I was telling my friend Suhan the other night that I have stopped writing reviews mostly because I felt like I was endlessly repeating myself, and my threshold for lunacy had become so ridiculous that very little made me sit up and say “OOOOH!” any more. But lately I have been missing my daily masala dosage, so when this Feroz Khan-Vinod Khanna starrer appeared on my radar I couldn’t resist it. It is—not unexpectedly—a predictable and formulaic film, but it moves along at a fast clip thanks to relegating large portions of the action to narration by the characters (often to each other via telephone) after the fact (“Shankar and Shambhu have escaped from jail!” “We have kidnapped your daughter!”) instead of actually showing it to us, leaving details like “How?” “Why?” “Where?” and “When?” up to the viewer’s imagination. Screen time is largely devoted to Ornament with a capital “O”: a mish-mash of dacoit hideaways, corrupt rich people mansions dotted with crazy, and eye-popping disguises. This is okay with me.
The story I can make up; the insane set pieces, wigs, and outfits not so much.
The action starts in the Chambal Valley, where a bad guy named Kundan (Anwar Hussein) robs a bank with his brother Jigar (Keshav Rana). The police arrive on the scene and Inspector Ranjit Singh (Ajit) shoots Jigar dead. Kundan naturally vows vengeance with great fervor and escapes by shooting his own minions (including the one driving the car he’s in!) as they flee (he jumps out of the car with the suitcase full of stolen money before it goes over a cliff). Everyone thinks Kundan is dead too, but of course he is just waiting to wreak his revenge.
This he does by machine-gunning Ranjit Singh’s jeep as he drives across a bridge with his family: wife Laxmi (Sulochana), daughter Pinky, and son Pappu. We know this can’t end well because we have just been shown a pair of gold lockets, one each for Pinky and Pappu, which his mother-in-law has given them. Sure enough, the jeep goes over the bridge into the water, and Pinky and Pappu are swept away. Ranjit Singh and his wife swim to shore under the bridge, and he manages to arrest Kundan, because he has just stood there gloating instead of running away.
Pinky is rescued by Lalita Pawar, and Pappu by dacoit Lakhan Singh (Pradeep Kumar) who already has a son—naturally it occurs to no-one that they might already have parents who want them back.
Years (and the credits) pass. Pappu grows up with Lakhan Singh’s son Shankar (Feroz Khan), and is now named Shambhu (Vinod Khanna). They are close as two men in Indian movies can be (very close) and spend their days gleefully robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. The only bone of contention between them is Shambhu’s affection for voluptuous local courtesan Munnibai (Bindu); Shankar disapproves because, you know, honor.
Ranjit Singh has by now been promoted to Inspector General of Police and lives in an ostentatious house in Bombay with Laxmi, who being Sulochana still weeps copiously over the loss of their children. Kundan gets out of jail finally and is greeted by his nephew Chaman (son of dead Jagir) and I am thrilled to see Sudhir. Chaman has grown up in an orphanage because Kundan has been in prison.
When Kundan goes back to Chambal to retrieve the suitcase containing his bank robbery profits (he had buried it in a cave), he is seen by Shankar and Shambhu. They take it from him, and he’s back to square one in the vengeance department.
He tells Munnibai that if she gets the suitcase from Shambhu he will give her half of the 50 lakhs it contains. She goes to Shambhu to see if he really will marry her, but Shankar makes Shambhu give her up. So she steals the suitcase and is herself betrayed by Kundan. Poor Munnibai! After a long (some might say endless) scene with many bullets fired, the police arrive, Kundan discovers that the suitcase contains nothing but newspaper, and Shankar and Shambhu escape with the real suitcase of money by hiding on top of a train bound for Bombay.
In Bombay, the brothers run into Pinky, who is now called Shalu. Her foster mother is very ill and they have no money for her treatment; with the help of a friend, she relieves Shankar and Shambhu of their suitcase but then is arrested herself. I should mention at this point that there are a LOT of stare-downs in this film, loaded with portent as such things always are, with the camera moving from one to the other and back again for about five minutes. The first is when Shambhu must choose between Munnibai and his brother:
But now that almost all of our characters have collected in Bombay, we’re in for a whole lot more.
The money is back in the hands of the police, which IG Singh recognizes as loot reported stolen by dacoits Shankar and Shambhu. He lets Shalu go hoping that she can find them for him (he tells her about a two lakh reward for their capture, which she could use for her Ma’s treatment).
Also, somehow in the ten minutes since Kundan returned to Bombay without his suitcase, he has become a wealthy hotel owner and smuggler along with nephew Chaman. They are involved in nefarious and also unintentionally hilarious doings with a shadowy figure who promises them a reward for their deeds.
Chaman runs afoul of Shankar and Shambhu by insulting them after they can’t pay their dinner bill at his hotel, so they loot his safe that night. The police are called in and of course IG Singh recognizes his old nemesis Kundan. Shortly afterwards, as Shankar and Shambhu are distributing Kundan and Chaman’s cash to the poverty-stricken people in a nearby chawl, they recognize Shalu as one of the inhabitants. Demanding she return their suitcase, they are tricked into going with her to IG Singh’s house, where Laxmi discusses her lost children with them over tea. When IG Singh returns home, Shankar and Shambhu realize their mistake and manage to escape, finding refuge in an abandoned temple.
Shambhu is furious with Shalu, but Shankar later overhears her talking to her mother about needing the reward money for treatment, and she is repentant after her neighbors chime in about the brothers’ generosity towards them.
Shankar gives her the money for her mother’s treatment, and it’s not long before he and Shalu are in love, to Shambhu’s dismay.
The brothers have plenty else to worry about too: Kundan and Chaman frame them for all of their own bad deeds; and IG Singh is determined to track them down, burdened as he is by a police force of idiots (Jagdeep and Bhagwan among them).
Will Shambhu ever discover that he hates his own sister? Will IG Singh and Laxmi ever find out that their children are still alive? Will the brothers ever stop interfering in each other’s love lives? Will we ever find out where Kundan got the means for this unbelievable house, complete with not one but TWO spaceman statues which also turn out to be Masala Death Traps (not to mention the girls in tennis outfits who guard the place)?! Who is Agent 301 and is he really germane to the plot?
Okay, the answers to at least these last two is a resounding NO but with this much eye candy it doesn’t really matter. Shankar Shambhu is decidedly not a good movie, but it is a classic of that genre where money and time is lavished on the frills (and pyrotechnics) with nothing spent on an actual plot or anything resembling direction. I watched (and screen-capped) it so you don’t have to. You are welcome.
One last note (no pun intended): the songs are quite wonderful, my favorite being a qawwali with Feroz, Vinod and Jayshree T. Music is by Kalyanji-Anandji with lyrics by Sahir (the poetry of which sadly escaped me in large part because I still haven’t learned Hindi and Urdu, and the subtitles I am sure do them no justice). Do search them out on YouTube.