Majboor (1974)

I watched this after reading Anu’s review, and am so glad I did. Majboor is a low key thriller, and apart from a couple of minor missteps, is both suspenseful and makes sense.

Ravi Khanna (Amitabh Bachchan) is a smart young man, working as a travel agent. One rainy night he deals with his last client Mr Surendra Sinha (Rehman), and accepts a lift from the man as there are no taxis around. Some time later the police (Iftekhar and Jagdish Rai) come to interview him as Mr Sinha was abducted that night, and found dead in a gutter. Ravi is innocent, but nervous as the police are taking a keen interest in him as the last known person to see Sinha. The stress seems to be triggering severe headaches, and he goes to the doctor. The diagnosis is far more serious than tension. Ravi has a brain tumour that must be removed. But the doctor scares him with a range of possible outcomes from paralysis to blindness or maybe being right as rain so he leaves without making a decision. Ravi has a widowed mother (Sulochana), a sister in a wheelchair (Farida Jalal), and little brother Billoo (Master Alankar). He is the sole provider and can’t contemplate a life where he becomes a dependant. Believing he is probably going to die either from the tumour or the surgery, he hatches a scheme to frame himself as the killer and collect the reward money for his family. But once in prison, he faints again and is taken to the hospital and operated on. He has a perfect recovery and then has to deal with the other death sentence. Ravi regrets his choice now he can live, and he escapes to go in search of the real killer.

Amitabh is perfectly cast. Ravi is educated, has a decent job, takes good care of his Ma and siblings, likes a lairy outfit or two, and has a pretty and very modern girlfriend in Neela (Parveen Babi). When Ravi is first questioned about the dead man he seems collected, but later goes to see his friend who is a lawyer. He knows how things can turn out when the police start paying attention to a person. When the headaches kick in, Amitabh does some excellent faces (see a small selection here).

Generally he plays Ravi as a down to earth guy with no superhero stuff. At least, not until the final scenes where Ravi is out for justice. When he realises he has escaped one death sentence but still has another looming he acts decisively and within the realms of what he can reasonably achieve. I liked his problem solving approach which was to ask questions and think about the answers, using force when needed but not at all if he could just look tall and threatening. Amitabh adds some little reactions and expressions that show Ravi can be spiteful or calculating too, and he really made the character feel solid and believable. Except for his bright red suede “on the run” outfit. What was Ravi thinking?

Parveen Babi got very little to do, and lots of spare hair to carry around while she did it. The 70s presented a few fashion challenges and I can’t say I like the micro-ruffled vesty thing she had to wear, nor the ear-blocking flowers. Neela was supportive of Ravi and he involved her in his plans in the same way luggage can be considered part of a trip. The film would be no worse off if her role hadn’t been written which is sad. And in the final scenes I had to wonder why Ravi left Neela to hold the fort when it would have made so much more sense for him to stay and her to go. Or you know, both of them tie the bad guy up. Anyway. As you can see, I haven’t much to say about Neela.

As Ravi investigates a significant ring that could lead back to the killer, he has some lucky breaks and benefits from his own logical procedural thinking. One very lucky break for him, and for the audience, is the arrival of Michael (Pran!). Michael is a thief, fencing his wares through Prakash (Mac Mohan). He is also the only witness to who killed Sinha. Pran rocks up committing a robbery then bouncing straight into the excellent Daru Ki Botal Mein. What a talented multi-instrumentalist Michael is.

Pran is flamboyant, theatrical and loads of fun. Michael is who he is, and is so comfortable in his own skin. Pran gets some excellent dialogue and makes the most of every moment without being obnoxiously OTT. And Michael is pivotal to the story. He wants to do well for himself but he made Ravi a promise. Will he sell Ravi out to the killer?

Ravi’s family mean the world to him. Ma (Sulochana) is quietly spoken and shy, but mustered up her courage to go and ask Narendra Sinha (Satyendra Kapoor) not to demand the death penalty. Renu (Farida Jalal) is in a wheelchair and the reason is never explained, there is no great drama about operations for her, she is just Renu who tries to make the best of things. Farida plays her with a veneer of manic happiness that can easily turn to tears but Renu is also quick witted. I liked that neither woman was required to have a tragic flash back or do anything other than be themselves. It was just a nice middle class family with sensible aspirations. Master Alankar is quite good as little Billoo, although when he started singing the dreary Dekh Sakhta Hoon in place of Ravi I began to hope for another kidnapping.

