I know this is not an Indian film! But it stars Shashi Kapoor alongside the lovely Hayley Mills and the legendary Trevor Howard. I have been looking for it forever, and finally—finally!—got my grubby little paws on a copy. Hayley Mills made some of my favorite childhood movies: The Parent Trap, That Darn Cat! and Pollyanna, all for Disney, and then moved on to making films like this one in an effort to shake up her good-girl image. So this is an excellent blend of my childhood movie favorites and my relatively new obsession with Hindi cinema.
This one (also called Pretty Polly) is based on a story by Noel Coward, and while it meanders a bit, there is plenty of good fun in it. It is set in swinging mid-1960s Singapore, with riotously colorful characters, wonderfully witty dialogues, and a sublime soundtrack. There is a lot of British “colonial” ambience if you like that sort of thing, which I do (I can’t help myself, sorry); and the transformation of Polly over the course of two days and two nights in the company of handsome wheeler-dealer Amaz is both hilarious and touching.
Hayley Mills plays Polly Barlow, a meek middle-class English girl invited to travel on a Far East cruise as companion to her wealthy (and ill-tempered) aunt, Mrs. Innes-Hook (Brenda De Banzie, who is hysterical). “Companion” is Aunt Eva’s euphemism for unpaid servant, as Polly well knows; but she is eager to experience life outside the small dreary town where she has grown up working in her mother’s cake shop.
Our story gets under way in lively Singapore. Polly has been kept busy running errands for Aunt Eva on board, although she has managed to sneak away (with her aunt’s binoculars) when she can. The activities director on the ship is played by Patricia Routledge, whom you’ll know if you’re a fan of British television comedies like I am! Who knew Hyacinth Bucket was ever so young!
In any case, the cruise itinerary gives them two days to spend in Singapore. Aunt Eva is expecting to be met by her “irresponsible” brother-in-law, Robert Hook (Polly’s uncle, her mother’s brother), who lives on a rubber plantation nearby. His failure to come on board to meet them meets with her heartiest disapproval.
She is no happier when they disembark into a crowd of hawkers, and are eventually greeted by Amaz (Shashi Kapoor), a smooth operator who has been sent by Uncle Bob with the news that he is down with malaria and can’t see them. Amaz assures them that he’ll take good care of them.
He ushers them into a car and continues to explain how very ill Hook is. At a traffic light, the car pulls up next to a rickshaw containing—Uncle Bob (Trevor Howard) and his petulant Chinese “girlfriend” Lorelei (Kalen Liu). Amaz sees Hook at about the same time as Hook sees them, and they both urge their drivers to move quickly through the intersection. Polly sees her uncle as well and saves them all from a minor nuclear explosion by distracting Aunt Eva as the car and rickshaw careen off in different directions.
Amaz has booked a suite at the famous Raffles Hotel for Aunt Eva, and a smaller room for Polly. As they check in, an amused Polly watches as a wealthy American woman presses a wad of notes into Amaz’s hand and thanks him for introducing her “to more of the magic of the Orient than I knew existed.”
That afternoon, Aunt Eva stuffs herself on barbecued spare ribs by the pool, and leaving her handbag full of valuables under Polly’s watchful eye, goes in for a swim. As Uncle Bob is to put it later: she sinks “like the Titanic.”
At the hospital, Polly waits with Amaz as the doctors examine Aunt Eva, and then pronounce her dead of a heart attack. Out at the rubber plantation, Uncle Bob is thoroughly irritated to hear from Amaz that his sister-in-law has expired, necessitating a trip into Singapore for him to rescue “that poor pathetic girl.” Lorelei persuades him that Polly can wait until the next day.
Amaz escorts Polly back to the hotel, still expressing his sympathy. He fortifies her with a glass of gin and Polly asks him to return in an hour. She shifts all her belongings into her aunt’s suite and empties out the handbag full of cash and jewelry.
When Amaz returns to take her out for the evening, he continues his polite and overblown sympathies, until Polly informs him that although her aunt’s death came as a bit of a shock, it doesn’t grieve her in the least. He tells Polly what Uncle Bob’s real instructions to him had been: “Keep the old bitch away from me at all costs!” and they share a laugh. At dinner, she asks why he’s being so kind to her and he tells her that he thinks she is fun, and brave, and pretty. I love this dialogue:
He will make you a special price! Then Amaz kisses her thoroughly—oh my! The transformation of our Polly is underway.
