I sometimes think of Manmohan Desai’s films as being like a rodeo saddle bronc ride: as they erupt from the gate, the rider (i.e. director) is in control of the horse (i.e. story), and excitement builds until the rider is either tossed off or jumps off after his 8 seconds are up. Either way it ends with an out-of-control animal loose in the arena and the cowboy sprawled in the dust. In Gangaa Jamuna Saraswathi the rider is tossed off about halfway through his 8 seconds. Up to that point, the movie entertains with its twists and turns and stunning visuals; but the second half goes haywire until it tires itself out and limps to its conclusion. Too bad! because it had real potential.
Thakur Hansraj Singh (Amrish Puri) loots a temple of its golden idol in order to sell it abroad. When his brother-in-law (Trilok Kapoor) confronts him, he kills him and then swindles his own sister (Nirupa Roy) and her son Gangaa out of their home and inheritance. Young Gangaa vows vengeance as they leave their home.
Years later, Hansraj’s son—now grown from a little monster into an adult (and fairly effeminate) one—is being entertained by dancing girl Saraswathi (Jaya Pradha). When he attempts to rape her, Gangaa (Amitabh Bachchan) rides to her rescue like a knight in shining armor: his steed is his truck (driven by faithful friend Bansi), and his sword a tire-iron.
A fabulous entrance, even by Bachchan-Desai standards!
He beats up his cousin’s various henchmen and exits (with Saraswathi) through the opposite wall of the house.
I am thrilled. So is Saraswathi! She and Gangaa perform a fabulous song and dance in the bed of his truck, transformed with carpets, candelabrum, and even a hookah. I will say here that Anu Malik’s songs in this are fun (and picturized in cracktastic fashion), but Lata’s singing diminishes their appeal greatly for me—her aged and quavery-screechy voice does not fit the beautiful Jaya Pradha at all.
Although Saraswati is clearly smitten with Gangaa, and he likes her, he does not return her feelings in kind.
Now we meet bad guy Bhima (Jack Gaud) as he rapes some poor girl. He is interrupted by the arrival of the Thakur and his son, who need him to retrieve a chest from the croc-infested pond they use to hide things in (Bhima’s father, at the beginning of the film, has the same job and is played by one of my favorite actors, Dev Kumar—whom I think of fondly as the Indian Lurch).
But I digress. Bhima retrieves the chest filled with guns for the Thakur, which he instructs his henchmen to use for one of those wonderfully non-specific but nefarious plots so beloved in Hindi cinema.
Bhima has one more request for Hansraj: he needs some money so that he can marry the girl of his dreams, Jamuna. Jamuna herself (Meenakshi Sheshadri) cannot stand Bhima, and when he tries to force her into marriage she manages to escape by jumping into the back of Gangaa’s passing truck, now filled with bananas. He finds her when the truck is stopped because of an accident—he slips and falls on a banana peel that she has flung onto the road.
The accident has closed the road for the night, but he kicks her out of the truck. When it starts pouring rain, though, he feels guilty. Bansi tells him about a hotel nearby which only takes married couples (how very Mills and Boon!) and Gangaa and Jamuna spend a slapstick-filled night in a room furnished only with one bed and a clearly mechanical mouse.
The next morning Bhima arrives looking for Jamuna. The ever-gallant Gangaa beats him up and delivers him to the policemen who are following Bhima with the girl he had raped previously (hurray! police who do the right thing!). Grateful Jamuna declares her love for Gangaa, and the other truck drivers gather around.
Gangaa is not reluctant, and their new-found love is celebrated with a rousing song and dance: Disco Bhangra! An aging Amitabh in leather and silver lame (and sporting a single silver glove, Michael Jackson style). I don’t know whether to be enthralled or horrified, truly.
Gangaa and Bansi drop Jamuna at home where she’s greeted by her aunt (Aruna Irani). They make a plan to attend a qawwali performance by a favorite singer, Shankar, that night. On his way home afterwards Gangaa runs into some of his truck-driving colleagues, who have been stopped to pay a tax on a public road which the Chhote Thakur has “taken over.”