The supporting cast is chock full of quality actors. There’s Iftekhar and Jagdish Rai as the competent and sensible police officers, Satyendra Kapoor as the brother hell-bent on seeing Ravi hang, D.K Sapru as Neela’s understanding and non-judgemental dad, Mac Mohan as a squeaky voiced dealer in objets of dubious provenance, and the list goes on. All of their characters seems to be a good fit for their milieu, acting in ways that are consistent with their positions. It is nice to see a thriller stay grounded through the minor characters and how they go about things.

Ravi Tandon keeps the tension up and Salim-Jhaved’s screenplay weaves all the characters into a convincing world for this story. There are a couple of things I question in the final confrontation but I suppose if you pay for a leading lady like Parveen you may as well drag her along for the ride. The soundtrack (Laxmikant Pyarelal) is more effective in the background than in the songs, but the songs are well integrated and part of the action.

Amitabh is at his peak, and this is a ripping story told in a more realistic style than many of his hits. See it for the super cast, and enjoy the suspenseful story. 4 stars!

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Jal Bin Machhli Nritya Bin Bijli

jal bin machhli

Back at the beginning of my Bollywood obsession, Temple lent me a double DVD of V. Shantaram films.  The first was the classic Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje which is still one of my favourite dance-based films and definitely well worth watching.  However the second film on the DVD was even more special – Jal Bin Machhli, Nritya Bin Bijli – a mix of interpretative dance, groovy sixties fabrics and more melodrama than I ever thought possible, even in Bollywood!  It’s one to watch for the dancing, décor and drama, rather than dwell too much on the rather ridiculous plot which allows almost everyone to declare their willingness to sacrifice themselves for love, or for dance, or for the love of dance.  In fact it’s amazing we get to the end without losing anyone, given how prone everyone is to explanatory declarations of their imminent demise.  But eventually, after dealing with treachery, betrayal, sacrifice and Hammond organ music, there is indeed a happy ending – or (and probably a better idea) just watch it for the songs!

The film opens with Alaknanda (Sandhya) attempting to follow in her dead mother’s footsteps and learn how to dance.  However her autocratic father Dr Verma (Iftekhar) has no time for such frivolous nonsense and bans her from dancing until she marries, presumably because it then will be her husband who has to listen to the incessant jangling of bells rather than him.

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Unfortunately for her father, the family lives right next door to a huge mansion where Prince Kailash (Abhijeet) spends his days playing his Hammond organ and composing music for his resident dance troupe.  Despite an initial chilly reception, Alaknanda gets Kailash on her side by impersonating a dying fish she has rather callously flipped out of the water.  This song is an absolute must-watch as the spectacle of Alaknanda impersonating the fish out of water from the title really does have to be seen to be believed.  I could have done without all the shots of a fish in distress (or more likely a number of fish, as it’s rather a long song), so avoid if you prefer to see fish in their natural habitat.

After such a performance, the prince is completely won over and his sceptical dancers welcome Alaknanda with open arms.  I suspect because she seems just as crazy as Kailash and lets them all off the hook by possibly understanding what he is trying to convey in his choreography sessions.  At least she has no compunction in throwing her arms and lashing her hair around to a number of his compositions, immediately endearing her to the prince who realises that he has just found his latest muse.  Lord help us all!

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There are added complications when Dr Verma tries to arrange Alaknanda’s marriage, and Kailash’s mother Rajmata (Dina Pathak) attempts to match make between her son and Princess Roopmati (Minal).  The latter is a bigger problem since Roopmati and her uncle Chaman Rai  (Raja Paranjpe) are staying in the palace, giving Rajmata plenty of opportunity to throw the two together.  I really liked Minal as the scheming ‘other woman’ and I wonder why she doesn’t seem to have made any other films.  She’s truculent, bratty and petulant – all some of my favourite qualities in Hindi villainess and not at all reluctant to mow down everyone else in her path.

