Shatranj (1969)

Just when I fear that I may have seen all the crazy Indian spy films that there are to see, another one appears. This one is not quite as loony as my beloved Spy In Rome or Puraskar, but that is probably because it also had a larger budget and A-list stars (Waheeda Rehman and Rajendra Kumar). Still and all it is satisfyingly filled with many of the same tropes: an enemy country never called by its actual name, but whose denizens all have names like Comrades Ping and Chang and Shin Cho. They are led by an angry man we only ever see in silhouette until the end, who kills his loyal henchmen at the slightest provocation with weapons like machine guns mounted on turrets (and marvelous dying theatrics on the part of those men, although there is a sad lack of blood and gore). AND IT HAS SUBTITLES, hooray!

Plus, all the usual suspects—Madan Puri, Rajan Haksar, Ratan Gaurang—are present, sporting Fu Manchu moustaches and squinty eyes. Seriously satisfying.

General Ko Lum (our man in silhouette) who rules over our Hindustan’s Unnamed Enemy Country is incensed by a single Indian man who constantly foils his plans for World Domination and eludes all efforts at capture. This talented secret agent is Jay (Rajendra Kumar); we meet him at the Sun ‘N’ Sand hotel, surrounded not by a bevy of beauties but a crowd of children—an interesting twist on the usual “ladies’ man” James Bond types.

As he sings with them, Shashikala in a blonde wig and blue contact lenses surreptitiously snaps photographs of him.

Her name is Suzie (naturally!) and she is not happy when Jay—assisted by his sidekick Amir (Mehmood)—destroys the film in her camera. Although this film is fairly well plotted, there are some little holes in it, one of which is how Suzie has figured out Jay’s identity when the whole Unnamed Enemy Country Army couldn’t. Okay, maybe that isn’t so little, more like a gaping wound. Never mind. Suzie places a call from one of those large radio devices so beloved in these films to tell her compadres Chang (Madan Puri) and Leng Ji (Agha) that she knows who the spy they are hunting is.

Things I love about all this: the flashing little Buddha which notifies Chang and Leng about their incoming message; Chang and Leng themselves; the little kids in uniform manning the console of flashing lights; the pointless wall clocks and dials decorating the walls; the rotating wall which admits Chang and Leng into the inner sanctum (and which, I might add, they use freely in front of everybody thus rendering it rather pointless too); Shashikala’s flashing “blue” eyes; and my favorite barrel-chested thespian Shyam Kumar as Comrade Ping, the General’s right-hand man.

The General orders Chang and Leng to go to Hong Kong and kidnap a famous Indian dancer named Meena Thakur (Waheeda Rehman) and her mother Sharda (Achla Sachdev) who will act as bait for Jay, forcing him to return and hopefully this time be captured. Why he doesn’t send people to help Suzie simply capture Jay is not clear; perhaps he is running out of men due to his penchant for killing them.

This leads us into a spectacularly mounted dance featuring Waheeda and Madhumati. The costumes and set are phenomenal: I love the clouds, the rain, the peacock tails, the little Dr. Seuss trees. You have to see it!

I should say at this point that one of the best things about this film are the Shankar-Jaikishan songs. They are lovely, especially the plentiful and beautifully staged dance numbers which include one of my favorite Helen (and Mehmood) songs “Badkamma Badkamma”.

The two women are duly abducted and imprisoned in the General’s dungeon, where pressure is put upon them to say they have defected to the Unnamed Enemy Country of their own volition. Sharda refuses indignantly and poor Meena is forced to choose between cooperating or watching her mother get gleefully electrocuted by Ratan Gaurang. Nahiiiiiin!

She naturally chooses cooperation and their “defection” is duly announced to the world. Back home in India, Mr. Thakur (Manmohan Krishna) tells the press that his wife and daughter would never voluntarily leave India, especially not for that Unnamed Enemy Country (or as the subtitles put it “a regime that denounces human rights”). Jay assures him that he will bring Meena and Sharda home, and Mr. Thakur gives him a locket so that Meena and Sharda will know he’s the real thing.

