I have had the good fortune to get my hands on some Filmindia issues from 1939, courtesy of my friend Shalini, who sums up the reading experience perfectly: “…like being in a time warp with a sarcastic, witty, opiniated guide.”
There’s nothing finer on a wintry and cheerless day than a Wadia Brothers Arabian Nights tale brought to you in Glorious Gevacolor! I am pretty sure that an early Nadia stunt film would be equally fine, but until they become readily available these are just the ticket. Standard features include feisty beautiful women (and dancing girls) in harem outfits, a swashbuckling hero (and in this one Mahipal is not even girly), kings with evil commanders named Something Beg, scores of caped extras, an intrepid animal companion or two (Zabak‘s is a white horse who doubles as the Comic Side Plot!), lovely songs (by Chitragupta here)—and always, absolutely always, every frame is filled with stuff that I would kill to get my sparkle-loving hands on.
Zabak is no exception to my Wadia Brothers Cardinal Rule (which is that the Wadia Brothers…well, RULE).
Most of you know that I’m always on the lookout for Ted Lyons & His Cubs in the background of any fabulous number in a mid-sixties film. Whenever I see that name on the drum kit, I know the music and dancing will be outstanding! Plus, the band members themselves perform so energetically that they always add an extra fillip to the organized chaos on the dance floor.
So you can imagine my glee when Ted’s son Steve contacted me here over the weekend. (*I was thrilled!*) He also very graciously sent me the above photograph of the band (Ted is on drums; you can enlarge the picture by clicking on it). Then yesterday I heard from The Man (Terence “Ted” Lyons) himself. He told me that he also had a small role in the Mehmood film Bhoot Bungla:
…you will see me [as] a leader of a bad gang…there [is] a blind old man playing a violin on the street begging for money…I get hold of it and Mehmood is with good gang going past and he orders me to return the violin to the old man…I [say] what [will you] do?…he [says] with action that he [will] break my hands, so as a bad lad I raise the violin and break it then throw it to the beggar, then Mehmood approaches me and raises his hand [which] starts a dance sequence.
This is one of the most bizarre films I’ve ever seen. Some parts of it left me with rounded eyes and a “WTF” bubble over my head, and some of it just made me angry; all of it left me feeling like I had just sat through ten years’ worth of Ekta Mata serial plotting in just two hours. My impression is that Sohrab Modi had some serious personal problems at the time he made this, and brought them all on set with him. His Jailor is a deranged man in need of medication and a padded cell, for his own sake and that of those around him. It’s dark, bewildering, and messy, and made me want to run screaming.
Madan Mohan’s music is beautiful, in particular the haunting “Life is Like a Punishment” (as “Bas Ek Saza Hi To Hai Zindagi” is subtitled). And Geeta Bali eventually enters like a breath of fresh air (as she is meant to). Plus, a court ruling that is actually rational, and the Indian Stevie Wonder!
But still: bas ek saza hi to hai yeh fillum.
What’s not to love about a film which opens with animated credits like these? Very little! Especially when the credits probably cost more to produce than the entire rest of the film. This is a full-on Mod Seventies Cheesefest. I love cheese, and I love this film. It is loony entertainment at its best: a comedy-horror-mystery-romance dressed up in bellbottoms and vivid polyester, set to lively pop music by Shankar Jaikishan, and populated by a large cast of character actors, comedians and dancers.
Pran has a double role as a misogynistic ex-Army Colonel and as one of the Colonel’s charges Raghu, a campy effeminate type who nonetheless finds romance with one of the girls (when he isn’t busy combing his long hair). The girls are students of botany professor Laxmi (Sonia Sahni), a man-hating martinet, and her assistant Sister Sophia (Meena Roy). As with most Hindi horror genre films, there is a decidedly Christian bent (handy for grave-robbing situations). It was also filmed on location in a place I have visited, the Periyar Reserve in Thekkady, Kerala—very pretty and fun for me to see again.
This film started off gangbusters and then kind of fell apart story-wise—but remained good fun throughout thanks to Rehana and Dev Anand’s sparkling chemistry, spectacular dances courtesy of Rehana and Cuckoo (and some loony tribal backup dancers) and Yakub’s turn as a villainous “Professor.” There is also a completely insane zamindar ventriloquist character whose dummy bullies him and who has lost his little girl (by “lost” of course I mean misplaced). And as you know, it is the film which allowed me to lay to rest my frantic search for Nazir Kashmiri! I will forever love it for that alone.
The Raaj Kumar love continues here with this lovely Muslim social drama about marriage and gender relations. A big thank-you to my friend Raja and his friend Bharat for getting the dvd all the way from India to my doorstep! Films about women’s status in society and the choices they are given (or not) often disturb me or just plain make me angry. This one disappointed me—it came this close to being a true winner, and then failed—but was better than most from this era all the same (I’ll talk more about it with spoilers at the end).
Mere Huzoor is justly famed for its songs by Shankar Jaikishan, and happily were also subtitled as the lyrics (Hasrat Jaipuri) are lovely too. A big reason I love Muslim socials are the sets and costumes, and they don’t let me down here either! Mala is pretty good until she lets it all hang out at the end (which is highly entertaining all the same), Jeetendra is handsome although bland; it is Raaj Kumar who makes this worth watching though. He is wonderful as the misunderstood and melancholic Nawab who lives life on his own terms. He is such a strangely attractive man, odd wig and all!