Of the seven deadly sins, Gluttony is probably the one to which I am most susceptible (although Sloth is a pretty darn close second). And so, after the delights of Spy In Rome, I found myself signing up for more B-movie punishment—or pleasure!—in the form of Puraskar. I did not expect anything very different from others of its genre, but I was in for a big surprise.
Puraskar may well be the Holy Grail of Indian spy films, a dizzying kaleidoscope of insane costumes, melodrama, blinking Christmas tree lights, and enough characters and plot for three ordinary films. This crazy epic contains every story cliche known to man and then some (this I know even without subtitles), and the scenery of Kashmir—those beautiful mountains and lakes—is chewed up and spit out with a vengeance I have rarely witnessed. Plus we are treated to two fabtastic RD Burman cabaret numbers courtesy of Helen and Faryal (who also have substantial roles).
This brings me to the cast—oh Bhagwan, the cast. Along with Helen and Faryal it includes yesteryear lovelies Nigar Sultana and Paro, Joy Mukherjee, Abhi Bhattacharya, Farida Jalal, Bipin Gupta in a double role, IS Johar and a host of heavies (Hercules, Samson, Mohammedali, Rajan Haksar, Samson, and on and on). The henchman acting credits took up two full screens! Plus, a squirming yowling Siamese cat is periodically slung into scenes in an attempt I think to show it as some sort of Superkitty (except that sometimes you can see the arm of the spot boy tasked with chucking it into the frame). Here are but two examples:
It makes me squirm too in sympathy for the poor thing.
Warning: there are possible spoilers in this post, although it’s nearly impossible to actually spoil something as predictable as a spy movie.
We open with a woman fleeing a house and getting into a car whose brakes have been tampered with, resulting in a spectacular explosion as she careens off a rocky cliff. Her name is Sheela, and her husband Srinath (Abhi Bhattacharya) is consoled by his mother (Nigar Sultana) and brother Rakesh (Joy Mukherjee), who just happens to be a CID agent. He informs his brother and mother that Sheela’s death was no accident, but murder.
Rakesh and his partner Ramesh (IS Johar) are assigned to the case (possible conflict of interest notwithstanding) by the head of CID (Hiralal). He informs them that Sheela was a friend of Renu, the daughter of a certain Professor Das (Bipin Gupta), who we now learn has just invented a remote-controlled weapon powered by sound waves. Das is a kindly man and a patriot; he proudly announces his new invention as a significant boon for India’s defense.
The press conference is watched by a mysterious man seen only in silhouette—he wears a hat and carries a cat, and his lair is decorated with strings of lights, at least half of which appear to have burned out.
I never do figure out what he is called, but it’s my (no doubt inaccurate) impression that someone calls him Red and since it’s as good a name as any I will too. He naturally calls his various henchpeople by number and now instructs Number Char, Raghu (Rajan Haksar), to bring Professor Das and his sound wave machine formoola to him.
This plotting is duly overheard by Rakesh via his decoder:
and carried out in one of those loony staples of Hindi cinema (of all grades), the “Pretend it’s dark outside even though it is clearly broad daylight and we will intersperse scenes shot at night only as and when we can” action scene (which I have privately dubbed the Day-Night Continuity Issue, or DNCI for short).
This is how it goes: the professor’s daughter Renu (Sapna)—dressed in a little pink nightie—brings him a glass of milk. She admonishes him not to stay up too late and they bid each other a cheerful “good night!”. Outside, villains draw up in their car and are signalled by a man with a torch whose light can barely be seen in the glare of the sun. They break in and kidnap Das. Rakesh arrives too late and runs into Renu who, awakened by the scuffle, mistakes him for one of the villains. Pushing her to the floor, he takes off in hot pursuit of the actual villains (stepping over the poor unconscious watchman who is left abandoned at the gate). As he drives it is suddenly dark out, then light again, then dark, and so on until it seems that they have all been driving for a week.