To throw the persistent Suzie off Jay’s trail, Jay and Amir resort to a trick they’ve used before: the old Mission Impossible undetectable face mask.

With Suzie believing that Amir is Jay, Jay himself sneaks out of India.

I am pretty excited because I think I’ve pinned down what the inside of the Sun ‘N’ Sand hotel looks like, and it’s that lobby with cubbyholes behind the reception desk and the blue steps that I see everywhere!

I’m also highly amused because Suzie skulks about with a man in sunglasses and their code names are “Mr. Dark Glasses” and “Golden Hair”—in English, at that, so I know it’s not creative subtitling. How I love the subtle nuances of Indian spy movies!

This ruse also gives Mehmood plenty of time to clown around with Shashikala, and it’s very entertaining. Sometimes Mehmood is too much, but in this he is pretty funny. There’s one scene where he dances with Shashikala that makes me laugh and laugh. I keep going back to it. It’s definitely a film (and cast) that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that’s one of its strong points.

Meanwhile, Jay has made his way by airplane and then slow boat to the Unnamed Enemy Country. Aboard the ship taking him there are two of his co-agents, the ship captain (Kamal Kapoor) and Salma (Helen), who calls him “bhaiyya”. She will be Jay’s backup in enemy territory posing as a cabaret dancer at the Hotel Moon Flower where he is staying.

Jay himself is posing as a Hong Kong businessman named Shin Raz. He also has a secret cave equipped with its own share of flashing red lights and pointless dials, and stocked with disguises and wigs. He also takes to wearing blue contact lenses although it’s never clear to me why it matters whether Suzie or Jay have blue eyes or brown. Maybe it was around this time that colored contact lenses found their way to India (Yakeen springs to mind also, although at least there they made some sense). Khair.

At the Hotel Moon Flower, Salma checks in and Jay discovers that General Ko Lum dislikes having people look at his face, and by dislikes I mean he has Comrade Ping shoot anyone who dares. The General’s palace and the dance setting at the Lotus Club where Meena is now performing (her mother remains in the dungeon as incentive for Meena to maintain her silence) give us a few more spectacular clues as to our whereabouts.

Jay sets out to introduce himself to Meena, who is herself now assigned a babysitter in the form of Chun Quin Lee (Shammi) by Chang and Leng. I am thrilled to see Shammi. Maybe it’s the name? But I always find her funny, and she is hilarious as the dour perpetually-knitting chaperone.

As Jay and Meena fall in love, he begins to work out a plan to whisk Meena and her mother out from under Chang and Leng’s noses. Chang is suspicious of Shin Raz despite the constant reports from Suzie that Jay is still in India—Amir is keeping her busy both impersonating Jay and as himself posing as a smitten hotel waiter.

Knowing that Chang is suspicious, Jay decides that it’s time for Amir to let Suzie know that “Jay” has left the country, and for Amir to come to the Unnamed Enemy Country too. He has still not told Meena his true identity, knowing that Sharda is being held and that Meena can’t be expected not to betray him if her mother is threatened.

Can Jay get poor Sharda out of the dungeon, and spirit her and Meena out from under the General’s watchful regime—especially since his every move is watched by Chang, and Meena’s by Comrade Chun Quin Lee? Will Meena betray him, not knowing that he’s the Indian spy? Will Suzie recognize “Shin Raz” as the true Jay when she arrives? Will Salma and Amir be any help at all?

I must say that I really enjoyed this film although the ending dragged on a bit longer than maybe was needed. But it’s intricately plotted with only a few missteps, and the wonderful supporting cast is having lots of fun. It’s stylish to look at, and full of fun songs and the Rajendra Kumar-Waheeda pairing is pleasant as usual. I recommend this one, especially if you need subtitles—thank you Ultra!

56 Comments to “Shatranj (1969)”

  1. I generally tend to avoid Rajendra Kumar’s movies even though he was a jubilee star back those days. The only two movies I enjoyed of his were – Aayi Milan Ki Bela (1964) and Lalkaar (1972). Both for a different reason though. :-)

    • He’s so bland to me that I don’t mind him, he’s sort of a background for whoever else is in the film. And somehow he and Waheeda (I like their Muslim socials) mesh well. But certainly by himself he isn’t a draw for me.

