My mother, bless her, likes to watch Indian movies with me. Dhund has been on my short list to watch for some time now, and given our mutual love of mysteries it seemed a good pick—and so it was! We both really enjoyed it, and were mystified as to how it would end right up to the end. Based on an Agatha Christie play called “The Unexpected Guest”, it’s an atmospheric ensemble piece where everyone involved gets to shine (as much as the pervading fog will allow). Besides the main whodunit plot, there is also a charming and unusual effort to portray the police as competent and not-corrupt, one of whom is Madan Puri of all people.
Plus: a new/old mystery hotel!
Our story begins appropriately enough on a dark and foggy night, as a car careens along a road. It soon crashes into a tree, and the reckless driver (not a Kapoor! but Navin Nischol) makes his way by torchlight to a nearby house. Nobody answers his knock, but he goes in anyway.
Inside, he sees a man sitting in the dark in a wheelchair: he is the owner of the house, Ranjit Singh (Danny Denzongpa), and he is dead as a doornail. Somehow the sight of terrifying Danny face-planted on a silver tea tray makes me laugh, but it’s still suspenseful!
Nearby stands his wife Rani (Zeenat Aman) with a pistol in her hand; she immediately confesses to the crime and asks Chandra Shekhar (the reckless driver’s name) to call the police.
He seems reluctant and she tells him that the gun went off in a struggle with her husband. She tells him of the abuse she has suffered at the hands of the vicious and psychopathic Ranjit (crippled by a tigress on a hunting trip, and a man so evil that he killed people’s pets and probably ate their babies too); Shekhar suggests that they concoct a story to keep her in the clear (since film courts won’t accept a plea of self-defense! I knew it! I guess a valid self-defense defense would ruin the plot of too many movies).
Shekhar comes up with an elaborate scheme which will obfuscate the time of the murder (changing it to 11 pm instead of 10:30 or so) and manufacture an alibi for Rani (besides her, the household contains her mother-in-law, younger brother-in-law, and two servants). He demonstrates how it will work to Rani, then removes his fingerprints from every surface and thing he has touched and leaves. All goes as planned, with the result that the maid (Ashoo? Anybody know?) finds Ranjit’s body after she and Rani hear a gunshot while they are in the kitchen brewing tea.
Best Expressionist Nahin Face ever?
Shekhar re-enters the picture with his original (and still true) excuse of needing a telephone. Mrs Singh (Urmila Bhatt, who was surely too young to be playing a stepmother already) asks him to call the police and report the murder, which he does. When Inspectors Joshi (Madan Puri) and Bakshi (Jagdish Raj) arrive, he tells them about his car and that just as he approached the house a “tallish” man in a dark overcoat ran out. Because of the dark and the fog, he explains, he wasn’t able to get a good look at the face.
I should say here that one of my favorite things about this film is the cinematography (Dharam Chopra—a relative of BR, the director?). Scenes are meticulously framed and beautifully shot.
The police now conduct a fairly competent survey of the scene! They photograph poor Danny, who has now been face-down on the coffee tray for a long time, and carefully pick up clues scattered around him: his watch, grazed by the bullet, plus a cigar—Ranjit only smoked a pipe. They also discover that the safe has been ransacked (Shekhar’s work) and deduce that the robbery-murder is probably an inside job.
Banke Lal (Deven Verma), the manservant, has been out all evening and thus becomes the first suspect. He also happens to be wearing a dark overcoat when he’s found at the local kotha (an excellent excuse for a song and dance: “Jubana Se Chunariya”—anyone recognize the dancer?).
He is also drunk and carrying a big wad of cash, and the police drag him off to spend the night in a cell. Luckily he’s cleared by the nautch girl the next morning, and when Inspector Joshi tells him that his employer has been killed Banke is shocked. He tells Joshi that Ranjit was more the type to murder than be murdered, and drives home the point that he was really an awful man: he was mean to his sweet stepmother, literally drove his little half-brother mad (which we have seen with our own eyes), and he abused his lovely wife.
A cleverly edited flashback gives us a glimpse of the rage Ranjit was capable of.
The scene where Banke is let go is quite wonderful for this too: as he is about to leave, he timidly asks about the large sum of cash which the police had confiscated from him the night before, and then backpedals in a panic that he will be locked up again. It’s both sweet and hilarious, and all three in the frame seem to be having a chuckle too.
I love little moments like that. I wonder if any policeman in the cinema audience changed his bribing ways as a result of the fine example Inspector Joshi sets?
Anyway, with Banke off the list and still convinced it was an “inside job”, the police soon find a new suspect: one of the few friends Ranjit Singh had, a lawyer named Suresh Saxena (Sanjay Khan). But he swears that it was one of the few nights where he didn’t come to play chess with Ranjit because he was busy elsewhere, although he is visibly shaken when Rani tells him that there was a witness who saw a man leaving the house.
Suresh goes to the hotel where Shekhar is staying and is relieved when Shekhar fails to recognize him. The police discover that his fingerprints are on the silver tray (the only thing not wiped clean by Shekhar, because Ranjit’s face was on it) by matching them to ones lifted from the cigar he gives Joshi (which also match the brand they had found near Ranjit’s body). They are so forensically…competent!
I wonder if they could help me figure out this hotel location and name; in this movie it is called the Savoy Hotel, which very well could mean that it is the hotel’s real name as often happens, probably as a courtesy “Thanks for letting us film there!”. But I have seen this lobby a few times before, in The Train for one—and in that it was called the Hilltop. I’ve seen those blue stairs before too, and I think the bottom left is probably the exterior. Of course, they could all be sets and/or pieces of different locations but…well, it’s something else for me to obsess about, so I’m happy.
Banke informs Joshi that Suresh was more a friend of Rani’s than of Ranjit’s, which adds to his suspicions that Suresh in fact was the man who Chandra Shekhar ran into. But Suresh tells Joshi that the night Ranjit was murdered, he was hosting a party at the Savoy for his political supporters.
This leads to a flashback of the party and an excuse for a lovely song and dance featuring Padma Khanna and Jayshree (plus it’s an Asha-Usha sister duet, which I always love) “Jo Yahaan Tha Woh Vahaan Kyon Kar Hua”. I am so grateful that the songs are (mostly) subtitled in this, because Sahir Ludhianvi is the lyricist for Ravi’s melodic songs and I adore the witty lyrics for this one, about how a man can be in two places at once!
When questioned by the police the hotel manager confirms that Suresh did indeed host a party that evening, but he remembers too that Suresh left for about an hour at 10:15 pm after getting a phone call from a woman. Suresh’s omission of this bit of info in his conversation with the police cements Joshi’s belief that Suresh committed the murder. He shows Shekhar a photo of Suresh. Shekhar, now a bit panicked that he’s gotten a real person in trouble with his story, repeats that he cannot possibly identify anybody not having seen his face.
Did Suresh kill Ranjit? Was Rani lying? Or did she honestly kill her husband by accident? What will Suresh do if he is arrested and tried for murder? Will Shekhar confess that he lied? With so many people having good reason to kill Ranjit Singh, have the police gotten the right person? (Nana Palsikar will be the judge of that! and Ashok Kumar makes an appearance as the impish prosecutor.)
If you are one of the only people besides me who hasn’t seen this yet, do. The lovely songs, fine performances (even Zeenat isn’t too bad), solid cinematography, and a great plot—with touches of sweetness and humor besides the mystery—give this one definite repeat value!