I love pirate movies, especially when the pirate in question is a woman. And if that woman is also Geeta Bali, then…hooray! When I first saw this ten years ago or so I knew nothing about Guru Dutt except that I was “supposed” to watch all his movies if I wanted to be au fait. There is nothing I don’t love about it, except that it hasn’t survived in its entirety, mostly towards the end. Like most of Guru Dutt’s films today the video is murky much of the time, but there is no disguising how beautifully shot every frame is. Equally lovely is the music: OP Nayyar’s tunes have just the right changes in rhythm for what is happening onscreen, and the lyrics (Majrooh Sultanpuri) are wonderful (and subtitled). Sublime. And the cast is just superb. In addition to the gorgeous lead pair are the legendary Sulochana (Ruby Mayer), KN Singh at his suavely villainous best, Johnny Walker and Kuldip Kaur in prime comedic form, and Yashodhara Katju as Geeta’s sweet-faced, slyly clever best friend. They all are just so much fun to watch.
Set during the Portuguese occupation of Malabar (present-day Kerala), the theme is unfortunately still relevant in today’s world. General Barbosa (KN Singh) rules the province with an iron hand, paying only nominal respect to the ruling Indian family who seem to function mostly as puppets. But in the poorer areas rebellion is fomenting. The story opens in the local marketplace where we are introduced to Kirni (Yashodhara Katju) and her mother, who owns a fruit stand. Portuguese soldiers appear and begin tormenting the villagers, starting with Kirni’s mother.
The soldiers are quickly set upon by the fed-up local population, led by Kirni’s friend Nisha (Geeta Bali) pelting them with fruit. As Portuguese reinforcements begin to appear, so does a handsome young man on horseback wearing a very stylish Audrey Hepburn-Flying Nun type of straw hat (it seems to be the local style). He pulls Nisha onto his horse, galloping out of the town limits with the soldiers in hot pursuit. Feisty Nisha is not too pleased at this, although she is easily pursuaded to climb a tree with him when the soldiers get too close.
When they are gone, she asks the young man who he is and he replies simply “a hunter”. He flirts shamelessly with her and Nisha pretends to be annoyed. The sparks of attraction fly thick and fast until more soldiers go by announcing that they are looking for the traitor Ramzan Ali Saudagar (leader of the rebellion), and anyone helping him will be arrested too. She is clearly disturbed by this and disappears into the forest.
Back at the fortress, General Barbosa is getting a massage from none other than young Tun Tun. He is pleased when a soldier appears to inform him that some of the rebels have been caught (they are being whipped outside). His house guest Rosita (Kuldip Kaur) also appears; she seems to be a pretty woman who caught his eye in Portugal, but things don’t appear to have worked out (her interest is clearly elsewhere).
The General is going to the palace to meet the Prince because the government in Portugal wants the Raj Kumar to be crowned King there, as was his father before him.
At the royal palace, the young Raj Kumar returns home—he is none other than Nisha’s savior, Ravi. His mother the Raj Mata (Sulochana) chastises him for his frivolity in the face of his people’s troubles, and she warns him that his bare-chested cousin Yashwant (Ram Singh) has his own eye on the throne, and is playing up to the General with that end in view.
Ravi doesn’t believe that Yashwant is really after his throne, and he doesn’t really want to go to Portugal either but Barbosa is insistent (and so very, very unctuous).
Meanwhile, soldiers have figured out where Ramzan Ali (Jankidas) is hiding: Nisha and her father Narayan Das (MA Lateef) have been keeping him in their home. As Nisha watches, her father and Ramzan are arrested and taken to the General’s headquarters. Her friends urge her to go to the Raj Mata for help, but the Raj Mata turns her away.
Desperate, Nisha and Kirni decide to attempt a rescue themselves. It doesn’t go well, however, and they are also arrested and jailed with the rest of the “traitors”. A slave trader and pirate (Habib, so I’ll just call him Habib) comes to do business with General Barbosa and suggests that he empty out some of the overflowing jail cells by selling some of the strongest, youngest men as slaves for trade elsewhere.
