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.