her Kashmiri costumes are beautiful. Shammi drops a lot of the OTT mannerisms and goes for brooding romantic instead which is more successful and more appealing in this kind of story. Well, he does wear a hot pink burqa in one song but cross-dressing is par for the Kapoor course. I much prefer him in ‘Evening in Paris’, ‘Rajkumar’, ‘Bluffmaster’ and ‘Teesri Manzil’ where he is a bit less self consciously whimsical and more character focussed. The story is the typically convoluted romantic comedy blend with none of the surprises actually coming as much of a surprise to anyone but the lead pair. See it for gorgeous scenery, lovely costumes, a wonderful soundtrack and count your blessings that on DVD you can skip the boring bits! 3 stars