Rakesh is finally thwarted by Number Saat, Anita (Faryal), who blocks his pursuit. News of the successful kidnapping is conveyed to someone called Boss (maybe Ram Kumar? who is also the director) by Rita (Helen) as his cat struggles mightily to free itself from under his arm. Rita and Boss (and the cat) have been lurking from the very beginning—they seem to be everywhere, observing everything, in that omniscient way of poor scripting. They are not alone in this quality here by any means either.
I speculate that his red gloves are more to save Boss from feline injury than to convey his villainous tendencies.
It’s also hard for me to believe that less than ten minutes have passed since the start of this movie. Nine minutes and forty-two seconds, to be precise. I’ll tell you right now that it took me three exhausting sittings and some judicious fast-forwarding to get through the whole thing at all, although I was determined.
Anyway, Professor Das—now in the hands of the mysterious silhouetted figure who may or may not be Boss but who I am still calling Red—refuses to cooperate. Das is shocked to see his long-lost twin Dinanath (also Bipin Gupta). They were separated in childhood, and Dinanath is much less patriotic than his brother.
Red sends him off to take Professor Das’s place at home with Renu, who is quickly suspicious when he acts nothing like Das. Shenanigans involving disguises and romance ensue, as Rakesh and Ramesh try to figure out who/where the real Das is and compete for Renu’s heart. It’s overdone (ha ha ha! what isn’t, in this movie?) and doesn’t much interest me, but there is always plenty to look at—and *want*—like this blue couch.
Another plot thread is introduced too, involving Number Saat Anita and another of Red’s henchmen named Kumar. Kumar is a fair-faced young lad (anybody know who the actor is? The acting credits show an “Introducing Mahendra”—maybe this is him?). Kumar is in love with Reshma (Farida Jalal) who turns out to be Anita’s sister. She is pleased to discover that Anita is a cabaret dancer (“Achcha?” she says, approvingly) but horrified to hear that she is also a traitor! Nahiiin!
This familial tangle plus the romantic and espionage antics of our hero(es) keep everyone busy for a long time. The formoola is stolen (or not), songs are sung, more disguises are needlessly donned, fake guns are fired, dummies are thrown off high-rise rooftops, thugs attack and then scatter, until at last we are rewarded for our patience by this blessed event:
Truly Faryal is someone I am always happy to see onscreen. Where are you now, Faryal? Feel the love!
I am thrilled to see Oscar dancing with her too, and *totally heart* the Silver Cone Bra, although it is sadly not used to kill anybody.
Other people keep randomly popping in and out of the story too, like Anita and Reshma’s mother Parvati (Paro), who is extremely unhappy about something and clutches her saree pallu as she weeps dramatically.
Rakesh’s brother Srinath shows up now and again, ostensibly seeking his biwi’s murderer but mostly occupying himself at nightclubs; and Rita and Boss continue to skulk but never actually DO anything (except throw the cat at things), although Helen gets a song eventually too thank goodness, because it is spectacular.
And finally, finally the entire ensemble—Red, Boss, Rita, Anita, Reshma, their mother, Kumar, Srinath, Rakesh, their mother, Renu, Ramesh, and all the henchmen plus Professor Das and Dinanath—come together in lovely scenic Kashmir for the long and grand finale. I know this much: if this place survived all the rona-dhona which is now played out among its hills and valleys, no amount of political conflict will ever be able to tear it apart.
And doesn’t Helen look so adorable as a Kashmiri belle?
Anita and Reshma, it turns out, are Dinanath’s daughters and Parvati his estranged wife. Kumar works for Red because Red has imprisoned his nanhi bahen and is threatening her with an x-ray scanner (she lets out that incessant and monotonous child-actor-crying sound that makes me want to drop something heavy on her myself, although I am not positive that she is even “acting”).
There are lots more flashing lights and a surprise or two (which I won’t spoil) in store, and as many boats, helicopters and explosions as the tiny budget (or the stolen stock-footage closet) would allow. It is a film that doesn’t so much emulate the Bond franchise but contains its own specifically Indian values. It is not about gadgets and gorgeous girls (well, a little) but about patriotism, family, and good old-fashioned trauma-drama-o-rama.
All the same, by the end I am sated. No more spying, bad disguises, awkward heroes, plump heroines or Siamese cats, bas!