The first hour and 45 minutes of this film are solid entertainment: an interesting suspense plot, pretty songs, beautiful Darjeeling, and plenty of sparks between Dev Anand (playing a 28-year-old and basically pulling it off at the age of 46) and Asha Parekh. Plus young Farida Jalal as a seductive nurse! But as so sadly often happens the last 45 minutes or so disappoint. This could be because there seem to be some scenes missing as the story reaches its dramatic peak which make subsequent events confusing and out of place. How edifying would it be to discover the place where all these thoughtlessly excised scenes and songs go to die a largely unmourned death?
Still and all, Mahal is a lot of fun and I’d watch it again.
We begin with three unseen men gathered around a table and a cool elephant ashtray, plotting to take over a wealthy man named Dinanath’s palace and wealth. And this version of “strike while the iron’s hot” just makes me laugh out loud.
The “Boss” instructs the other two to find the perfect stooge to help them. These two are Moti (Rajan Haksar) and Jimmy (Siddhu), and Jimmy finds that perfect stooge in Rajesh (Dev Anand). Rajesh works as the driver for a wealthy man by the name of Shyam (Abhi Bhattacharya) and spends his spare time using his incredible gift of luck winning money which he distributes to his needy friends. Jimmy spots Rajesh at a gambling club and Moti approves (enthusiastically!)—now they only need an opportunity to draw him into their net.
Rajesh lives with his Ma (Protima Devi) and sister Chanda (Azra). Ma disapproves of Rajesh gambling even though he gives all of the proceeds away (or maybe because of it—they clearly get along on very little money indeed). But the three of them are close.
Across town, a pretty girl named Roopa (Asha Parekh) has just graduated from college with honors and she’s planning to celebrate (with a picnic, of course!). She lives with her uncle in a much more affluent style than Rajesh. I love the way Hindi movie houses always remind me of cruise ships.
Now that she’s educated, all her uncle can think of is getting her married off and he has chosen none other than Shyam, Rajesh’s employer, as her would-be husband. He has invited Shyam over to meet her at 4 o’clock and despite her many protests—Roopa is a very modern girl and objects to being treated like a “vegetable in a market”—won’t back down. But Shyam has an unexpected business meeting to attend and sends Rajesh with a note to Roopa.
Rajesh takes his friend Pyare (Sunder) with him to deliver the note, but Roopa has called over some of her friends and they are determined to play a prank on poor Shyam.
Asha is absolutely hilarious and believable as Roopa’s “grandmother”. She plays it perfectly, stooped over her cane and assessing the would-be suitor’s unprepossessing characteristics (saying “Khair, koi baat nahin” in a creaky voice after each insult). But Pyare overhears her friends talking and informs Rajesh of the ruse; Rajesh of course decides to play along as Shyam a bit longer. He accompanies Roopa, now dressed as herself, on the picnic and woos her with a pretty song (“Yeh Duniya Wale Poochhenge”) at the end of which he hands her Shyam’s note and speeds off.
He returns home to find poor Ma weeping and upset over a love letter to Chanda that she has intercepted. I do have to give this film props for trying to send a good message: she blames Chanda, and Rajesh points out that men are equally if not more responsible for leading them astray with sweet false promises. I say “trying” because it’s still all about a brother saving his sister’s honor even if he has to kill someone to do it, just as Roopa’s objections to an arranged marriage are overruled after being paid only lip-service. But I’ll take it!
Rajesh goes off to meet Chanda’s beau Ramesh (Sudhir).
They quickly recognize each other as childhood friends and Ramesh, who really loves her, is soon engaged to Chanda. This is the opportunity Moti has been looking for. To raise the money for the wedding, Rajesh takes to the gambling tables for the first time on his own behalf and is quickly cheated by Jimmy. Moti intervenes and offers Rajesh 40,000 rupees if he will pose as Dinanath’s nephew Ravi, set to inherit all the wealth when Dinanath—now on his last legs—expires. Moti explains that he himself is Ravi but that after a long estrangement he doesn’t want Dinanath to see what a bad guy he’s turned out to be since he last saw him at age ten. It’s a long and complicated story which would have raised about a million red flags for me; for example, Dev Anand may be able to pull off being 28-year-old Ravi, but there is no way Rajan Haksar can!
Anyway, Rajesh readily accepts Moti’s story and agrees to pose as Ravi. Moti gives him a notebook filled with information about Dinanath and Ravi that only Ravi would know. Chanda and Ramesh are duly married with much pomp and ceremony, and Rajesh sets off for Darjeeling and Dinanath as Moti is shot and killed through a window as he boasts about the wealth he will soon have. On the train, Rajesh is sketching a picture of Roopa from memory when an older man (David) sits down next to him.
He is Roopa’s father Mr. Sharma, who lives in Darjeeling. Rajesh is embarrassed, but Sharma is simply amused. At the station, Rajesh is met by Dinanath’s driver who takes him to the Mount Everest hotel and informs him that his master will see “Ravi” tomorrow morning at 9:33 sharp.
