Sometimes I just have to ask myself if I live in a cave or something. Why have I not seen this movie before?! I could have seen it ten times by now! Why am I so late to this party?
But better late than never, especially to a party like this one. Beyond the endless (and largely nonchalent) WTF-ery there is a lot going on, much of it possibly unintended but tremendously engaging nonetheless. Hacking my way through the dense plot I spot references to the legend of King Arthur, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, the Bible, Beastmaster, Alice In Wonderland, William Faulkner and so much more. I revel in Amitabh’s recyled outfit from Shahenshah and Rajasthan’s gorgeous Amber Fort. Best of all, I am led to ponder issues like “What is the lifespan of a dolphin, anyway?” and “What’s the point of having a magic talisman that turns into an elephant if you never use it?”
The subtitles are terrible (although occasionally funny too, as usual). For instance, protagonist Ajooba’s catch-phrase is the well-known Urdu couplet by author Agha Hashr Kashmiri (Mehboob Khan famously used it as part of his production company logo): “Muddayi lakh bura chahe to kya hota hai, wohi hota hai jo manzoor khuda hota hai.” It is badly subtitled here as “No ills can evil-doers perpetrate, all that happens is willed by the Lord.” This makes no sense as we watch the bad guys decimating the citizenry left and right, but keeping in mind the much more accurate (and blissfully short) translation “Man proposes, God disposes” it works a lot better.
Besides the poor subtitles and heavy-handed breathy 1990s-style dubbing, the only sour chord for me really (dare I say it?) is Amrish Puri’s one-note performance as the Vizier and his own stupid catch-phrase “Shaitan zindabad!” He gets on my last good nerve very quickly and I long for Ajit or Madan Puri instead. I wonder if Mr (A) Puri ever got fed up with playing the same uni-dimensional character in every film he was ever in? I’ll bet he did. In any case it’s unfair that the wicked Vizier gets to live and work (is villainy a job?) in my favorite room of all time.
But—onwards to all the Good Stuff! There is plenty of it. This will be a loooonnngg post (making up for my relative absence of late).
I am enchanted from the get-go when a bunch of astronomer-magicians send a magic star to the sweet little dollhouse fortress town/kingdom of Bahrestan to bless and protect the newborn son of the Sultan (a resplendently upholstered Shammi Kapoor) and his wife Malika (Ariadna Shengelaya).
Their previous five sons have been murdered by Queen Malika’s midwife on the orders of the evil Vizier, who wastes no time in offing his own people when they displease him too. But the magicians’ star has done its work well, and the little boy survives. The Sultan throws a lavish celebration and is pleased when his dear friend from the neighboring kingdom of Hind arrives. Amir Khan (Saeed Jaffrey) is a magician himself and presents the baby with the aforementioned elephant charm:
along with a magic sword for the Sultan which can cut through rock. The Sultan promptly tests this by shoving it into a marble column. Amir Khan watches in amusement as the Vizier tries to draw it back out without success, and eventually tells him that the sword can only be withdrawn by someone of royal blood. The Sultan is pleased and decides to leave it there for now.
Amir Khan’s plan to return home to his own pregnant wife in Hind goes terribly wrong when he is caught up in the Vizier’s plot to overthrow and kill the Sultan and his family. The Vizier imprisons him after taking his precious magical necklace (it keeps anyone who wears it from harm) and then sets his loyal soldiers onto the Sultan. The Sultan (being Shammi) has seen this coming and manages to flee with his wife and tiny son in a boat, where they are set upon by the Vizier and his brother-in-law Shah Rukh (Dalip Tahil) from a flying carpet. Sadly that scene is too dark to capture in a screenshot, but the boat is burned up and the Sultan, Malika and the baby all presumed drowned.
But no! The Baby Prince is nudged ashore on a piece of wood by a kindly dolphin, and comes to the attention of a kindly blacksmith. So much of kindness! Dil squish!!!!
Amir Khan is blamed by the Vizier for the death of the Sultan and his family, and the Vizier is declared the new Sultan. In his dark isolated cell, Amir watches through a magic ring as Malika’s brother Anwar (Tinnu Anand) asks the Maharaja of Hind (Dara Singh!) to punish Amir’s wife Zarina (Sushma Seth) for Amir’s crimes. Dara sensibly refuses, and Zarina gives birth to a daughter after she is saved from Anwar’s thugs by a lion, a leopard, a python and two elephants. In grand masala tradition, this film is chock-full of animals equipped with intelligence and a keen moral compass, who rise to the occasion when the humans fail to come up to scratch:
Hurray! Sadly, Amir’s ring is taken from him by the Vizier’s court magician and he is consigned to dark solitude in a dungeon cell. If I wanted to quibble about details (which I don’t) I would wonder why he isn’t just executed, but never mind.
As the Vizier-Sultan subjects his people to untrammeled bug-eyed oppression and tyranny:
the little Prince, now called Ali, grows up basking in the love of his blacksmith father and dolphin mother. He becomes the fearless Ajooba (Amitabh Bachchan), a fashion-forward Robin Hood with deadly fighting skills and the ability to catch arrows shot at him with his bare hands.
