I normally would not bother writing about this film since Beth and the PPCC have already covered it in their usual stellar and thorough fashion. But they mostly liked this, and I hated it. Part of the reason is that it was *almost* good. It should have been, could have been! It had a great cast and good songs! But even the goodness of Shashi+Amitabh is not adequate compensation for being smashed over the head with a sermon that I disagree with, especially when it’s done largely to compensate for the lack of a real script (by Salim-Javed, no less). “Clutch your [Bible, Quran, Gita, other] and trust in your blind faith!” it trumpets. Just the kind of pablum that a world overrun with corruption, greed and poverty needs, right?
This film is full of damaged people, both literally and figuratively. We have Mohan and Ahmed (Shashi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan), who give false evidence in court (after swearing on their respective religious texts to tell the truth—nooooo!!!) in exchange for money. They are unfailingly kind to their neighbor’s blind daughter Shyamlee (Aparna Sen), though, so we know they aren’t all bad. Then there is Jenny Francis (Helen), a fallen-from-grace woman with a fatherless daughter and a yen for the bottle; and Balbir Singh (Utpal Dutt), an ex-army man with a fake leg that keeps flying off (not the only reason he’s my favorite character, but a very strong point in his favor).
Some of the actors are damaged by the people doing hair and makeup: Rekha is forced to wear orange self-tanner (I had no idea it even existed back in 1977!) as “blackface” to emphasize her status as a south Indian laborer, I guess.
Sanjeev Kumar, Amrish Puri, Prem Chopra and Om Shivpuri sport such terrible wigs that I can’t even listen to them, so fascinated am I by their faux hairlines.
In the case of Sanjeev Kumar, that is mostly a good thing. He plays Kabir, a character so irritating with his noble pomposity that I want to scream. No flaws! He is both devout and communal, absorbing knowledge from all religions and preferring none over another. This by itself is a message I have no problem with, but his endless sanctimonious preaching makes him impossible to like. Even his own father (Om Shivpuri) finds him annoying.
More on that later.
There is much to like, too, if only there had been a good script of some sort. Exhibit A: Shashi. At this point in the film my sister and I paused for a discussion about the beauty of Shashi, and how very handsome his father was, and I showed her some photos of the young Prithviraj.
We then spent some time comparing father and son—noses, mouths, chins and eyelashes—generally oohing and aahing, and it was a fine respite from all the sermonizing. I will add that the Shashi-Rekha pairing works nicely: they have a very fun song together, and some really sweet scenes, and his prettiness at least somewhat compensates for her unfortunate color.
Exhibit B: Amitabh. WHO’S YOUR DADDY??!!
He is so fine in this film, in a sleazy but lumberjack-ruggedly-sexy kind of way (it contrasts nicely with Shashi’s more aristocratic gorgeousness). He is also a good soul, who is kind to Helen even though she drinks, and to her little girl. He even rocks the multiple plaid shirts he’s put into.
Both of us = Exhibit C: Shashitabh, of course, in which the power of each is added together and then squared, and is thus exponentially even more magnificent than either one alone. I know this to be true, despite my mathematical disabilities. Beth and the PPCC concur, as most of us know, and are wonderfully eloquent on the subject of how great they are together in this film.
Speaking of disabilities, I mentioned that my favorite character is Balbir Singh, the ex-army major. In one of the few scenes containing a message I could actually cheer, he stands up during a charity benefit (hilariously called the Ex-Service Men’s Benevolence Night) and chastises the Bad Guys for thinking they have anything worth offering men like him who will even die for them. He then calls up all the service men present (on crutches and lacking limbs, most of them) to dance for the gathered do-gooders and prove their awesomeness. They dance up and down waving their crutches and empty sleeves—and it’s quite exhilarating. But then Balbir Singh’s leg flies off and he has to crawl across the floor to retrieve it. I think this is supposed to be poignant and touching, but my sister and I laugh and laugh.
Still, we love Balbir Singh and his feisty attitude.
At the end of the film when he’s helping Shashitabh and Rekha (yeah! she is fierce!) fight the Bad Guys, his prosthesis comes off again and he uses it as a weapon while hopping on one leg. Take that, anonymous henchman!
Also awesome: when the blind Shyamlee is almost raped, passersby actually come to her rescue! And she is not reviled—she even gets engaged! (Only to sanctimonious Kabir, but still. Baby steps!) Amitabh beats up her would-be rapist, Garga—who is an almost unrecognizable Shetty (in the hundredth bad wig of the film). I do not believe I have ever seen Shetty with hair.
And the songs by Laxmikant-Pyarelal have a lot of charm, especially the anthem-like “Kuncham Kuncham” and the cute Shashitabh duet “Hum Jhooth Bolte Hain.”
All these things are awesome enough that if only the film had had a meaningful message—or was even just pure fun-time masala—it would have been really good.
These great ingredients are squandered on a product which has nothing to it except: “WORSHIP GOD WORSHIP GOD WORSHIP GOD OMG KABIR IS GOD!”
The idea that redemption of any kind can only be found through “organized” religion is too much for this atheist-agnostic (translation: spineless atheist) to tolerate. There is absolutely no alternative offered. Although I did giggle when I saw this:
My friend Joey Cat once told me that when he was a choirboy, he would kill time during church services thinking up things that “INRI” might stand for (it decorates the top of many crosses). His favorite (and mine) was “I’m Nailed Right In.” (Sorry.) (Okay, not really.)
But the imagery (holy books, crosses, domed mosques, temples, etc.) and the preaching is so relentless and so over-the-top that it becomes just plain exasperating. There is nothing else to the story, just: embrace your religion…embrace it! EMBRACE IT! Communalism is even done to death. The script had no subtlety, no balance, no real ideas, almost nothing I could even agree with (and very little *intentional* humor to leaven all that earnestness with either). I expect more from Salim-Javed, I really do.
When Helen dies (as she always does when she has an actual role, so I don’t consider this a spoiler):
the doctor asks for Amitabh’s signature authorizing an autopsy. He gives a long speech about how fraught with difficulties her life was, and how her body should now be left in peace—to which I can only say: Aaarggghhh! People! Autopsy=evidence=the way to put the criminals who killed her behind bars!
Maybe it was all more a commentary on how little faith the filmmakers had in the mechanisms by which a just society is managed. I can see that when one has no trust left in law or government one might turn to religion (although I wouldn’t). But this film made no attempt to address social issues beyond bringing up the usual black marketing cliches—and they seemed just an after-thought. The single-minded insistence that one must adhere to a religious faith is just…pointless, and having it shouted at you for three hours is torture—especially when it’s wasting the talents of the A Team.
Manmohan Desai probably could have done something entertaining with it, but I guess he wasn’t asked. Too bad.