Ahhhh masala. The very very best filmi masala has at the very very least most of these twenty-one ingredients:
- Prodigious use of religious symbolism, preferably encompassing at least The Big Three: Hindu/Muslim/Judeo-Christian
- Squishy dil™ (ppcc) (aka “Oh! the humanity!”)
- Fabulously mod fashions
- Outlandish nonsensically fun plots
- At least one weeping mother
- Brothers/friends on opposite sides of the law
- Incredibly pretty hero(es) and heroine(s)
- Disguises, preferably which mock some ethnic or cultural group
- At least one child lost at a fair, preferably two who are childhood sweethearts
- Over-the-top villain(s) with lair(s) and death trap(s)
- Comic side plots, in general not that funny
- Excellent songs including at least one qawwali
- At least one vamp, preferably a dancer with scanty but sparkly clothing
- Scotch whiskey, preferably VAT 69
- Copious amounts of chest hair on display, preferably decorated with gold chains and/or amulets
- Impassioned speeches on behalf of the poor and disabled
- Futuristic props and gadgets, preferably with many beeping and blinking elements
- Henchmen, preferably dumb as rocks and wearing matching outfits
- Dubious medical diagnoses
The list could go on and on. In any case, Chor Sipahee has almost all of these ingredients and more. Shashi in a scruffy beard! Vinod in bell-bottoms and platform heels! Parveen Babi in a floppy hat! Shabana Azmi as a good-girl-gone-bad! Ranjeet as a faux middle-eastern Village Person!
I am a) too shallow; b) too lazy; and c) too much of an atheist to go into the religious implications of this film. For a wonderful explication of same, please see the ppcc’s excellent review if you have not already read it. I will instead focus on the many other treasures which were ample enough to keep my attention, even when the film kind of lost focus and the resolution dragged on too long so that I felt clobbered over the head with the message.
We begin, appropriately enough, with a weeping Maa at the feet of Bhagwan:
Ten days is nothing compared to the more commonplace twenty-odd years, but still. This mother (Durga Khote) is worried about her son, who at that very moment is trying to break into a safe (the alarm, luckily, is right next to it with a convenient on/off switch).
Despite this advantage, Raja (Vinod Khanna) is caught by the police—betrayed by scorpion-in-the-grass Bichchu (Macmohan).
Next to come along is itinerant CBI Inspector Shankar (Shashi Kapoor), a one-man crime-fighting machine and all-around nice guy. His feats are choreographed to “Mujhse Mera Naam Na Poocho”—the first of several very nice songs by Laxmikant Pyarelal.
By now, Raja has been released from jail and one of his liquor joints is on Shankar’s path. He challenges Raja to a bout of fisticuffs and they prove equal to each other (they knock each other out—male bonding at its finest). Raja’s sister Bharti (Parveen Babi) has gotten fed up with his criminal ways and thrown him out of the house. She is earning a living by photographing criminals in the act for a publication.
This puts her at odds with Shankar: he firmly believes in reforming criminals instead of punishing them, because his own father was hanged—prompting his mother to commit suicide. OP Ralhan would approve!
He takes her film reel and she has him arrested, landing them both at the police station. He identifies himself to Inspector Apte (Narendranath). He has come to Bombay at his uncle’s (Om Shivpuri) behest to help fight Raja and his gang.
When he visits Bharti and her ma the next day on the pretext of returning Bharti’s film, he finds them in tears after a row with Raja over Bharti’s refusal to tie a rakhi on him. He treats his mother and sister like he treats the goons who work for him, that is to say: he bullies them.
On his arrival, Shankar endears himself permanently to Ma by eating the kheer Raja had refused on his visit.
I love Durga Khote’s face, it’s so kind. In true Indian fashion, she immediately declares him to be her son and begs him to reform her “other” son. He promises to do so. Later he tells Bharti that he expects a reward:
Raja has fallen for Priya (Shabana Azmi), the daughter of a corrupt and greedy businessman. She is contemptuous of her father, and doesn’t care for Raja’s criminal endeavours either.
Happily for Raja though, she quickly forgives him when he does penance by asking one of his henchmen to hit him, and then never brings it up again. I honestly have no idea why Shabana would do this film, she had nothing to do and her role made no sense; but I’m glad she did anyway. She looked very pretty throughout, especially in the requisite qawwali (“Ek Taraf Hai Yeh Zamana”) with guest Aruna Irani and Shashi and Vinod dressed identically.
As hard as he tries, though, Shankar cannot reform Raja. When Raja is arrested on trumped-up charges of murdering Bichchu, Shankar rescues him by burning the evidence as Raja watches from his cell. Shankar is arrested and sent to prison.
When Shankar is released from jail (with another beard!), Raja has vacated his super-sweet former home atop an unfinished building and his liquor and gambling dens are gone. Filled with hope, Shankar goes to meet Bharti, who is thrilled to see him.
Was there ever a prettier pair, ever? memsaab asks, rhetorically.
Bharti tells Shankar that Raja hasn’t returned home and she doesn’t know where he is. He soon finds out though, as Raja sends a car and some goons to pick him up.
Raja has joined forces with Sheikh Jamal (Ranjeet), a smuggler with a fetish for the middle-east, and a very groovy lair complete with a people-mover canister thingy. They want Shankar to cast his lot in with them.
He refuses, disappointed (“Chor Sipahee Main Hoti”) and leaves; but on his way home he runs into an acquaintance (Kader Khan).
Idea! Shankar rethinks his approach, and joins Raja and Jamal’s gang, only to outdo them in cool badass-ness.
Can Shankar reform Raja? Or will he succumb to the temptations of wealth too? It takes a loooonnnnngggg time, but eventually you will have the answers if you watch the masala goodness that is this film. There were some glitches on my Sky DVD (possibly due to source film issues) at the end where scenes skipped forward, requiring some patching together of the story; also the subtitles were occasionally ahead or behind the dialogue (or missing), but it wasn’t a deal-breaker.
Okay, eye-candy (I cannot help myself)! Shashi rocked the grungy bearded Christ-figure thing, and his acting was pretty good too:
Vinod was appropriately battle-fatigued (being an OTT bad guy is not easy!):
Shabana managed to wolf down some scenery in the few minutes she was onscreen but she looked good:
And Parveen Babi, crying or not, also acted well and was luminously beautiful: