Shaan (1980)

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5 years after his masterpiece Sholay, Ramesh Sippy returned to the big screen with the big action adventure Shaan.  Written by Salim-Javed, the story is a suspense thriller with many of the film elements seemingly inspired by a hotchpotch of James Bond films. Just have a look at the Bondesque opening title sequence for instance.

The movie is still Bollywood at heart though with Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor playing two personable rogues at odds with a police officer who also just happens to be their older brother. In addition to the sibling conflict there is a villain with a fabulous island lair, car chases, helicopters, sharks and even a man-eating crocodile thrown into the mix, adding up to a great masala movie and one definitely well worth a watch.

Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) and Ravi (Shashi Kapoor) are con-artists who make a living by fleecing money from corrupt officials and small time crooks. A little in the style of Robin Hood except that Vijay and Ravi keep the money rather than giving it to the poor. However the shoe is on the other foot when they themselves are conned by uncle and niece team Chacha (Johnny Walker) and Renu (Bindiya Goswami). To get their money back Vijay and Ravi join up with Renu and Chacha to carry out a daring jewellery heist, but are again pipped at the post by fellow thief Sunita (Parveen Babi).  Sunita not only manages to steal the necklace before anyone else but has an audacious method for getting it out past the police search; although I do think recovery might have proved a little difficult if things hadn’t gone exactly to plan. Her introduction is rather fab too as she appears in a wonderfully sparkly dress with glamorous backing dancers who have silver tassels everywhere, even on their boots.

Needless to say Sunita is added to the merry band of thieves who go ahead with another con based on the old ‘holy men walking on water’ scam. This time though they are caught by Police Officer Shiv Kumar (Sunil Dutt), who goes ahead and arrests Vijay and Ravi, even though they are his two younger brothers. Above all else Shiv is a police officer sworn to uphold the law, and that is what he does. Shiv’s character is established early on when he rescues some hostages in a beautifully choreographed action sequence. His wife Sheetal (Rakhee Gulzar) shares the same values although she has a soft spot for Shiv’s two brothers and is altogether more forgiving than her husband. However, once the brothers are released from jail they make a vow to ‘go straight’ and move in with Shiv and Sheetal in their house in Mumbai.

While Vijay and Ravi have been in jail, Shiv has been making inroads into the criminal empire of a villain known only as Shakaal (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) and his efforts are starting to seriously impact on criminal business. Shakaal sends an assassin Rakesh (Shatrughan Sinha) after Shiv and his family, but after two attempts on Shiv’s life fail, Shakaal ups the ante and sends his henchman Jagmohan (Mac Mohan) instead. After one of the best kidnap attempts I’ve seen onscreen, Jagmohan manages to spirit Shiv to the island hideaway while leaving everyone else totally baffled as to Shiv’s whereabouts.

Shakaal’s lair is absolutely wonderful and mixes many of the best elements from various other villain hideouts. It’s located on an island some 300km off the coast of India but in reality was filmed on the island of Steep Holm near the UK. The lair has long corridors with rough-hewn rock for walls but fancy modern automatic doors and nifty surveillance cameras. Shakaal lords it over his minions, Blofeld-style in a conference room with a rotating circular table and a retractable floor, underneath which lurks a man-eating crocodile. This allows Shakaal to indulge in a form of roulette to dispose of unsatisfactory employees or anyone else he doesn’t like. Meanwhile sharks (and the odd oversized goldfish) can be seen swimming past the green tinted windows for extra menace. Adding to the ambience in a large audience hall is a massive golden statue of an eagle, and Shakaal has a throne strategically placed underneath for those moments when you just have to be seen to be the head villain! And of course there are plenty of panels with flashing lights and hidden switches– everything your discerning villain could require for world domination, although Shakaal has more modest aims despite his grandiose lair and petulant manner.

Shakaal has his own distinctive look too combining his bald head with black or white military style tunics featuring his ‘S’ logo prominently displayed. His henchmen all wear identical smart white suits, and later on his henchwomen are attired in silver miniskirts and fetching black blouson style shirts – always good to see a properly style-conscious villain!

Shakaal finally manages to dispose of Shiv although it takes him quite a few attempts and the stage is set for Ravi and Vijay to avenge his death. Naturally this involves infiltrating Shakaal’s lair with a song and dance troupe (how else could you possibly sneak into an impenetrable hideaway?) which also features the inimitable Helen leading the way in this excellent song.