He meets up with his real mother Malika, now a blind beggar still clutching the little stone elephant in her hand, when she convinces the townspeople to refuse a bribe offered by Shah Rukh in return for information on Ajooba. When Shah Rukh whips her in retaliation Ajooba shows up and turns the tables. Malika eventually manages to stop him, but not until he’s given Shah Rukh quite a solid whipping as the crowd counts along with glee (this subtitle and context also made me giggle, for obvious reasons):
Ajooba takes Malika home and disappears, reappearing a short time later as Ali. They bond and Ali takes her to meet his “mother”—the dolphin. I can think of nothing except William Faulkner’s classic novel “As I Lay Dying” and the 5-word chapter within: “My mother is a fish.” Ali even says “Ma yeh, yeh machhli hai.”
I know dolphins are not technically fish, but I will never quibble when my people find their way into Hindi cinema (even unintentionally).
Ali/Ajooba’s best friend (who knows of his double identity) is a cheerful flirt named Hassan (Rishi Kapoor). It’s hard to blame Hassan for his philandering ways, since the entire female population of Bahrestan are dressed in belly-dancer outfits. But his roving eye finally comes to rest on the Vizier-Sultan’s daughter Henna (Sonam). He audaciously introduces himself to her and tells her he is a poor potter who can barely get two square meals a day. She is spoiled and clueless, a princess with no understanding of the peasant class: “If they don’t have bread, let them eat cake!”
He is smitten and so, though it takes her a while to admit it, is she.
Meanwhile, poor Amir Khan is whiling away his time in the dungeon by sending birds with messages to Hind in the hopes of finding his lost wife and daughter. One clever bird tracks them down and fortunately daughter Rukhsana (all grown up into Dimple Kapadia) understands its billing and cooing (again, why quibble with something so fun?).
Her mother Zarina is not in any great shape either; she isn’t blind but she has a tricky heart or something, so Rukhsana sets off to find Amir by herself. In Bahrestan, she catches the eye of the Vizier-Sultan’s son Prince Altaf (Georgi Darchiashvili) who is out collecting taxes from his squeezed-out people and decides to add Rukhsana to the bounty. Ali’s sister Shehnaaz—Shah Rukh! Rukhsana! Shehnaaz! how I love Muslim names—watches it happen and runs back home to tell Ali.
Ali doesn’t much care about the kidnapping, but is happy to spring into action anyway with this startling pronouncement.
He finds time to rescue Rukhsana, who gives Ajooba a silver bracelet as thanks before he rides off after asking Hassan to take care of her. Garrulous Hassan fails to notice when four bandits snatch her off her horse as she rides behind him.
I love Sudhir! That flashing smile beneath that manly mouche gets me every time. All that is sadly missing is Ranjeet in a matching outfit.
The Vizier-Sultan is meanwhile ever more angry and frustrated at Shah Rukh’s inability to catch Ajooba.
Shah Rukh’s new ploy: kidnap Malika and hold her captive in the town square, forcing Ajooba to come and rescue her. Clever Ali substitutes the Vizier’s brother Ansari for himself; the Vizier’s soldiers shoot him full of arrows as he rides into the Square.
This brings us to the intermission—yes! we are only now at the intermission! And really the best is yet to come. With Rukhsana held captive by bandits; Malika now a target for the Vizier (I do have to wonder why the Vizier fails to recognize Malika, but I guess age and beggardom will change a person); Amir Khan still in his dark dungeon cell; Hassan in love with the out-of-his-reach Princess (or is she?!); and the whereabouts of the deposed Sultan still in question, things kick into high gear with ever more far-reaching flights of fancy, weird monsters, magic carpet shenanigans and lots of heart and soul.
There is wooing to be done (and the male Kapoor tradition of looking hideous in drag to be upheld):
There is magic to be wrought:
And rescues to be effected, both by regular animals and by this startling Lava-Shelled Turtle-Lobster with a Foo Dog head (nicknamed by me “the FooLobster”)…
…sent by Ma the Fish of course (thanks, Ma!).
There are lots of Little People around too. Some of them bid on Rukhsana when the bandits auction her off and I giggle at their tart exchange:
This seems a good time to bring up the costumes: Maganlal Dresswala has outdone himself in this one! Wah! It is a steady stream of gorgeous fabrics and Arabian Nights fantasy meets Rajasthani Desert fabulous. I even love Ajooba’s outfit, although I think I may be in the minority there. I really like how beautiful the older women in this look too, without loads of makeup and overdone “aging” effects.
And the film is a treat for those like me who love the “unsung” of Hindi cinema. Rajendranath and Narendranath appear fleetingly as citizens of Bahrestan (who is the snaggle-toothed guy next to Rajendranath? He is so familiar):
Bob Christo is given short shrift by Ajooba:
Sapru’s lookalike son Tej Sapru plays Dara Singh’s son Uddam:
Dara’s curly ‘stache needs a little glue, but I love his velvet and ribbons and chunky jewelry.
Best of all, I now have enough screen caps to start my 90s gallery, mostly from this one film!
I have seen Ajooba accused of being a little “sloppy” in the special effects department; some who say this say it like it’s a bad thing, but I am delighted.
When Shammi is held captive by the surprisingly delicate fingers of the “Shaitan” I root for him as he stabs futilely at the creature with his tiny sword.
I could just go on and on and on even more than I already have, but if you are late to this party too just WATCH IT. Shashi—I know you lost a lot of money on this one, but thank you for making it from the bottom of my dil.