(Which shall henceforth be known to me as Hum PUNCH.)
I guess I should begin by talking about the really interesting cast of this film: Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Raj Babbar, Amrish Puri, Mithun Chakraborty, Deepti Naval, Sanjeev Kumar, AK Hangal and Kanhaiyalal. Crazy!! My eyes got wider and wider as the credits rolled by. Halfway into the film I scribbled on my notepad: I love this movie! And I did! It was thought-provoking, interesting, sensitively handled, well-acted and gorgeously photographed on location in Karnataka.
But then it went off the rails, combining revenge masala with religion-mythology in a recipe which I am certain my father would tell my mother to go ahead and throw away. Thoughtful became jingoistic, interesting turned to predictable and cliched, sensitive handling and good acting were tossed out the window in favor of bulging eyeballs and sequinned jumpsuits. What a shame!
The story revolves around a small rural village where the local zamindar Veer Pratap Singh (Amrish Puri) rules with an iron fist, as his ancestors have before him. He is nominally the “protector” of the village and its inhabitants but in reality he is a man who will feed a pigeon with his own hands and then kill it for breakfast.
As per tradition, Singh’s blessings are required at every festival and celebration in the village and the villagers themselves call him their “Lord” and sing his praises to the skies.
Singh’s own family is estranged from him: his sister (Gita Siddharth) and nephew Arjun (Raj Babbar) live in the village. Arjun blames Veer Pratap Singh for his father’s suicide—after Singh cheated him out of all his money—and is the only person in the village who dares to stand up to him.
Singh’s brother Krishna (Sanjeev Kumar in a horrifying wig) is a saintly sort who lives at the local temple where Singh keeps him steadily supplied with liquor to keep him from claiming his share of the family property. Singh’s own son (Roopesh Kumar) is a wastrel who is rarely home.
Veer Pratap Singh’s chief bodyguard is a strong young man by the name of Bhima (Mithun Chakraborty) who has grown up in his boss’s household and served him loyally since being orphaned as a boy. Bhima is privy to all of Singh’s secrets, including his unsanctioned “marriage” to one of the village beauties, Soundariya (Shabana Azmi), whom he seduces nightly near the temple.
Now a young son of the village named Suraj (Naseeruddin Shah) arrives home from the city where he has been studying—to no avail, since his father Chandravan failed to send the money necessary for his exams. The reason for this is that Chandravan spends his evenings at Veer Pratap Singh’s palace gambling and has gradually lost all his ancestral property to the landlord.
Fed up, Suraj goes to confront his father—and Veer Pratap Singh.
As he leaves Singh’s property, he passes Soundariya and her two brothers (Uday Chandra and a very young Gulshan Grover!) who have come to plead with the zamindar to do the right thing: she is pregnant, and has told her brothers that she is married to Veer Pratap Singh.
Singh sends his greedy sycophantic manager Lala (Kanhaiyalal in a truly despicable role) out to get rid of them, and then appears himself to repudiate poor Soundariya and have them thrown out.
She is heartbroken and her brothers resigned, but Suraj and Arjun convince them to take their case to the priest (AK Hangal). He calls Veer Pratap Singh to the temple (Singh being a very “pious” man who worships daily) to ask him again about marrying Soundariya.
Bhima (who witnessed the marriage first-hand) is obviously disturbed when Veer Pratap Singh once again denies having married her, but he stays silent.
Nobody believes him, not even the priest—I love that this priest is not in Veer Pratap Singh’s pocket, although he is somewhat ineffective at handling him—but there is nothing they can do.
Soundariya loses her mental balance at this final betrayal too, and we get to watch Shabana do “masala”—one of my favorite sights! Bhima stops the two brothers when they want to chase down Veer Pratap Singh, but he is regretful.
Krishna now makes an appearance, singing (which I come to realize is his main forte) a sanctimonious song about God coming when his devotees ask, but needing their help too sometimes. I confess that all things religious kind of bore me, and this is no exception. This character—despite being mostly sozzled—seems to have otherworldly powers; he knows all about his brother’s faults and Veer Pratap Singh even seems slightly afraid of him when he appears out of nowhere on occasion to intervene. This becomes disappointing after a while, because it lets our more conventional heroes off the hook…but more on that later.
So poor Soundariya is now crazy and her two brothers have joined Suraj and Arjun (at least silently) in their crusade against Veer Pratap Singh’s demonic rule, although nobody seems hopeful of change and Singh’s arrogance and cruelty appear to have no bounds. And we’re only 35 minutes into the film! Yes, really!!!
But as always, pride goes before a fall, and Veer Pratap Singh is about to make a big mistake.
Bhima is in love with village lass Lajiya (Deepti Naval) and when her father agrees to let them get married if Bhima can provide a mangalsutra for her, Bhima goes to Singh to ask for the money to buy one. Veer Pratap Singh scoffs at the idea of Bhima getting married (he is so vile).
I love Bhima’s sweet, sweet answer:
Knowing that Bhima’s request will likely be refused, Suraj has coached him in advance to remind Singh that he’s been working for him for free for twenty years; this absolutely enrages Singh despite Bhima’s humility, and after Bhima reminds him of his broken promises to Soundariya too he beats Bhima with his walking stick.
Bhima refrains from fighting back, but leaves vowing never to go back. Singh then has one of his men annouce to the village at large that Bhima is now persona non grata, not to be fed or housed. Suraj leaves his own home when his deadbeat of a father refuses to let Bhima stay there, and tries to find another place for them to live—to no avail. The entire village closes its doors on them.
Disgusted by their cowardice, Suraj vows to return to the city and leave the village of “dead images” behind. Bhima and Arjun try to stop him, then poor mad Soundariya and her brothers try too. But it is another song from Krishna which changes his mind, about abandoning your own people and your own home.
See what I mean about the wig?
Wily raakshas Lalaji sees the danger in the brotherhood that is now formed (they call themselves the five Pandavas) although he mocks them:
and he tries to warn Veer Pratap Singh.
Will “Hum Paanch” be able to save the cowardly villagers from themselves and from the truly horrible Veer Pratap Singh? Will Bhima be able to marry his beloved Lajiya? What will become of Soundariya (please please don’t stick her with that awful villain)?
Unfortunately this is where the story began to deteriorate (that dreaded Curse of the Second Half!). This whole first hour of meticulous and relatively subtle buildup—my heart is raging and I want vengeance by now!—is left to fall flat like a deflated souffle. Too much emphasis is put on Krishna’s character, and “Hum Paanch” go to waste. They literally disappear from the screen for most of it. Even when Lajiya is threatened by Veer Pratap Singh (which is very scary, to be honest, and well done) it is not her Bhima who saves her.
It’s just boring to watch God conveniently show up, even if he’s in a bad wig!
All the care with plot and character (noticeable even with really bad subtitles) taken with the first half gives way to caricatured formula and obnoxious piety, and the story falls to pieces. It’s like two different people wrote and directed this film. I am sure many references from the Mahabharata went past me (although they weren’t what anyone could call subtle); but even had they not I would have found this disappointing.
Not even the arrival of Aruna Irani and a little helping of tawdry disco could help, and this actually proves my point: the first half didn’t even need disco.