  2. Shammi’s character of a dour faced always-knitting sourpuss reminds one of Madame Defarge from Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”. I wonder if the scriptwriter wove that bit in intentionally…

  3. memsaab, I agree with Shashi above – I tend to avoid Rajendra Kumar too. Somehow his thick lips always gave me the creeps. The only film I actually liked him in was Mere Mehboob. This one sounds interesting, though. I might actually give in and take a look. :)

    • It’s pretty fun, and he’s actually likable as Jay, plus there are so many other great characters that you can overlook him in favor of them.

    • Me too! The only film in which I liked Rajendra Kumar was Mere Mehboob. He often strikes me as too melodramatic (I’m thinking stuff like Sangam, Dil ek Mandir, Aarzoo, etc)… but I’ve watched that peacock dance of Waheeda’s before, and I think that looks like good enough reason for me to be able to overlook Rajendra Kumar in the film.

  4. @Memsaab – Yes, Rajendra Kumar’s movies are a little bland to my liking. There was a time though, when he was called jubilee Kumar as his films did well at the box office.
    I might give this a dekho one of these days. Based on your review, I’m sure there would be enough things to interest me.

  5. @Memsaab – Yes, Rajendra Kumar’s movies are a little bland to my liking. There was a time though, when he was called jubilee Kumar as his films did well at the box office.
    I might give this a dekho one of these days. Based on your review, I’m sure there would be enough things to interest me.

    • He’s often in movies that are a bit too “goody-goody” for me. But this could be a welcome exception!

      • Memsaab – I caught this movie over the weekend and it was not too bad as you mentioned. The best thing was it did not dwell on any one thing and felt rather like a sanitised Indian spy movie. Many such movies tend to lose their audience by adding an overdose of patriotism, family ties, having several sub plots or trying to impress with gadgets. Thankfully we were spared much of these in this film.

        • Yes, it was a very tight script which helped it a lot although I do love when filmmakers try to impress me with gadgets :D Could have done with more of that, but a good story makes up for a lot!

  6. Shatranj seems to be just the kind of film I love to watch. In fact, it would appear to be the perfect companion piece to Dharti (Rajendra Kumar and Waheeda Rehman) which is about an international conspiracy against a newly independent India hatched by (of all people) the Portuguese! The film is so ludicrous that its perfect!

    • @Shohini
      >conspiracy against a newly independent India hatched by (of all people) the Portuguese!

      Actually it’s a very believable plot, because the Portugese were still in Goa and an independent India couldn’t have been to their liking. The Goan part of India became indepenedent from them in 1961.
      There’s a wonderful older film called Baaz with Geeta Bali and Guru Dutt which is also about the Portugese plotting.

    • I NEED TO SEE DHARTI! Alas, it doesn’t seem to be widely available, and no subs :(

  7. Oh, I have heard of these songs. Jungle mein mor naacha is very likeable. Waheeda I love and I do like Rajender Kumar in his earlier films of the 60s so perhaps he’s OK here.
    Which means I should watch this film :)
    Thanks for the recommendation.

  8. Happy Diwali memsaab – it is 26 oct already Down Under!

  9. Oh this review brought back a flood of memories from when I watched this movie a few years back! I had almost forgotten about it…but how could I do that! It is such fun!

    • I loved that the story was so well plotted. Or maybe it was the subtitles. I don’t know, it just made more sense than some of them do without losing (much) of the loony. It is great fun, I prefer it to Ankhen.

  10. Am I the only one who thought Waheeda was miscast in this? Rajendra Kumar rightly gets called out for his blandness, but honestly I thought Waheeda was rather flat as well. She just seemed too..dignified for the silly shenanigans of Indian spy flick.

    • Waheeda apparently felt the same way too. I remember an interview where she was asked what role she did not like doing. She immediately said “Shatranj”. Maybe she did feel miscast.