There is a lot going on in Shaan, but the plot follows a mostly logical and clear progression building up to the grand showdown in Shakaal’s lair. The comedy works well, the romances are mainly just an excuse for a few songs, but the action sequences and special effects are first-rate. The camaraderie between the two brothers is one of the major assets to the film and Shashi and Amitabh have great chemistry together. Perhaps it’s the enmity between Amitabh and Shatrughan Sinha, but even once Rakesh turns on Shakaal and joins the brothers, there is still just a frisson of tension which makes the shaky relationship between the marksman and the brothers that little bit more believable. Generally the addition of Rakesh halfway into the film is a masterstroke, adding uncertainty to the second half and also an opportunity for another good car chase and action scene. Rakhee Gulzar is also excellent as Shiv Kumar’s wife, both in playing a steadying influence to the brothers and as the grieving and vengeful widow. She has a major part to play in the final proceedings too and she plays her role with grace and elegance throughout. Bindiya Goswami and Parveen Babi have rather less to do, but they get a chance to throw a few punches in the final scene and both do a good job with their rather limited roles.

Kulbhushan Kharbanda is fantastic as a rather different kind of villain; smiling and soft voiced one moment and angry the next. It’s a definite departure from the more usual thuggishly violent criminals and the more subtle psychological approach works well here and enhances the cracking good story. Kulbhushan Kharbanda uses his smile to project chill and menace while his initially affable demeanour serves well to mislead both friends and foes alike. It’s a great performance and Shaan is worth watching for his character alone, even without the good story, excellent action and R.D. Burman’s memorable songs. I love every minute of Shaan and recommend viewing for a great all-round entertainer. 4 stars.

Pagla Kahin Ka (1970)

Pagla Kahin Ka poster

I was supposed to be posting a review of a Jayalalitha film but I feel she has had quite enough publicity about now, and I shan’t add to it. Then I thought I would swap in something more upbeat as the world has been quite a trying place, but I remembered Pagla Kahin Ka. It has the perfect 70s cast, some great songs, and Shakti Samanta at the helm. But it’s a mostly sad story about love, friendship, and loss. I discovered this via the excellent Memsaab, and if you follow that link to her review you will also find a link to a subtitled download of the film.

Sujit (Shammi) and Shyam (Prem Chopra) are in a hotel nightclub band, and Jenny (Helen) is their featured artiste. Sujit and Jenny are madly in love and building plans for their future. Sujit proposes but Jenny is reluctant due to their different status. There are also rumours that Sujit is mad but Jenny doesn’t see his wildness as a problem.

Hotel boss Max (K.N Singh) is less enthusiastic about their union as he will lose his eyecandy and probably the associated income. Max and Shyam come to blows and Max is killed. Sujit takes the blame and pleads insanity, his sad past going a long way to convincing the judge despite his useless lawyer (Bhram Bardwaj). He goes to the asylum, leaving Shyam who is secretly in love with Jenny.

The asylum is full to the brim with overacting extras that make the place seem like a true Bedlam. Sujit is genuinely depressed and worried by his incarceration and his memories of his father who was committed following a breakdown. But that isn’t enough as he is meant to be an insane murderer and Shammi (over)indulges in some of his “crazy” acting. Shalu suspects he is faking and takes his case on.

That song is his answer when Shalu asks him what would happen if Jenny had forgotten him. Oh the foreshadowing…

Meanwhile Shyam seems to be keeping things from Jenny and trying to make her doubt Sujit, and also keeping Sujit isolated. Things come to an emotional crescendo when Shalu hints at her feelings for Sujit, envying Jenny her love, at the same time Jenni is being raped by Shyam who has had enough of waiting. As if Prem Chopra was ever going to play a wholeheartedly good friend! Poor Sujit. He only has two real friends, and now things can never be the same.

Sujit’s release coincides with Shyam and Jenny’s wedding. Jenny looks very pretty and utterly miserable and I was pleased to see the movie gives the “marry your rapist” solution the side eye. At the wedding reception Madhumati dances a love triangle themed song in a very Helen-y outfit. And Sujit, clueless about why or how or even what but still wishing his dearest friends happiness, has a multi instrumental breakdown.

Now genuinely losing it, he is unable to process the shock and betrayal he feels at losing the friendship and loyalty that had been his foundation. Shalu sees the shocking difference in Sujit this time and immediately grasps that something devastating has happened. The other inmates welcome him back, some gently chiding him and some seeing his return from a cruel and inhospitable world as inevitable. It’s a nice change of tone from the more comedic first stint and Shammi plays it beautifully. He is heartbreaking as Sujit tries but fails to grapple with the facts, knowing there is something seriously awry but unable to process it or do anything to help himself.

Jenny visits Shalu and tells her the truth, hoping that Shalu will help set things right with Sujit. Shalu is quite conflicted through all of this as she can now see her chance with Sujit but is bound to try and treat him. Asha Parekh smiles approximately three times through the film, but her chemistry with Shammi is spot on. She shows a gentle empathy and tenderness with him and despite some questionable doctor patient interactions, I was glad to see someone wholeheartedly for Sujit. And he does blossom under her care, eventually regaining his memories and feeling robust enough to deal with losing Jenny.

He is able to declare his love for Shalu. But he still sees Shyam as his great friend and Shalu decides she must dispel that illusion so he can really move on. And by move on, I mean move on to her.

Does anyone ever run up against Prem Chopra and survive unscathed? Not Helen, sadly. Sujit and Shalu appeared to need about, oh, a nanosecond to deal with Jenny’s fate. I understood the plot point needed to be resolved but that was callous. And without wanting to be too spoilery I was hoping that random tree was sturdy and her aim was good.

Anyway.

The soundtrack is a delight and Shankar Jaikishan run from rollicking cabaret numbers to songs of quiet yearning. Helen gets a couple of good dances in before marriage and sarees end her career, and I liked seeing Madhumati as a clear Helen substitute and dancing up a storm. Shammi has always had great musicality and while he sometimes overdoes the hairography he really sells the swooning romance of the ballads.

See this for a star cast in a not so typical story, and for the bonus of Helen in a substantial if thankless role. Despite the downbeat elements, ultimately this is a story about finding your happiness where you can and learning to trust (but not indiscriminately, and never Prem Chopra). 4 stars!

Bahu Begum (1967)

Bahu Begum-title

M Sadiq’s Bahu Begum opens with a happy song, featuring prettily dressed girls playing on swings in a rain drenched courtyard. But it stars Meena Kumari so you know things won’t stay on the bright side for long.

Melodramas are not always my cup of tea, but I like Ashok Kumar a lot and the lovely soundtrack has enduring appeal. And Bahu Begum places a heroine who lives a secluded and blameless life in a moral dilemma, and then pushes her out the door to see what might be. It’s not an uplifting girl power story at all, but there is a charm in the tone and the respect between key characters.

Yusuf (Pradeep Kumar) visits his friend Achchan (Johnny Walker) but his ulterior motive is to see the lovely Zeenat (Meena Kumari). Her family is not as wealthy as they once were and her father Nawab Mirza Sultan (D.K.Sapru) has rented half the house to Achchan. Achchan and Zeenat’s friend Bilqis (Zeb Rehman) help young love as much as they can. Bilqis is less theatrical than Achchan, but they both get results. Yusuf and Zeenat are flowery and poetic, and have more of an idealised love rather than a passionate attraction.

One fateful day Nawab Sikander Mirza (Ashok Kumar) accidentally sees Zeenat’s face and cannot help but look his fill. Sikander Mirza sends his man to present a proposal and at the same time Achchan asks Yusuf’s uncle to send a proposal. The uncle says yes but has no intention of surrendering his control over the estate or of marrying Yusuf off without a big dowry. He sends Yusuf away on a bogus business trip, timing his return for after Zeenat’s wedding. Zeenat only finds out about her wedding when her trousseau arrives, and no one thinks to mention the groom. All overheard conversations point to Yusuf so she assumes it has been fixed, and he himself is sure he is the one.

