Shankar Guru (1978)

A family torn apart by murder, children separated at birth, villainous villains, a triple role for Dr Rajkumar and 3 wonderful heroines – Shankar Guru has every single masala trope and then some. With a stellar cast and convoluted storyline, M.D. Sunder’s screenplay has something for absolutely everyone. Thanks to blog reader TL for the recommendation and I agree this is a fabulous film! Oh, and if anyone thinks the brief synopsis above sounds familiar, Shankar Guru was the inspiration for Hindi film Mahaan.

The film starts with Rajashekhar (Rajkumar) disagreeing with his business partners including Madanlal (Thoogudeepa Srinivas), a man who takes dressing to match his surroundings very seriously indeed.

The partners want to start selling idols taken from temples overseas and Rajashekhar disagrees so vehemently that he dissolves their partnership straight away. However, in the ensuing struggle one of the potential investors is accidently killed by Rajashekhar. He immediately races home and runs for the train station with his heavily pregnant wife. But as the train pulls out of the station, only Sumati (Kanchana) is on the train with Rajashehkar left behind.

Years later, Sumati is making a living by selling paintings in Mysore while trying to persuade her son Shankar (Rajkumar) to find a job. Shankar meets Nalini (Jayamala) when he saves her from some thugs who were harassing her, and she arranges for him to go and work for her guardian Jayaraj who lives on an estate in Srinigar. At the same time, Malati (Padmapriya) is arguing with her grandfather Gurumurthy (Sampath) and refusing to get married. As a way to appease him, she decides to pretend to be married to local entertainer Guru (Rajkumar) who in reality is the son of lawyer Lakshman Rao (Balakrishna) and is in Kashmir specifically to woo Malati. Guru was sent Malati’s picture by her grandfather’s doctor, Dr Prema (Uma Shivakumar) who is his father’s sister.

Just before Shankar heads off to Kashmir, he visits a local temple where a group of thieves use a tiger to frighten off the worshippers before stealing a valuable necklace. Photographer Prem Kumar (Vajramuni) is a friend of Nalini and her guardian, but is also in league with the thieves and he hides the necklace in some paintings by Sumati that Nalini has bought for Jayaraj. The gang is based in Srinigar, and they plot to get the necklace back from Shankar when he arrives by substituting Madanlal’s son Divakar (Chandrashekhar) as the new estate manager.

With me so far? The plot gets even more convoluted when it is revealed that Dr Prema was at the hospital when Sumati gave birth, and she actually had twins! Lakshman Rao’s son was stillborn, so Dr Prema separated the children, giving one to Sumati and one to her brother. Fans of the significant item that ultimately reunites separated lovers/brothers/other miscellaneous family members will be happy to hear that one such item does play a role in the film, and that ultimately everyone’s relationships to everyone else are explained. Although not before there is plenty more confusion!

There is a lot going on here, but I found Shankar Guru less confusing than Mahaan, and the different threads are all quite easy to follow. Partly this is due to Dr Rajakumar who makes each of this three characters sufficiently different from each other that they are easy to tell apart. Rajashekhar aka Jayaraj has been devastated by the loss of his wife and despite falling on his feet he still pines for her every day. Shankar is the ‘good son’ who loves his mother and is also hot on the trail of the jewel thieves, while Guru is a typical rich man’s son whose carefree ways contrast with the more serious Shankar. The three heroines are all excellent too. Kanchana may have been abandoned by her husband, but she has made a good life for herself and her son, and is quite able to take care of herself, thank you very much! Jayamala as Nalini is charming and every inch the rich heiress with a heart of gold, while Padmapriya seems to be thoroughly enjoying her role as spoilt and demanding Malati. Note her unique hairstyle in this song and also Dr Rajkumar’s commitment to the choreography!

There really is a lot to enjoy in this film. From the funky psychedelic opening credits to the stunning fashion choices this film is a riot of colour and seventies style. There is OTT drama at every turn as Shankar battles the jewel thieves and Guru tries to win Malini’s love, while the most important question is whether Rajashekhar and Sumati will ever be reunited again. Other smaller issues such as why Sumati is painting terrifying pictures of babies or why there are stuffed animal heads on either side of the door at the top of Jayaraj’s stairs and what exactly a lightening call is are sadly never answered, but what is life without some mystery?

There are three main threads to the storyline and a number of smaller sideplots, but all the chaos is pulled together nicely by director V Somashekhar without losing any of the suspense. Despite this being a typical seventies masala film, the women fare rather better than expected. Although Nalini and Malati are primarily the love interests for Shankar and Guru respectively, they both have distinct personalities and make important contributions to the storyline. Sumati has the largest role of any of the three heroines and I love how her character fights back when she is taken prisoner. Sumati is definitely much more enterprising and capable than her husband who doesn’t seem to have looked very hard for his missing wife.

