Somewhere on the world wide web it says: “Coolie was the biggest grocer of 1983!” Heh heh. That is probably due to the fact that its star Amitabh Bachchan was seriously injured on the sets and almost died—everyone knows that story by now. Many people write the film off now as the same old hackneyed Manmohan Desai story with an aging Big B who was no longer hero material, but I really liked it. Sure, it has now-familiar Desai themes, and it is predictable. Predictably good!!!
Plus, this film is a little less crazed than some of his others. It sticks mostly with the main story, weaving in the side plots more neatly than usual. It’s also a bit lighter on the religious symbolism (most of the characters are Muslim, and secularism is waved at only in passing) and on the usual heavy-handed preaching and long-winded speeches.
Aslam (Satyendra Kapoor) and his wife Salma (Waheeda Rehman) live with their son Iqbal. Salma’s brother Nathu (Nilu Phule) and his wife stop by to visit with their infant son. They are one happy family!
Their contentment and the baby’s birthmark spell trouble ahead.
Trouble is being released from jail at this very moment in the form of Zafar Khan (Kader Khan). He is a bad, bad man who has been lusting after Salma for years. His first stop outside the big house is Salma’s father, who owns a lot of birds.
Furious that he has married off Salma to someone else, Zafar stabs her father and leaves. The old man writes a note to Salma in his dying moments and sends it off with his falcon Allarakha (could it be Sheroo the Wonder Bird?).
Meanwhile Zafar has gone to see Salma, who sends him packing. He hastens to the dam where Aslam works and manages to breach it, causing Aslam to be washed away. Nathu and his family are caught in the waters too. The broken dam floods the town, but someone rescues Salma and gets her onto a rooftop where she lies unconscious. Zafar passes overhead in his helicopter (being bad has its perks) and snatches her away.
Poor little Iqbal manages to make his way to his flooded home, but there is no one there until his uncle Nathu shows up, having watched his wife and birthmarked baby get carried off by the raging waters.
Now with Zafar, who is posing as her husband, Salma has lost her memory and is not speaking. The doctor recommends that Zafar get her lost child back to her, pronto.
[Side note: the list of ingredients for masala films should also include as number 21: Spurious medical diagnoses. End side note.]
Zafar gets a baby from an orphanage and gets on a train out of town with Salma. Iqbal and his Mama are at the station where Nathu works as a coolie. Iqbal sees her as the train is pulling out and runs after it.
She only stares at him, though, and he can’t keep up. Zafar sends his henchman Bob (Puneet Issar) after the boy to finish him off. Nathu comes to Iqbal’s rescue, but Bob hacks one of his arms off. Allarakha arrives in a flurry of feathers and claws and beak and vanquishes Bob. Iqbal vows to be his uncle’s new arm and:
Cut to the station, years later. A train pulls in and a wealthy man named Puri (Om Shivpuri) and his son Vicky (Suresh Oberoi) get off. An elderly porter takes their luggage, including a basket containing their fluffy white Pomeranian, who promptly bites him. He drops everything including the dog and Vicky hits the old man viciously. The rest of the coolies gather around; they are unimpressed when Puri tells them he’s a Railway Advisory Board member and Vicky pulls a gun on Nathu. Allarakha swoops down, snatching it from his hand, and flies away.
The police show up during the ensuing fight and when they threaten to arrest Iqbal, the coolies go on strike. They stay on strike (causing people to have to carry their own luggage! the humanity!) until the Railway Advisory Board chief agrees to a hearing. Puri quits rather than ask “forgivance” (as the subtitle says) from Iqbal.
Well what’s one more enemy when the whole world treats you like dirt, anyway? Meanwhile, the baby that Salma adopted with Zafar has grown up to be Sonny (Rishi Kapoor), a nice guy who drinks too much and wants to be a journalist.
He meets an editor by the name of Iyengar (Mukri) who has a wayward daughter named Deepa (Shoma Anand). Sonny mistakes Deepa for the mother of septuplets (a very short cameo by Tun Tun) and publishes her picture under a screaming headline on the front page of Iyengar’s newspaper. This finishes off the engagement Deepa’s parents had arranged for her.
Iqbal still pines for his mother. He has her photo enshrined and talks to it every day. Poor Salma is subjected to regular electric shock “treatments” to keep her from remembering anything. Zafar considers her his prize—a symbol of his omnipotent power.
Deepa drinks to forget her childhood sweetheart.
So does Sonny! They don’t recognize each other but each has been pining for the other since they were separated as kids, and carries half of a torn photograph around.
They begin scamming poor Iyengar and his wife (Shubha Khote): Deepa runs away from home and a disguised Sonny “finds” her and returns her to her parents for a hefty reward, which they then split. Throughout this, lots of fun is poked—at South Indians in particular.
One day, though, Iqbal passes Deepa and recognizes her from the “Reward” advertisement in the paper. This results in a hilarious song (“Lambuji Lambuji”) during which Iqbal and Sonny argue over who gets to return Deepa for the reward.
They also become friends.
Nathu and the other coolies have invested money in a housing scheme and have finally saved the remaining balance for their rooms. The scheme has been taken over by none other than Mr. Puri and Vicky who now refuse to honor the agreement the porters had made with the previous owner.
Puri is guardian to an heiress named Julie (Rati Agnihotri). He wants to get her married to Vicky so that they can share in her fortune, but she is resisting because she wants to avenge her father’s death before she marries. Puri blackmails her into agreeing by faking a heart attack.
The coolies, led by Iqbal, crash the engagement party and demand the homes they had been promised. Iqbal (after managing to destroy many of Puri’s possessions) carts Julie off with him as a hostage. It’s pretty much love at first sight although Julie manages to escape after tying Iqbal up in knots (you’ll have to watch).
Having seen the poverty in which Iqbal lives, she convinces Puri that she will marry Vicky if he gives the coolies their housing, and he agrees. She and Iqbal continue their romance.
The coolies have deposited their money in the Bob Chit Fund Office, which is owned by Zafar and run by Bob (the very Bob who had cut off Nathu’s arm years ago). Before they get there Zafar’s other henchmen arrive and tell Bob that the office is about to be raided. As they are making off with all the money, the coolies arrive. During the fight that ensues, the screen freezes:
followed by the punch, where it freezes again:
I don’t know whether to be amazed, horrified or morbidly curious, and settle for a mixture of all three. I am not so distracted that I don’t see a gaping plot hole here—Sonny is present at the scene too but fails to recognize his father’s main henchman Goga, who practically lives with Zafar. In fact, he is almost shot by Goga but uses his typewriter case to deflect the bullet.
Afterwards, he tells Iqbal that his mother—whose photo he keeps taped inside the lid of the case—has saved his life. Iqbal sits down and confides in him about losing his mother.
Will Sonny show Iqbal the photo? Will he see it by mistake? Or will we have to wait? The suspense, it kills me!! Will Julie marry Vicky despite her love for Iqbal? Will Sonny find out that he’s adopted? Who are his real parents? Will he and Deepa discover that they are each other’s childhood sweethearts? Will Salma ever regain her memory? Where is Iqbal’s father? Did he really die in the flood? What about the baby with the birthmark? And who killed Julie’s father? Can evil men like Zafar, Puri and Vicky ever really be stopped? Can it all be wrapped up in less than three hours? (Okay, yes, but not much less).
Watch Coolie to find out. It’s good wholesome entertaining masala fun and will kill off a dreary Sunday afternoon before you know it!