Bilqis breaks the news to Zeenat on her wedding day. Zeenat gets Bilqis to cover for her and slips away to where Yusuf should be waiting for her. The qawali sung in the dargah seems to be a direct challenge to her to face the tribulations but she cannot comprehend that her true love is not there. Zeenat passes out, regaining consciousness well after the wedding formalities have taken place. An empty palanquin was sent to the Nawab, and there is no bridge left unburned. Some time later Zeenat is found unconscious (again), this time by Naziranbai (Lalita Pawar) and one of her girls (Helen). They take her to the brothel (or whore house as my subtitles have it) as they would not abandon a stranger in need.

Zeenat hears Helen singing about straying from her intended path (the lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi seem to be very well linked in with the drama) and is drawn to the sadness in the song. It is not until a male guest sees her and waves a fan of banknotes that the penny drops about her current abode. Naziranbai throws the vulgar fellow out and the ladies bond over their miserable histories and a good cry. Zeenat asks for shelter in the brothel and Naziranbai promises to protect her so at worst I guess she would be a virgin prostitute (you know, the ones who only ever dance).

Sikander Mirza asks Naziranbai to send him a plausible fake wife so he can get his little sister Suraiya (Naaz) engaged. Of course, Zeenat is the only girl who can pass for decent. She and her ‘husband’ finally talk about what happened and it is a genuine conversation. I liked that when he asked her why she went to the brothel, meaning why did she throw her honour away, she was firm but polite saying she didn’t take herself there but the brothel that offered her refuge when no one else would. Suraiya guilt trips her fake sister-in-law into staying longer but once she is married, there is no reason for Zeenat to stay. Except that the Nawab loves her, and asks her to remain in his house for their shared honour if not for mutual affection. So of course Yusuf turns up because it is very important that he tell her all about his feelings. What will she do?

Meena Kumari is the tragedy queen, and Zeenat is like the Typhoid Mary of Tears. The longer people are around her, the more they cry. Everyone, at some stage, turns into a soggy mess. Well, except Helen.

Zeenat’s father loses the plot after one of her teary fits, Suraiya goes from manic pixie to weeping wreck. Even pragmatic businesswoman Naziranbai has a sob when proximity to Zeenat finally wears her down. I admired Meena’s ability to cry prettily without getting blotchy or running at the nose, and her makeup artist must have been on call around the clock. She does have some chemistry with Ashok Kumar but I think he could portray rapport with a cabbage so I am not sure who deserves the credit.

Bahu Begum-Ashok Kumar

Ashok Kumar plays Sikander Mirza with regal poise and excellent eyeliner. While the character is obsessed with honour, it is mostly in relation to ensuring his little sister has the opportunity for a good marriage and a happy life. He is not so blinded by his own prestige that he fails to consider Zeenat’s position and desires. There is a bit going on under the surface and Kumar shows the inner turmoil through beautifully judged facial expressions and the pauses and beats in his dialogue delivery.

I liked that the film showed a small space between being married and not, between doing what was right and maybe doing what you wanted. Even though Zeenat was unlikely to deviate from the norms, she could have. And to see her and Nawab Sikander Mirza thoughtfully considering that she had options was quite lovely, especially in the midst of so much heightened emotion and melodrama.

Pradeep Kumar has the charisma of a limp lettuce leaf but since Yusuf, like Zeenat, is more likely to recite a couplet than actually do anything I suppose that is a good fit. Once he learns of Zeenat’s betrayal he goes a bit Devdas, wallowing in self-pity and dramatic eye shadow.  Zeb Rehman is delightful as Bilqis, Zeenat’s mildly rebellious friend. Naaz is afflicted with a character that is either giggling or sobbing so she must have been exhausted at the end of every days shooting. And any film that gives Helen some lovely songs and pretty costumes is doing something right. Johnny Walker has a significant role in the drama but still manages to drag in the comedy sideplot complete with cock jokes and pratfalls.

The opulent sets and costumes give Bahu Begum a timeless quality as does the beautiful soundtrack by Roshan. I have no idea when the story is supposed to have taken place. I think Johnny Walker did slip into some Hinglish in one of his rants but other than that the dialogue is in Hindi and Urdu. I loved the house furnishings, the soft light streaming through draperies and screens and the measured way of life.

I have my issues with the way women are segregated and dismissed, but since this is a vintage film and possibly set in ye olden days I could step back from that a little. But if someone had just asked Zeenat if she wanted to get married and to who, the movie could have been over in one tear sodden hour and had room for a couple more songs. 3 stars!