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As Roopmati, Minal gets to wear some very groovy saris while pandering to Rajmata’s traditional ideas by wearing transparent robes over her trendy Parisian outfits.  She also has a tendency to break out into petulant dance moves when crossed, although her rocking out to records is definitely not the type of dance the prince admires. Naturally she doesn’t understand Kailash’s obsession with his music and is even less enamoured of his obsession with his Alaknanda. Her initial attempts to separate the two however backfire when she proposes a trip tiger hunting.  I can think of no rational explanation for this in a movie all about dance but then again there is no explanation, rational or otherwise for the rest of the story either!  The point of the trip is for Alaknanda to save Kailash from a tiger, upstaging Roopmati in the process and therefore setting the stage for Roopmati’s revenge.

After such excitement, naturally Alaknanda turns to dance and performs a wonderful snake vs. peacock number in a glitzy snake costume with authentic snake coloured hair.

The drama gets more intense as Roopmati and Chaman Rai sabotage Alaknanda’s performance leaving her crippled and unable to dance.  There are more complications as Kailash proposes, Alaknanda refuses him and our heroine escapes to live in a bandit camp and ponder her future.  Indeed, Alaknanda has to face more challenges than usual for a filmi heroine and she meets them all with a distinct lack of composure and plenty of head tossing and brow beating. Sandhya’s histrionics make it difficult to feel any sympathy at all for Alaknanda’s ever worsening plight and her petulant cries of preferring to die rather than live without dance are wearying.  Luckily there are plenty more songs thrown in to provide relief from the exaggerated and theatrical affliction, and the various misfortunes are all brightened up by some inspired costuming.

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While Sandhya’s Alaknanda is irritatingly anguished, Abhijeet is fairly wimpy as Kailash and seems to deserve everything he gets with Alaknanda, although he does partially redeem himself with his bedside proposal of marriage.  His response to rejection is to shoot the heads off statues in his rehearsal room and then sob at the feet of a picture of his mother which seems to sum him up pretty well.  At least Dina Pathak and Iftekhar provide some much-needed class into the proceedings, but even they have a tendency to indulge in scenery chewing as the drama unfolds.

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V Shantaram seems to want to explore the passion of dance, but in Jal Bin Machhli he never gets beyond overblown and theatrical drama.  Alaknanda’s obsession for her mother’s dancing bells doesn’t translate into a believable hunger for the art itself, and seems to be derived more from an urge to flout her father.  Without that fervour, the focus is on the melodrama and while that is entertaining it’s not quite the film I wanted.  However there is still plenty to enjoy in the outlandish choreography by Praveen Kumar, including such delights as Sandhya dancing frenetically on a plate while balancing her way up a steep incline and demonstrating just how to dance while on crutches.  Just as good are the songs by Laxmikant Pyarelal who manage to incorporate the theme music from the Good the Bad and the Ugly into the stunning Taron Mein Sajkeh Apneh.  Despite all the drama and the totally bizarre plot, I still love this film for all the posturing and sheer silliness of the two lead characters and the sometimes bewildered support cast.  Worth a watch for the amazing songs and to really appreciate the Bollywood definition of melodrama, even if nothing else! 3 ½ stars.

Jal bin machhli

Agent Vinod (1977)

Agent Vinod

Aaah, the seventies!

A time of flares, large floppy hats, the always delightful Helen, and wonderfully cheesy Bollywood.

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A time when Mahendra Sandhu played the original Agent Vinod, long before Saif Ali Khan donned the same nom de guerre and secret agent mantle.  And did it with much more flair (and flares)!  Agent Vinod draws heavily on the 007 franchise, even including a sidekick by the name of James Bond, but despite its derivative nature it’s still lots of fun with plenty of gadgets, glamorous women, car chases and the obligatory secret hideaway.  Mahendra Sandhu is quintessentially smooth and suave as Agent Vinod, although his habit of introducing himself as ‘Agent’ Vinod does rather give his profession away.  As an added bonus there are strong female performances by Asha Sachdev, Rehana Sultan and Jayshree T, as well as the divine Helen in a role that requires more than her appearance in an item number.  Sadly I only have an un-subtitled VCD copy of this film which means I may have missed some subtleties of the plot (if there were any!), and I do apologise for the poor quality of the pictures.

Agent Vinod is a spy film, so of course there has to be an evil organisation plotting world domination of some description, and the film starts with the kidnaping of renowned scientist Mr Saxena (Nasir Hussain) by the Scorpion group. The Scorpion organisation plan to sell his secrets to the rest of the world for mega bucks, or maybe it’s to force him to create a secret formula for something that they can bottle and sell for mega bucks.