    • Several times in this I could swear I saw a little bubble above Waheeda’s head, saying “What am I doing in this movie?!” but sometimes she seemed to be having fun too. I have no idea why she did a film like this, but I loved seeing her in it. I think her dignity was a nice counterpoint to all the crazy stuff, and blended well with Rajendra’s rather bland presence.

  11. I have seen some of the songs of the film, and they are really fun. I always love Waheeda Rehman and her dancing. And generally, Rajendra Kumar while not great fun, is at least tolerable in these kind of films, where he doesn’t have to be all emotional. And this is another 1969 film. I’m beginning to think of 1969 as a good year for a real masala mix of films.

    • Exactly Banno, he doesn’t have to emote which is where he always goes downhill for me. I like this better (as I said above) than Ankhen and about on par with Yakeen. It’s good fun.

  12. I remember reading in some film magazines that the pairing of Rajendra kumar and Waheeda rehmaan was very inauspicious, because the three movies, in which they have paired together, are big Box office disasters.
    PAALKI(1967),SHATRANJ(1969) and DHARTHI(1970)

    Eventhough above mentioned 3 movies have very good music and all the ingredients required for a masala hit movie, they have bombed at Box office.
    Further except in Paalki(in that movie she looked very beautiful)In Dhathi and Shatranj Waheedaji wears atroscious wigs, which in my opinion didn`t suited at all to her beautiful face. Those wigs marred her beauty on screen.

    And Rajendra kumar(Or Rajinder kumar-in both ways his names have been spelt in movie credit cards)
    I almost hate him, for his deadpan expressions,his antics in song sequences and for spoiling the visual values of evergreen Mohammed rafi songs which has been picuturised on him(most of shankar jaikishen and other rafi combination songs gone to rajendra kumar).

    Am I too harsh on Rajendra kumar????, No no. I don`t think, Everyone seems to be dislike him.

  13. You make them sound all so good!
    Enjoyed reading the post! Loved the side comments!

  14. @Pacifist. I guess the Portuguese conspiracy angle doesn’t have much historical resonance for me but I can certainly say that watching this film would have dissuaded them from wanting to “rule” India.

    But i do recommend DHARTI for those who cherish “memsaab moments”. One of my favourite sequences is a fight on-board a plane between Rajendra Kumar and an evil crew. The fight leads to a window breaking and the plane falling off the air. Only the hero and heroine survive the crash and complete their journey back to India on a tiny boat. The said private jet belongs to Waheeda who is a princess and therefore when it takes off (and everyone tightens their seat-belts) she reclines on a luxury bed like Cleopatra!

    I must `come out’ now and confess that I find Rajendra Kumar most compelling. The big downside of being his fan that one is doomed to be in a minority!

    • >I must `come out’ now and confess that I find Rajendra Kumar most compelling.

      I share your sentiments.
      I thought he had a bit of gravitas, and did well in some serious films like Kanoon. Only his later cloured films were unwatchable (except a few like Mere Mehboob etc)

    • I don’t know about that…he did have a lot of hit films!

  15. Unnamed Enemy Country with people named Chang and Leng. Hmmm, wonder what that means. I think there was this period when the Indian media was very coy about naming countries. This is not just limited to movies. I remember TV news from the 80s when anything that went wrong in India was conveniently blamed on the “foreign hand” and “external forces” trying to destabilize the country. That mysterious foreign hand had become quite the running joke among people.

    I want to add that your reviews always make me want to watch the movie. Given that I am in the absolutely love Waheeda Rehmaan camp but find Rajender Kumar sleep-inducing, I am on the fence for this movie.

    Also, Happy Diwali. It is still 26th in the US.

  16. OH, you disclosed the secret identity of the actor who played general Ko Lum in the post! I wonder was it intentional?
    I have to recommend you a film called ‘dil hi to hai’ (1963) – it is a muslim social starring Nutan, Raj Kapoor and Pran with Manorama as his mother!!… RK did many good films outside his home banner, but they are harshly treated – Anari and Teesri Kasam where he was without those ‘mannerisms’ of a tramp .(I know you dislike his acting but still….)