Amaz himself is behaving slightly out of character—the waiter brings the check and puts it down in front of Polly, clearly the custom when Amaz is escorting a woman. But Amaz snaps at him, and insists on paying himself, although Polly offers. Then he takes her to the beach, with a predictable—and sweetly romantic—result.
The next morning, Amaz takes Polly to visit his useful makeover friends. First stop: a Japanese oculist, who fits Polly with contact lenses and assures her that the irritation will go away in a few days, and then a flamboyant hairdresser whose eyes light up when he sees the wad of cash in Polly’s possession.
Amaz agrees with Polly that maybe the towering hair and thick makeup are a bit much, but he assures her that she is as beautiful as he knew she would be. Armed with new confidence, Polly goes aboard the cruise ship to pack up her aunt’s belongings, and orders the captain to hand over her aunt’s valuables from the ship’s safe. That afternoon, Uncle Bob arrives at the funeral after it is well underway, and is pleasantly surprised to discover his niece NOT in hysterics.
Polly returns to the hotel after the funeral, where she catches the eye of a rich American businessman named Rick Preston (Dick Patterson), who is staying in a suite down the hall from hers.
Amaz catches up with her in the hall. He tells her he was afraid that her uncle would have taken her “to the swimming club, to meet his virile friends” and confesses that he greatly desires her. So sweet! She invites him in under the disapproving gaze of the housekeeper. It’s clear that Amaz doesn’t quite know what to make of this new, confident Polly, and equally apparent that he’s genuinely attracted to her and not to her aunt’s money. It’s a very sweet scene and I melt into a puddle.
They spend a happy hour or so in her room together before her Uncle Bob appears. He is livid to find Amaz there, since it’s obvious what they have been up to. He dismisses Amaz rudely and embarks on an argument with Polly. Amaz will sleep with anyone who pays him, he tells her. She retorts that Bob is a fine one to talk, since he pays Lorelei for her companionship. He wants to send her home on the next plane. She says passionately that all her life she has been an ugly duckling, and miserable, while he was off being the black sheep of the family, and getting away with it. Aunt Eva’s death has been an unexpected gift: she can really experience life for a while before she returns to boring reality. Furthermore, she tells him, Amaz is the first man to have ever found her beautiful and worth making love to, and she hasn’t paid him a cent.
This speech gains her grudging respect from her uncle, and when she asks him to help her steal a portion of Aunt Eva’s jewelry—purchased on the way in Colombo and thus not on any existing list of her property—he’s completely won over.
They arrange to meet for dinner, along with Amaz and Lorelei, and Uncle Bob takes his leave. In the lobby, Amaz approaches him to protest that he’s not after Polly for her money; Hook tells him to wear a dinner jacket when he escorts Polly to dinner that evening.
But Polly is now on the radar of the rich Mr. Preston. He presses her into a pre-dinner cocktail in the hotel lounge. He is a millionaire businessman who builds luxury hotels, and is about to start work on one in Singapore. Flattered by his attentions, Polly forgets the time as Uncle Bob, Amaz and Lorelei are left waiting for her.
This is where the film goes *a bit* off the rails for me. As a female with eyes and a heart, I cannot possibly be made to understand why Polly would neglect Amaz to spend time with schmoozy Rick. He is obviously a player, and he isn’t Shashi. I know we are supposed to understand that Polly is experimenting with her new-found glamor and appeal, but—I just can’t suspend disbelief that much.
In any case, it turns out that Rick and Amaz know each other well (Amaz being a player as well, of course, although not when it comes to Polly). The consequences of this pre-dinner cocktail reverberate for the rest of the long night, as Polly kicks up her heels for the first time in her life. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that truths are revealed, lessons are learned, hearts are a bit bruised, and life goes on.
I really enjoyed this film. Shashi is wonderful as the initially self-serving Amaz who finds himself falling for sweet Polly’s zest for life, and then for her bravado and beauty as well. Trevor Howard gives a great performance as the debauched but not insensitive Uncle Bob, and Kalen Liu is hilarious as the “me love you long time”-type Lorelei. I also loved the all-too-brief presence of the imperiously shrill Aunt Eva, and of course the film is a Hayley Mills vehicle. Her performance as Pretty Polly is wry and sparkling. It’s well worth seeing even if you aren’t particularly a Shashi fan, and most emphatically worth it if you are.