The inevitable outcome is that Gangaa beats up his cousin again. Meanwhile, the Thakur himself is hosting a party and has instructed the local police in the person of corrupt Inspector Goga (Goga Kapoor) to ensure that the musician Shankar (Mithun Chakraborty) shows up to perform.
Shankar humiliates the Thakur in front of his guests, which naturally enrages him. At that evening’s performance, Jamuna spontaneously joins Shankar on stage and he falls in love with the unknown (to him) dancer. He is unable to pursue her because the police show up at the end of his song to arrest him for spying. Although he escapes (with—yes!—the help of Gangaa), he is wounded in the arm by a police bullet. Gangaa takes him home to Ma:
Of course they are! So Gangaa scoops the bullet out of brave Shankar, and they bond like brothers. He takes Shankar home, and they stop on the way at a bar where they sing a drunken song about their newly acquired friendship.
They also discuss the women they love, who of course is Jamuna. When Shankar reaches the temple where his father is a priest, the police are predictably waiting for him. He is arrested and sentenced to two years in prison.
Shankar comes across a group of men about to toss a cobra into a fire. He rescues the snake and scolds the men (who are appropriately ashamed), and gives the snake some milk to drink from his own hands. I figure a cobra is going to be a pretty useful friend at some point!
Gangaa also continues to romance Jamuna until one day she falls into a frozen river. Gangaa rescues her, but she is chilled to the bone and passes out. Luckily there is some sort of cottage nearby, where Gangaa realizes that in order to save her he will have to use his own body heat to warm her up (again so Mills and Boon). He takes off her wet choli and then his sweater. But this being an Indian film, or perhaps more accurately a Manmohan Desai film, he is unable to stop himself from…well, the screen cap tells the story.
(Yes, that is a cobweb tearing.) I am appalled and speechless, as is my sister.
I scribble on my notepad: ARGHHH!!!! Marta bangs the palm of her hand against her forehead.
He promises to marry her immediately, but somehow Inspector Goga and the Thakur have found the remote cottage and they rush in.
They arrest Gangaa for assault and he is sentenced to two years in prison. This being an Indian film (again), Jamuna is pregnant; she gives birth to a boy with the help of none other than Saraswati, who comes to her rescue when the other villagers want to stone poor immoral Jamuna.
A year and three months later (if my math is correct, and it occasionally is), Gangaa is about to be released from prison and Thakur Hansraj has new instructions for his man Ranga.
Ganga is met outside the gates of Central Jail by Jamuna, their little boy, and Bansi.
Their happiness is short-lived. As Bansi drives them home in the truck, Ranga blows up a bridge as they cross it. Jamuna is swept away in the rushing waters; faithful Bansi is killed in the explosion; and Gangaa manages to save the baby but cannot find Jamuna.
What will happen now? Will Jamuna be rescued? What has happened to Shankar (he must be out of jail now too)? And will poor Saraswathi’s selfless love for Gangaa ever be rewarded? To find out, you will have to sit through the long, drawn-out mess that is the rest of this film.
Amitabh is too old and tired-looking to really appeal as a hero. His undeniable charm and charisma are still there, but weary. This was my introduction to both Meenakshi Sheshadri and Jaya Prada, I think; I liked them both a lot—they were feisty, beautiful and could dance up a storm—although Lata singing for them was just wrong. Sorry. It has to be said. Mithun is wasted in his role—so much more could have been done with him.
And the plot gets too complicated and fragmented, even for Manmohan Desai. Amrish Puri’s Thakur is missing for a large chunk of it; instead we have the lisping ineffectual Chhote Thakur and Bhima, who is just a thug. The true evil which is necessary to anchor a film like this is simply not there. Also, one has to wonder why Gangaa—who has sworn vengeance as a small child—is basically loafing around with only occasional dust-ups with his inept cousin. He seems to have abandoned his plan to avenge himself and Ma on “Demon Uncle.” There are of course plenty of fun things to laugh at, most of which I have mentioned above. I am sad to say, too, that the big “ewwww” also noted above essentially puts a dent in my heretofore unabashed affection for Mr. Desai. The cowboy is staggering out of the rodeo barn.