Reader Chris brought the sad lack of reviews on the internet of this film to my attention recently, and I am surprised. This is a really fun film, and though Shammi is admittedly towards the end of his career as a hero, he is still the Shammi who made hearts go pitter-patter. The songs are classic Shanker-Jaikishan-Rafi-Shammi, with the dance-off between Helen and Vijayanthimala probably its most well-known feature. But there’s so much more to it than that! Shammi is less exuberant than the Yahoo Shammi of early in the decade, which gives his performance a more subdued realism. He plays Prince Shamsher Singh, the jaded, bored, arrogant son of the Maharajah of Ramnagar (Ulhas); the film is about how wealth and privilege do not guarantee happiness, not by a long shot. This theme—and the setting, at the twilight of the Princely States—may be be trite, but they are no less valid; and the screenplay and story are penned by none other than Abrar Alvi. And the supporting cast…let’s just say it is a gift that keeps on giving.
It seems fitting that this is the post to celebrate my five years of blogging! I never dreamed on June 22, 2007 when I created Memsaabstory that it would become such a big part of my life and be the catalyst for so much learning and so many wonderful and rewarding friendships. I never dreamed that people would embrace the insanity that leads me to do things like this and this and this (and this, okay I’m stopping now), and I certainly had no idea how generously people would share their treasures with me. This is one such gift.
Miss Frontier Mail is utterly charming, made with the usual Wadia enthusiasm and attention to loony detail. The “Indian Pearl White” is certainly the focus, but she is more than ably supported by gangsters who balk at being dastardly, a fearsome spy-movie “Boss” precursor and his go-getter female assistant, futuristic gadgets, thrilling fights and chases, a banana-loving buffoon and so much more. It often feels very much like a silent movie, starting off with only music and no dialogue until seven or eight minutes in; title pages are interspersed throughout, the acting is exaggerated, and you can often hear the camera whirring. Like the Frontier Mail train itself, it picks up speed quickly and we’re off on a rollicking good ride as Fearless Nadia battles comic-book villains between dainty sips of tea in her fabulous Art Deco house. It is a literal and figurative rush of trains, motorcars, motorcycles and even an airplane!
This Dadasaheb Phalke silent film may be the first start-to-finish ADORABLE movie ever made. I in no way mean that condescendingly: I loved every frame of this and was wowed by some of the special effects (the much talked-about battle between young Krishna and the Kaliya serpent at the end particularly). Phalke’s seven-year-old daughter Mandakini plays young Shree Krishna as a hyperactive mischief-maker who gleefully torments the local villagers with the help of his friends, and she is brilliant—when she’s onscreen, you don’t want to look at anybody else. It is also absolutely hilarious in places, worthy company for the likes of Buster Keaton.
I love you, Kismet. I can see why, for 32 years until Sholay, you held the record for longest run at the box office. I love your story, I love ten-year-old Mehmood, I love VH Desai (whom Saadat Hasan Manto called “God’s Clown”), I simply adore Ashok Kumar in all his youthful kind-hearted con-man glory. I love your unwed pregnant girl, your runaway son; I even love your songs, which is sometimes hard for me with movies as aged as you are. I can’t wait to see you with subtitles (thanks Raja!) but even without them you are enthralling, you dear old progressive masala template of a film, you.
Mrs. Beige has been staying with me for a few days and bless her, she always enjoys watching a Hindi movie. (Well, not always.) We watched Seeta Aur Geeta the other night and at the end she pronounced it “Shakespearean” which I realized was bilkul correct. That made me think of this film, a marvellous adaptation by Gulzar of the Bard’s “Comedy of Errors” which I’ve owned for a long time but never watched all the way through. It, too, features twins who are mistaken for each other (in this case two sets of them) with hilarious consequences. The performances are deftly handled, and the script witty and well-paced (I could have done without most of the songs though).
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.
I have no idea what the plot of this movie is—seriously no idea—but I know that I love it. Even if with subtitles it became a maudlin, sexist melodrama (which I doubt) I would still love it. Why? Well for one thing it is extremely shiny. Premnath has a lair made completely out of mirrors, and not in a pretty Mughal-e-Azam kind of way but in a spectacularly gaudy disco kind of way. The songs by OP Nayyar are delightful and the cinematography (VN Reddy) is gorgeous. The cast is a veritable Who’s Who of character actors. And a still-dashing Sunil Dutt makes a dacoit I can really root for, although he does seem a little old for plump young Rekha. The story is liberally sprinkled with dacoit-drama masala ingredients: greedy moneylenders, long-lost daughters, flashbacks, dozens of people named Singh, pretty pretty Marwari horses, and real ruffians lurking beneath a veneer of respectability and draped with scantily-clad gori extras. I felt totally sated by the end.
Did I mention the mirrors? Lots and lots of mirrors.
How much do I adore this film? Let me count the ways! 1) Dharmendra; 2) Mumtaz; 3) everybody else in it—wah! what a cast; 4) the gorgeous songs; 5) the fine ultra-masala plot; 6) Dharmendra’s chaddies; 7) the props and sets, including my new obsession the Egyptian Room; 8) the best use of Indian Movie Balloons and (possibly) Padma Khanna EVER; 9) Mumtaz’s outfits and Spare Hair; 10) no Comic Side Plot to speak of; 11) wooden gora extras; and 12) everything else I haven’t mentioned. Everything.
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?”
True confession: I really can’t sit still through an entire Hindi movie without getting up to fidget. I wake up Gemma and irritate pet her, check my email, pour another glass of wine. The films are just so long and my attention span so short. But during this one I didn’t want to MOVE—I was positively riveted to my chair. There is no romance, no hero-heroine (and only three songs, each one a gem): it is an ensemble film, and what an ensemble it is! The finest character-actor-villains of the time play cohorts in crime who are joined by thief Vinod Khanna when one of them betrays the others. It is stylish and suspenseful entertainment at its best.