If you enjoy masala and convoluted plots then Shankar Guru is one not to miss! Rajkumar is fantastic in his triple role and the three heroines are all terrific. The only downside is the rather poor quality of the prints available online and occasionally dodgy subtitles. Still a great watch and well worth tracking down. 4 ½ stars!

Operation Diamond Racket

Operation Diamond Racket

Operation Diamond Racket was re-released in Karnataka theatres last year, and that may be the reason why this 1978 film is actually available on DVD with English subtitles. The duo of Dorairaj and Bhagawan produced and directed a number of Bond-style films starring Dr Rajkumar as Agent CID 999, with Operation Diamond Racket being the last, and possibly also the most successful one they made. The story seems to be very loosely based on Diamonds are Forever but is more choppy action and less actual plot than either the Ian Fleming story or the Sean Connery film. Still, Agent CID 999 lives up to the suave spy image and manages to romance several ladies as he fights his way through numerous villains in a diamond smuggling operation to reach the secretive man at the top. The styling and fashions are definitely part of the reason to watch this film, but the best motive is Dr Rajkumar – he is totally awesome! Whether he’s fighting hoodlums, lounging by the pool or fixing up his hair mid-biffo, he does it all with fabulous style and panache! I am totally hooked and have been looking out for more of his films, which seem to be sadly unavailable subtitled. Still, this is a great place to start and even if the film itself isn’t brilliant it does have plenty of spy gadgets and a couple of great songs to help matters along.

The film starts with CID 999 aka Prakash breaking into a safe (after defeating the obligatory bad guy) and taking pictures of the contents using an advanced technology device – a camera with a flash cube attachment. I clearly remember these since I was around in the seventies, and it’s a nice nostalgic moment to see something practical as an essential part of Agent CID 999’s inventory.

Presumably this was the conclusion to Agent CID 999’s previous case as his subsequent meeting with his boss warns of a new danger. Someone is smuggling diamonds, and there are reports of numerous scientists disappearing. Obviously these are connected and Prakash picks up some clues from Sardar, a delivery guy for the smugglers who tries to extort more money from the criminals and is dealt with appropriately. However, before he dies he manages to impart a few words, which are dutifully noted down by marine branch officer Madhu and passed on to Prakash. Luckily for Prakash, Madhu has a very pretty sister Meena (Padmapriya) who turns out to be useful as a sidekick as well as the main romantic interest for the rest of the film. Although she does have plenty of competition as it turns out!

Once Prakash is on the case events move quickly and after tracking down David to a hotel, Prakash cunningly places a listening device on his table under the guise of singing a song. This is awesome for so many reasons. The outfit! The lyrics!! The surreptitious placing of the listening device!!! It just gets better and better and of course during the course of the song, David gets his next set of instruction, just as Prakash and his trusty assistant are listening in.

There are plenty of fights, interludes with various women and Prakash moonlights as a pop singer at a hotel to infiltrate the next part of the gang. I have no reason why this smuggler has a small stuffed bird on his desk, or why he rejoices in the name of Golden Crocodile although it does fit in with the general rather opulent décor of the hotel. He also has an ‘electric chamber’ to dispose of unwelcome guests, but despite all this he’s just one of the many minions involved in the smuggling ring. The various clues lead Prakash to a discovery of diamonds concealed in a shipment of masks and after fighting off yet another bad guy, Prakash heads off to Nepal with Meena on the track of the mysterious head of the diamond smuggling organisation.

Once in Nepal there are car chases and yet more fights, all with the beautiful backdrop of the Himalayas and stunning Kathmandu. Cinematographer P.S. Prakash does a fantastic job of capturing the mountains and the storyline allows for numerous reasons for Prakash to go running off into the hills and into all that gorgeous scenery. Including more songs of course.

I love this part of the film and there are so many places I recognise in and around the Kathmandu valley from my visits to Nepal. Hence the larger number than usual of screencaps, but really this is a beautifully shot film with some wonderful views of the Himalaya.

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After numerous excursions into the hills around Kathmandu, Prakash finally manages to track down the mastermind behind the smugglers and foil his fiendish plot to rule the world using a remote control beam thingy that can turn everything to ashes. Apparently. The test runs shown didn’t particularly convince me and Prakash managed a better explosion with his handy pocket-sized bomb, but megalomania is apparently blind to these little issues. Prakash does seem rather indifferent to the fate of all the scientists who were after all working with the smugglers involuntarily, but he saves Meena and the world from being ruled by an evil mastermind in a violently red suit, so I guess that was enough for one day.