There is no honor among thieves, though, and wily Barbosa sends him the prisoners who have participated in the rebellion, including Nisha, her father, Kirni and Ramzan Ali. Habib discovers this perfidy too late, after his ship has sailed but is slightly mollified at the sight of Kirni and Nisha—until Nisha bites him.
He also orders all the men who aren’t fit to be sold as slaves to be thrown overboard; for some reason Narayan Das is spared, although he is clearly older than Ramzan Ali, who is among those discarded. It is not a pretty way to die, and the scene is quite grim. Nisha watches helplessly with Kirni, and a young Indian named Tillu (Jaswant), who is part of Habib’s crew, is obviously also perturbed. Nisha has proven no more amenable in the time since Habib first spotted her, and finally in a fury he has her tied to one of the masts.
The rest of the group are sent below to the galley and are starved and whipped for a couple of days while Nisha remains roped to the mast.
Also at sea are Raj Kumar Ravi and the lovely Rosita on their ship to Portugal. Rosita is doing her level best to seduce him (and teach him “Portuguese” ways) but without a lot of success. This exchange sums it up pretty well!
One night Habib gets very drunk and comes up to taunt Nisha. Down below in the galley, the men are getting tired of being beaten and remember—they are rebellious at heart to begin with. Nisha begins a song exhorting them to action, which is really quite stirring.
With the help of Habib’s Indian sailor Tillu, the men free themselves and take over the ship. They swear loyalty to “Didi” (Nisha of course), and when an auspicious bird of prey swoops down and sits on her shoulder her position as “The Falcon” is cemented. Of course it isn’t long before Nisha and her gang sail right into the path of the Raj Kumar’s Portuguese ship. Thrilling cannon booms and swordplay ensues, with the newly minted pirates prevailing. Nisha’s men urge her to throw all the passengers overboard, but she points out the virtues of tempering justice with mercy. She even sends the ship’s old captain off in a lifeboat to report back to Barbosa about his new female enemy. She recognizes Ravi at once (*sniff*) as her previous “rescuer” but puts them all to work swabbing the deck, even her fellow Indians.
Court astrologer Johnny Walker convinces Ravi to keep quiet about his royal status—the ruling family are seen by rebels as being firmly in Barbosa’s pockets and his presence aboard a Portuguese ship would only confirm that.
He continues to annoy and flirt with Nisha, and all that tension finally culminates in a sword fight between them which itself ends with Nisha falling overboard and Ravi jumping in to rescue her. It’s so cute and they have such great chemistry that I am only moderately distracted by Ravi’s ballooning shirt that makes him look like this guy.
Kirni is pretty amused by where this is all going too, and sings a pretty song teasing them. But nobody else is that pleased: Tillu is suspicious of the Raj Kumar, and Rosita is not pleased with the competition. Back in Malabar, the old captain has reached Barbosa and told him that the Raj Kumar and everyone else is dead. The Raj Mata is devastated by the loss of her son but Yashwant seizes his opportunity. And as Ravi sings another wonderful song to Nisha, Rosita decides to make her own escape in a lifeboat and heads back to Malabar.
What will Yashwant and Barbosa do when they discover that the Raj Kumar is still alive and in the company of The Falcon, who has been sinking the General’s ships left and right? Will Nisha’s men remain loyal in the face of her romance with the mysterious Ravi? Will Nisha still love Ravi when she discovers that he is the Prince, scion of the royal family which has let her—and her people—down so often? Will Ravi learn anything from the rebels he’s been traveling with? Can anyone ever free Malabar from the clutches of the Portuguese?
Even if you can predict how it ends, you will enjoy this film. Guru Dutt is so dashing, Geeta is beautiful, and their chemistry is superb. I like that his is the more light-hearted role in this, while Geeta is grouchy much of the time (oh the responsibilities of being The Falcon!); it’s a nice change of pace for both. There are many little comedic touches—sometimes even just a facial expression makes me burst out laughing—and the whole cast is just marvellous, each contributing and adding a nice depth to the overall picture. The story moves along nicely with only a little moralizing (plus it’s moralizing I am totally on board with anyway). And if you’re not familiar with the music, do look up the songs online. They are gems, every one.
Plus, I believe I have found a new maxim to live by.