Rajesh meets Dinanath (DK Sapru) punctually at 9:33 and passes his inspection easily. Dinanath doesn’t seem that ill to me—he is very pleased to see “Ravi” and tells him to have fun out and about in Darjeeling. He has a creepy but pretty nurse (Farida Jalal) to take care of him.
After this meeting Rajesh runs into Roopa’s father once again, who invites him to bring the portrait of Roopa and present it to her at her birthday party that evening. Roopa is not pleased to see him but I am dazzled by her party decorations which include beach balls, what looks very like a Christmas tree, and about a bazillion balloons. And what’s a birthday party without a song? Nothing! And this one is a good one.
Rajesh returns to his hotel to find Dinanath’s nurse waiting for him. She slyly congratulates him on fooling Dinanath and suggests that they kill him and split the inheritance. At first he rejects the idea, but when he realizes that she knows who he really is he decides to play along with her. This gives Farida an excellent opportunity for a seduction song—she is so innocent looking and so pretty too, and I just love seeing her in this avatar.
They agree that they will kill Dinanath the next day, and I crack up at the sight of a bold “POISON” bottle on the medicine cart. If Dinanath, who is seated right next to it, even glanced at the cart he wouldn’t be able to miss that label! Oh Hindi cinema, how I love your total and complete lack of the subtler nuances.
Rajesh of course can’t see it through and he knocks the glass out of Dinanath’s hand, to the nurse’s great frustration.
Later that day he meets Roopa. One of my favorite things about this movie is the chance to see the scenery of Darjeeling (I AM going there soon, oh yes I am):
and of course where there are hill stations and mountains, there has to be great knitwear. I think this Christmas elf outfit of Asha’s in particular deserves closer scrutiny, especially the ponytail hole built into the hat. I promised my friend Shalini that I would emphasize the awesomeness of it. I may have to knit one for myself, come to think of it!
Anyway, Roopa of course still believes that Rajesh is a mere chauffeur (which is true) and is unaware of the whole Ravi plot he’s entangled in. After some comedy (Kamal Mehra), another song, and lots of wooing, Roopa falls for handsome Rajesh. Her parents, thinking now that he IS the real Ravi, are overjoyed and push for their engagement, especially after the two of them get caught overnight in a rainstorm—giving us this absolutely lovely and heart-tuggingly romantic song (and no Hypothermia Rape!). Asha and Dev are just marvellous together.
Rajesh feels guilty about the lie, and determines to tell everybody the truth, starting with Moti—until he finds out about Moti’s murder. Someone telephones Shyam, Rajesh’s employer in Calcutta, to tell him that Rajesh is masquerading as Dinanath’s nephew; it turns out that Shyam himself is Ravi, the real nephew of Dinanath. He comes to Darjeeling to find out what’s going on and goes to the police—who include Ramesh, Rajesh’s brother-in-law and old friend.
Unaware of this development, Rajesh goes to see Dinanath. As he enters the house, Dinanath’s voice instructs him to retrieve a revolver out of his desk and bring it to him, saying that he is afraid. Rajesh does so—but Dinanath is dead, also murdered, and he isn’t the man Rajesh thought he was, but someone else (Uma Dutt) altogether! Of course he is now thoroughly framed (blood on one’s hands=incontrovertible guilt according to filmi police philosophy) for the real Dinanath’s death as Ramesh and Shyam burst into the palace with a bunch of policemen.
Who has murdered Dinanath? Who was the man masquerading as him, and why? Where is he now? What is the nurse’s role in all this? Who is behind Moti’s murder and the tangled plot that poor Rajesh finds himself in? Can he defend himself? Will his beloved Roopa believe in his innocence?
OH MA. Really? (Minor spoilers ahead).
At this stage everything began to unravel for me. Absolutely nobody believes in Rajesh—who has never been anything but kind, dutiful and generous towards everyone—except his sister Chanda. This develops into a bit much of a bhai-bahen “tie me a rakhi” thing and makes me wonder if anyone else in Rajesh’s life has any brains at all. The police obviously don’t have the capacity to think beyond what’s right in front of them; but I would think the people who love and know him might give him a break, and the fact that they don’t quickly becomes tiresome. I also figure out pretty quickly from here who the true culprit is, but as I said there appear to be scenes missing because it’s never explained how anyone else figures the mystery out—they just suddenly seem to know everything.
(End minor spoilers.)
Still and all, it’s a pretty fun and suspenseful story until all of this, and there’s a lot to love. To sum up:
- Things like a cigarette holder which holds the cigarette at a right angle like a pipe (is this really a thing?)
- Farida (and her POISON bottle)
- Asha and Dev and their sublime chemistry
- Winter wear and pretty much all of Asha’s outfits
- Darjeeling (so beautiful!)
- The songs (including a fantastic qawwali)
- A not-very-well-thought-out branding instrument
So all is not lost, and I can pretty much recommend this despite the ugly-stepchild finale. See the songs at least!