This film’s positives are the great songs by Shankar-Jaikishan, the choreography, the filmi noir set decoration, and the Helen-Pran chemistry. Gumnaam is familiar to western audiences because the film Ghost World used its first song (“Jaan Pehchaan Ho”) in a scene. This song kicks off the journey into a crazy world where bouffant hair meets men in dresses; giant Easter Island statues with glowing red eyes compete with Helen for your attention; and a killer on the loose stalks his terrified victims. The drawbacks include a patchy and nonsensical plot, and Nanda and Manoj Kumar as the lead pair (Shammi and Asha Parekh would have been so much better!), but this is nitpicking when compared to the pluses.
Anyway, on to our story: as the movie opens, a man leaving a nightclub is run down. The man who ordered the killing watches, and then makes a series of phone calls with instructions to unseen people:
as well as a call to the victim’s niece Asha (Nanda) telling her that her uncle has died. Nanda gets to scream “Nahiiiiin” for the first of 8,258 times in this movie.
Then he, too, is killed, shot by a mysterious gunman in a trench coat. Cue credits, then on we go to another nightclub, where we are treated to the awesomeness that is “Jaan Pehchaan Ho”—it features (among many things) masked men in ruffly tuxedos doing a stiff, spastic (think Devo) version of the twist with a woman in a gold lame dress (Laxmi Chhaya), accompanied (note the band’s name) by a singer* who appears to be convulsing:
Once the audience has recovered, the seven winners of a raffle—the prize is a two-week vacation abroad—are announced. They are: Barrister Rakesh (Pran), Mr. Kishan (Manmohan), Dr. Acharya (Madan Puri), Mr. Dharamdas (Dhumal), Miss Kitty (Helen), Mr. Sharma (Tarun Bose) and Asha. They all board a flight which is forced to crash land on an island. The steward, Anand (Manoj Kumar), announces that while repairs are made they are free to wander around on the island. Once they have all gotten off, however, the plane takes off—leaving them and Anand stranded (luckily their luggage is left behind too).
Hungry and confused, they follow the sound of a mysterious song (“Gumnaam Hai Koi”) until they reach a large haveli. There, they are greeted by a strange, somewhat belligerent, dhoti-clad servant (Mehmood) who appears to have been expecting them.
At dinner, Anand discovers a diary which accuses each of them of conspiring in a murder and tells them that they will soon be dead too.
Naturally, they are quite disturbed. Rakesh consoles himself with his flask of booze and Miss Kitty:
I am more disturbed by Mr. Dharamdas’ pink dress:
The next day, Anand romances Asha with a song and the others go off on their various pursuits. At dinner that night, Kishan and Dharamdas are missing. Anand and Asha go looking for them and discover the first victim, Kishan. The following morning, after another romantic duet (“Jaane Chaman Shola Badan”—one of my favorites from any movie) they discover body number two (a hint that they should stop singing?), this one poor Dharamdas. They all realize that the killer must be one of them.
The men (except Anand) distract themselves by flirting with Miss Kitty and posturing to each other. Mehmood fantasizes about Kitty in the fantastic song “Hum Kale Hain To Kya Hua”—one of Helen’s all-time great dances (deserving many screen shots) (and she has two more songs besides!):
After more Helen dancing on the beach (“Gham Chhodke Manao”)…
…Mr. Sharma is murdered, followed soon after by Dr. Acharya. Now only Rakesh and Kitty, who have fallen in love, and Asha and Anand are left.
Will they get off the island? Will we ever discover how they are all connected? Will we discover who the killer is? Will it all finally make sense? Does it really matter? No! Never mind the plot holes and continuity problems: if you love Helen (and Pran), and 1960’s kitsch, you cannot miss this one. Search on Youtube for the songs, they are worth watching on their own.
*Does anyone know who this guy is? I love him!
Edited to add: I do now! Read this to find out!