Manmohan Desai has been often imitated but rarely matched in his ability to pull heartstrings while conveying indelible (if occasionally incoherent) messages. What a lovely surprise to find a hitherto unknown (to me anyway) film that at least engages the heart in much the same way, if not the soul. There are plot holes and loose threads and I cannot in all conscience call it a good film; but I was quickly engaged by a story whose loony details and characters are easy to grow fond of. Laxmikant Pyarelal provided some nice tunes for it too, and if the message is simplistic—“Love your mother, do an honest day’s work, and don’t sell out your country”—at least it makes good sense!
I love the cast: Shashi Kapoor, Parveen Babi, Ajit, Madan Puri, Rajendra Kumar, Rakesh Roshan, Kamini Kaushal and Pradeep Kumar all have pivotal roles, ably supported by the likes of Raj Mehra, Krishan Dhawan, Zahira and Dulari. And really it is almost impossible for me to dislike a film which starts off with a fisherwoman kicking Madan Puri’s butt with a flying kick.
He plays Hiralal, leader of a gang of smugglers, whose nefarious activities are observed one night by two fisherwomen walking home. They manage to escape and give a description to Police Inspector Mehmood (Krishan Dhawan) the next day before Hiralal tracks them down again. The one who had put up a fight the night before does so again after giving her baby daughter to her friend and telling them to flee. Alas—she is killed, but her valiant self-defense keeps Hiralal busy long enough for Customs Agent Harnam Prasad (Ajit) to arrest him. Hiralal is found guilty thanks to Harnam Prasad’s testimony and sent to the Big House.
Could he look any more sullen?! Hiralal instructs his chief henchman Shera to exact his revenge upon Harnam Prasad, whose close-knit family consists of wife Kaushalya (Kamini Kaushal) and sons Ram, Laxman and Bharat. We meet them through a lovely song which becomes a leitmotif through the film “Bharat ka bhai Laxman, Laxman ka bhai Ram”.
The boys have large tattooes on their forearms, each with his own initial. I have to say that had I been an Indian parent in the 70s I probably would have tattooed my kids too before letting them leave the house.
The Prasad family is torn apart when Hiralal’s men tamper with the brakes on Ram and Laxman’s school bus during an outing—Ram tries valiantly to stop the bus containing his brother, but it rolls over a cliff taking both boys with it and bursting into flame. Harnam Prasad has taken the youngest, Bharat, on a boat ride; Shera, having hidden himself on it, stabs Prasad in the back and jumps overboard. Poor little Bharat covers his eyes as his father collapses and the boat collides spectacularly with the rocks on shore, bursting into flame.
The police have less faith in the ability of our boys to have survived all this bursting into flame than we devoted film fans know they should.
They might have looked for the live ones clad in brightly colored shirts lying out in plain sight near the charred bus, but never mind.
Bharat is luckier, as he is rescued by some passing fisherfolk who see him floating on a piece of his charred boat.
Meanwhile, Kaushalya is trapped when Hiralal’s men set fire to her house. Laxman finds his way home to a house as charred as the bus and boat, and is given some grim news.
Kaushalya is the only one of course who actually has gotten burnt, but she is still alive in a local hospital, although doctors are forced to amputate her leg. When she recovers consciousness and is caught up on all the (mostly inaccurate) news she leaves the hospital and tries to kill herself, but is stopped by a passing woman (Dulari).
Meanwhile, Laxman is searching for odd jobs—and refusing charity—to keep body and soul together, while older brother Ram takes to stealing. They both donate all their hard-won pennies to Dulari as she collects money to help Kaushalya perform her family’s last rites, but only Laxman sticks to the principles they have all been brought up with.
Bharat and Ram grow up to be comrades-in-arms called Badshah and Rocky (Rakesh Roshan and Rajendra Kumar respectively) working for Hiralal (now out of prison), although they continually fail to notice their largish and prominent matching tattooes and remain unaware of the relationship they share.
They are chased by the police one night into the home of Laxman—now known as LP (Shashi Kapoor), who has been educated in the meantime by a kind factory owner who took him in off the streets, and for whom he now works. Ram and Bharat tell him that they are downtrodden workers being chased by goondas disguised as the police and he sends the police packing when they show up minutes later.
And no, he doesn’t see Ram’s tattoo either.
Laxman is in love with his beautiful co-worker Rekha (Parveen Babi) and I am struck anew by how very beautiful these two are, individually and as a pair.
Elsewhere, Bharat listens as his boss Hiralal waxes rhapsodic about the substance which is going to make smuggling billions for him: uranium. He is positively gleeful about it in his pink Valentine’s Day outfit.
He explains that uranium can only be transported in lead boxes, which are only made in one factory: the one in which Laxman works. He sends Kuljeet (how I love Kuljeet!!!) to steal some of these boxes, but Kuljeet is thwarted by the loyal Laxman.
I am thrilled when the proceedings now move to an underground rocky lair with lots of cages—and scantily clad dancers writhing around an uncomfortable looking guy as “The Hustle” plays in the background (the original). It’s hilariously bad.
The patron of this madness? My new best friend Pradeep Kumar, playing the “foreign” buyer of India’s uranium, named Mac.
The antidote (not that one is necessary) is a very sweet love song pictured on Laxman and Rekha (“Kash Aisa Hota”). Parveen is put in a series of shiny dresses (and the inevitable—for her—white wedding gown and veil), Shashi in a tuxedo; and things go off the rails a bit in a forest of skeleton hands, but I love the quiet moments during the song where they are in character the best. And I know I will be vilified for saying this, but I wish they’d gotten someone else to sing it, because Lata sounds far too old by this time for Parveen. Still: it’s a gorgeous song and the wistful romance of it catches at my heart.
But of course inevitable problems are cropping up. The man to whom Laxman owes his life—factory owner Raj Mehra—wants Laxman to marry his daughter Kusum (Zahira). Plus Hiralal needs those lead boxes and will stop at nothing to stop Laxman from stopping him! Ram is hired at the factory when Laxman puts in a good word for him, and Hiralal instructs both Ram and Bharat to kill Laxman.
Plus: Harnam Prasad resurfaces, as a pirate in a Santa costume, determined to get his fair share (or more) of the uranium smuggling profits.
What circumstances have made him a pirate? Will his sons ever figure out that they all have the same tattoes (I mean, if they were Scandinavian I could see that it might take a while—being covered in layers of down and all—but they are in India) and not kill each other? Will they find their mother and father, and can Hiralal be stopped from shipping India’s precious uranium out of the country? Will Rekha and Laxman find happiness together?
It takes a good while longer, with many plot twists and lots of WTF-ery:
and several more songs (“Jugni” is another favorite) (look them all up online, they are nice). It’s emotionally satisfying if not intellectually so, and pure loony fun—and sometimes that’s enough.
And I suppose I must be honest and say that there are other reasons to stick it out too.
You said it, Parveen Babi.