Overall Operation Diamond Racket is a fair attempt at re-creating a James Bond film and does add in plenty of gadgets, an adequate villains lair and a number of 007 references to add to the fun. Considering the era, most of the special effects work well, and there are only a couple of times where the directors resort to the use of small model cars for the crash scenes – a major improvement over the likes of Surakksha for instance. Dr Rajkumar makes a very charismatic spy, while Padmapriya is more than just a pretty face to be rescued at the end, and holds up her own end of the investigation pretty well. The support cast is also good, although being an assistant to Agent CID 999 does seem to be a risky proposition considering most don’t make it to the end of the film. There are also some wonderful sets which add to the lavish feel and fit into the James Bond styling of the film.

The only problem I have with Operation Diamond Racket is that there are possibly too many fight scenes and diversions in the path to the evil mastermind. The film could easily have been half an hour shorter without losing anything major from the story and cutting a few of the fights would have helped move the plot along. However there is still plenty to enjoy and Rajkumar is the absolute star of the show. Definitely an excellent introduction to his films and one I recommend. 4 stars.


Aidondla Aidu

Aidu Onda Aidu (Five times one is five) is a Kannada film by the director V K Prakash. Known mainly for his Malayalam films this is his first venture into the Kannada language and is being shown in Australia and New Zealand  as part of the Indian Film Festival . The film is based on extracts from 18 Natakangal, a collection of plays by award winning Malayalam author and playwright Jayaprakash Kuloor. There are four short stories in the narrative linked together by the fifth tale of a director trying to make the stories into a film. While the individual stories are all very well told and beautifully shot, the linking narrative is less compelling and as a result the film doesn’t quite make a complete whole.

The film starts with the story of Kantha who is trying to make the film of his dreams.  He takes a year’s unpaid leave of absence from his job and seems to be relying on his unrestrained enthusiasm and the support of his wife.  I think that the actor playing the role of his boss is actually Jayaprakash Kuloor himself, but I’m not familiar with most of these actors so please excuse me if I’m wrong here. As Kantha tries to sell his story he runs into every possible difficulty with the various producers he meets.  People like his story, but it needs more action, more gimmicks, more everything and of course this starts to take a toll on his enthusiasm.  In the course of his struggles we see the four stories he is trying to film. 

All the tales revolve around the relationships between a husband and wife and although each explores different facets of the marital relationship, at their core they involve communication and the consequences of misconception. 

The first story is a charming tale of a new bride and groom which has plenty of humour.  This is told with a very light touch and the two actors appear fresh and natural in their roles.  This song is one of my favourites in the film as Gowri is making yet more payasa for her husband Lokesh.

The next story is a simple tale about the effect of a mirror on a poor couple who have never seen their reflections before. While it’s perhaps hard to believe in their naivety, the story is more of a parable about the effects of jealousy on a relationship. Again the story is told with plenty of light comedy and the song by the pedlar who gives them the mirror is excellent.

The third story is quite different, although it still has at its core the relationship of a husband and wife. This time the tale is much more realistic with less humour and as a result breaks into the almost magical atmosphere created by the other two. The final story goes back into more of a fairy tale like tone and focuses on the rekindling of a relationship during the rainy season. This allows the film to end on an optimistic note, albeit a somewhat soggy one.

These four stories within the main narrative succeed in different ways and the use of a number of directors of photography and editors helps to give each a distinctive feel. The songs in particular are nicely integrated into each and work very well. There is a lot of comedy in the stories although this is very gentle and grows out of the various relationships depicted. I have to admit I don’t know many of the actors here but I was impressed with the performances and thought they all fit their resprective roles well.

The linking story is kept brief and somewhat pedestrian which is perhaps why it doesn’t grab my attention in the same way as the other four tales. There is little exploration of why the director feels compelled to tell these stories and there seems to be a few wasted opportunities to further explore his own relationship with his wife. This is frustrating, particularly when compared to the other short stories which are beautifully complete in themselves and yet allow for a wider interpretation of the relationships portrayed. Kantha is shown as having an early love of cinema and is childishly enthusiastic, but that doesn’t explain why he goes about his film in the way he does. His wife has the potential to be an interesting character as she is prepared to stand by her husband and help him realise his dream despite the hardships incurred, but her motivation is never really fully explored. More development of both these characters would have made their story much more compelling and provided a firmer foundation for the other four tales.

While overall the film is funny and charming, the different stories are quite disparate giving a slightly disjointed feel. A more detailed linking narrative would have made this a much more cohesive film as there is so much else which is excellent. The short stories themselves all are rather fanciful and this is another factor which separates them from the main theme which is very much set in the real world. Its still a film I would recommend watching for the music, good song picturisation and impressive performances from the large cast. This film was a good start to the festival for me . 3 1/2 stars.