    • I don’t think I did really, although you might have now :) I knew who it was all along anyway, and really it didn’t much matter to the plot if he was seen or not.

      I don’t dislike ALL of Raj Kapoor, I quite liked him in some films (Andaz, e.g.). I just very much dislike his sanctimonious “simple man” type roles, I don’t think he suited them or carried them off at all.

  17. BTW, Shatranj-full movie is available on youtube with scenes seperately as well on Ultrahindi channel. (atleast in India)

  18. Oh I see! Shatranj was all about secret agent and all that jazz if may say so and when the film released seeing Rajendra Kumar and Waheeda Rehman I automatically assumed it would be one of thos tear jerking social dramas as they were called. Rajendra Kumar secret agent? I am curious have to check this one.

  19. The chinky eyes are more wonderful than usual here. I love these old spy movies, especially if they have good music. We had the Bakkamma Bakkamma song on 45 RPM record but I don’t think I have seen this film (unless as a re-run on Doordarshan years ago). The Rajendra Kumar pic with the small kids creeps me out – though I am sure it is very innocent – but after seeing the film ‘Page 3’, one can only think the worst (Argh … the loss of innocence).

  20. Rajendra doesn’t seem the child-molesting type to me :) This is a good one if you like stylish spy movies!

  21. I really love this film. It is crazy, but crazy fun. Rajendra Kumar was OK, nothing great but nothing awful either. The songs are lovely to watch and Helen always looks like she enjoys dancing with Mehmood. And – this is a critical factor – there isn’t too much Mehmood. And the devil bunnies in the South Pacific inspired ‘Stranger in an unnamed country’ song were something else. I love all the little design details you mentioned – the glowing buddha and the top secret secretive secret identity protecting wall. And Mehmood and Helen’s awesome telecommunications setup. Ah. Too good! Cheers, Temple

  22. Waheeda did not share a great rapport with Sanjeev Kumar/ Rajendra Kumar. Apparently, Waheeda and Rajendra were offered “Rakhi” the Hindi remake of a tamil movie – paasamalar but Rajendra kumar refused the movie saying it was blasphemy to play Waheeda’s brother in the movie – but Waheeda’s retort was – what the heck – it was only a role after all. Eventually Ashok Kumar played the role in “Rakhi” but the weepie tanked at the box office
    Dil Hi To Hai – had Raj Kapoor and Waheeda and not Nutan, as one blogger has commented.
    Also, look at the coincidence – Waheeda and Achala Sachdev are just repeating their role in “Prem Pujari” (Dev Anand’s spy thriller). In Prem Pujari too, Waheeda played Achala’s daughter and they both travelled abroad for a show (it was a beauty contest).

    • Waheeda was right! It’s just a role. Probably more fun to have some variety, but not everyone seems to think so :)

    • Padmanabhan ji

      with due respect to you,
      the heroine of the movie “Dil hi tho hai” is NUTAN,(famous song Nigaahein milaane ko jee chahta hai-roshan-asha-sahir-picturised on Nutanji).
      I think you are mixed up “Dil hi tho hai” with EK DIL SAU AFSAANE.
      “Ek dil sau afsaane” had raj kapoor and waheeda rehman.

  23. I loved the movie. I love any movie with colour and dances and glitz and glamour.

  24. Prakashchandraji

    Thank you for the clarification. It is good to know that all of us in this blog are bonded by the love that we have for cinema of those times,

  25. Just realised that you can see the movie on youtube for free. Ok will relax this Friday evening and have some good old 60s hindi spy suspense kitsch. Thanks again for the review which will add more colour to the proceedings.

  26. Jay will accomplish all that you are apprehensive of,for his adversary is not fu manchu by sax rohmer or moriarty by ac doyle or for that matter rayt marius ‘angel face’ by leslie charteris.our hero is combined nayland smith,sherlock holmes, and simon templar ‘saint’.Tumhe mai agar apna saathi bana lu,is the most fantastic rafi asha duet,i have come across so far.

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