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Both seem equally plausible and maybe it’s a combination of both, but whatever the reason, Chief Scorpion Madanal (Iftekhar) and his gang of thugs find that Saxena won’t be coerced by the fear of death, but he might just be persuaded if his daughter is threatened instead.  To this end, the group sets out to kidnap Anju Saxena (Asha Sachdev) but she manages to elude her rather inept kidnappers and instead disguises herself as a taxi driver in an attempt to find her father.

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At the same time, another secret agent Zarina (Rehana Sultan) has foiled an attempt by Madanal and his thugs to blow up a train, managing to take pictures of the main gang members before they spot her and give chase.  Zarina is an ace secret agent, and she escapes pursuit, hides the photographic film and climbs down the side of a building – all in high heels too – before she’s finally captured by the gang.  Zarina is my hero.  She escapes from Madanal not once, but twice, including by climbing up against the water being pumped into her cell to drown her – go Zarina! Her best moment comes when she uses a handy robot to beat up one of the gang members and to be honest I think she’s a much better secret agent than Vinod!

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However, the film is titled Agent Vinod not Agent Zarina, and finally the threat to National Security means that there is only one man for the job.  Agent Vinod is recalled from his frolicking in the sun with a bevy of beautiful maidens and charged with finding Saxena and his daughter, as well as hopefully finding out what has happened to Zarina.  Finding Anju Saxena turns out to be relatively simple, although initially she suspects him of involvement in her father’s disappearance.  This leads to an excellent cat and mouse song between the two where Anju tries to get Vinod drunk to make him reveal her father’s whereabouts.

As any good secret agent knows, the key to foiling villains is a bunch of cool gadgets, so Agent Vinod picks up an assortment of disguised bombs, tracking devices, a distinctive golden gun and of course his specially modified car.  He’s also well prepared in the event of a stake-out, making sure to have his trusty flask along.  I was also impressed to see that despite the reckless nature of the car chases, Agent Vinod was careful to fasten his seat-belt before driving with reckless abandon along Indian country roads.  Note the dapper white suit too!

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The discovery of Zarina’s resourcefully hidden photographs point Agent Vinod in the right direction although Lovelina (Helen) attempts to lead him astray, although her backing dancers might just dazzle him enough all by themselves.

Luckily for Agent Vinod, the Scorpion organisation falls into the trap of so many evil, secret gangs by requiring its agents to wear the mark of the scorpion, making them easily identifiable.  However, perhaps as compensation, the gang have cool walkie-talkie’s in the form of scorpions and they have a classic hidden lair on a remote island.  Although this isn’t as opulent as might be expected, it does feature a giant opening mouth on the wall as a rather obvious ‘spy-hole’, and there are plenty of traps and creative ‘death’ rooms to make it acceptable as an evil hide-out.

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Agent Vinod is helped by the hapless James Bond (Jagdeep), aka Chandu who appears at odd moments with some generally vacuous slap-stick. I don’t find Jagdeep’s comedy amusing here, and the comedy scenes often seemed disjointed and out of step with the rest of the film, although part of that may be due to the lack of subtitles. However his character improves in the second half of the film when he romances the gypsy girl Jayshree T.  This also gives the film one of the best songs, when the gypsy girl and Anju team up for a comic dance to distract the gang and try to throw them off Agent Vinod’s trail.

There are yet more nods to the  James Bond films including an elaborate mirrored room on a rather small boat, and of course the identity of the shadowy figure behind the Scorpion organisation has to be revealed before Agent Vinod and Anju can sail away into the sunset. K.N.Singh makes an appearance as the Head of the Secret Service, Leena Das has a lovely dance number as one of the Scorpion agents and Pinchoo Kapoor is excellent as Vinod’s uncle/ mentor.  The cast all throw themselves into the general mayhem, with only Agent Vinod staying cool and calm throughout.  But with this selection of outfits, who can blame him for his air of suave sophistication?

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While the writing team of Khalid Narvi and Girish have borrowed heavily from 007, the underlying story is entertaining in its own right with a solid cast who all put in credible performances.  The music by Raam Laxman is excellent and Deepak Bahry has kept everything moving along.  It’s fun, engaging and definitely worth watching even if it’s just to count the number of Bond references. I really enjoyed this Agent Vinod and wish they had made a sequel!  3 ½ stars.