Apparently this film only released in 1989, but it was made in 1971 and clearly looks it so that’s what I’m going with. It’s a pretty entertaining potboiler, but even if it weren’t there is one compelling reason to see it: a scene with uber-villain Tiwari in a bright pink and white lace negligee admitting that he gets his kicks from cross-dressing. Yes, really. And it has nothing to do with the plot, either. The story itself is in service to a criminal reform message which probably didn’t play as well in the late eighties as it might have in the early seventies. It is weak in places, but there is a plethora of lovely songs (by Ravi, with lyrics by Sahir) and an assortment of fine character actors with lashings of clever humor (no annoying CSP!). Leena Chandavarkar, a feisty heroine I always love, is paired with Sanjay Khan and backed by Pran and Rehman as lifelong foes on either side of the law.
The film opens with a police Inspector (Rehman) chasing a thief onto a moving train. The thief Bhagat (Pran) is shot after he stabs another passenger but escapes by jumping off the train into a river (trains are always conveniently passing over rivers at junctures like this). He recovers, but his arm has to be amputated and he blames the Inspector, of course, his own part in it all notwithstanding.
He goes to the Inspector’s house to exact his revenge and finds the perfect means in the Inspector’s cute little girl, whose birthday is being celebrated.
When the nanny is distracted from her wee charge by her boyfriend, Bhagat seizes his opportunity—and the little girl.
He names her Reshma and teaches her at a very young age to pick pockets, and she grows up to be a very adept thief and a pretty young lady (Leena Chandavarkar).
Her friends are a local bar dancer named Shamli (Padma Khanna) and a little boy (Mehmood Jr, still wearing Mehmood’s outfit from Gumnaam). A local ruffian named Jaggi (Shatrughan Sinha) has his leering eye on her too although she dislikes him. She lives with her “father” Bhagat in a basti and supports them both with her thieving.
Meanwhile, her real father has become the Commissioner of the Bombay police force, and he’s worried about the increasing crime and the murder of an Inspector Kelkar in that same locality where Reshma now lives. He promotes a bright young police officer named Mohan (Sanjay Khan) to replace Kelkar, find his murderer and clean the place up. Mohan has progressive ideas about befriending the local populace instead of intimidating them, and reforming criminals instead of only punishing them. He’s a bit goody-goody for me, but of course I am usually more inclined towards the dark side.
The chief suspect in Kelkar’s murder is a goonda named D’Souza (David), who owns an illegal beer bar which is never shut down by the police (possibly they also enjoy the entertainment there). The dark side! It’s more fun!
When Inspector Mohan arrives the news of his presence spreads quickly, not only to D’Souza but to a local politician (Tiwari) and his fake astrologer-henchman (Jankidas). I always love to see Tiwari although at this point I have no idea what heights that love will reach during this film. He has pledged his help to the police, but in actuality he is totally corrupt and a smuggler to boot.
Reshma falls almost instantly in love with Mohan after picking his pocket at a gathering of Hare Krishnas (she returns his wallet to him, claiming that she “found it”). It’s pretty quickly evident that he returns her feelings and we are treated to a couple of lovely songs to further the romance (my favorite being “Main Kaun Hoon”).
Taking a break from love and disguised as a mute beggar, Mohan learns of the plot to kill him from the fake astrologer and arrests him. The politician Tiwari is meanwhile catching up on his schedule with his “secretary”—while wearing a frothy semi-transparent nightgown with what looks like orange chuddies underneath. It’s an eye-popping visual.
I giggle along as they drink to the importance of prohibition, although I am still distracted by his outfit and remembering that Dhumal wore a pink dress in Gumnaam too, which was never explained.
But fortunately for me his secretary is curious too.
I will never tire of watching this scene, never. I have no idea what the motivation is behind it, and I don’t care. Oh all right—I do secretly hope that Tiwari himself was in real life a cross-dresser and begged the producer to put this scene in here. There, I’ve said it. I’m sure it is supposed to demonstrate the tawdry depths of the politician’s morality, but it is just so very out there for 1971 India that I want there to be more to it.
Sadly our duo is interrupted by a phone call from D’Souza explaining that all their goods have been seized, and all their men arrested. I wonder if the makers of VAT 69 paid for product placement back then. Certainly they should have paid at least double for this one.
Tiwari is arrested the next day by Inspector Mohan while giving a speech on the national tragedy of bribery and corruption and I am reluctantly forced to move on from the rose-colored nightie.
Mohan’s romance with Reshma isn’t slowed down by all his policewala activity. And she is beginning to wish she could give up her profession once and for all—a profession she has never really cared for. Things come to a head when she is caught by a train passenger (Jagirdar) who doesn’t turn her in: instead, he begs her to reform. But Bhagat is not about to let her give up stealing. He pours on the parental guilt in huge doses until she caves, sobbing.
This leads to a most excellent song: Reshma gets drunk at D’Souza’s bar and sings the lovely “Pighali Aag Se Saagar Bhar Le.” Luckily the songs are subtitled in this film, because the lyrics are as moving and important as one expects from Sahir. Also Leena’s performance (and Asha’s singing) as the sad Reshma in her cups is quite wonderful (and we get a lively intro courtesy of Padma!).
Then Mohan takes her home to meet his ailing Ma (Durga Khote), who welcomes Reshma with a warmth and affection she cannot remember ever getting. Ma is a sweet and very devout old lady and we are treated to a wonderful duet (sisters Asha and Usha) in the form of the bhajan “Meri Baari Re Banwari.”
Ma is rejuvenated by her new would-be daughter-in-law and Reshma also meets and bonds with the Commissioner, who is not only Mohan’s boss but also a close friend of his family. At home, though, she is forced to continue stealing for her fake one-armed Bapu, who is now determined to make Mohan go away permanently. Would-be suitor Jaggi is not pleased with her blossoming relationship either, determined to make her his own.
Will Mohan discover that his beloved Reshma is a pocketmaar? Will he be able to forgive her if so? Will she ever be reunited with her real father? Or will Bhagat (and Jaggi) stop at nothing to keep Reshma with them? For all the tears, drama and self-recriminations to come, watch Chingari. It’s not great art, but it is chock full of Good Things and most certainly entertaining—not to mention surprisingly progressive.
Update: People were sad that I omitted a screencap of the hero, which I admit too was a big *oops* (and not done purposefully). So here you go: Sanjay Khan in all his handsome glory!