The film’s title is actually Lalkar (The Challenge) but I never did figure out what the Challenge was, other than getting through the Comic Side Plot interruptions and tepid romantic interludes which kept intruding on the otherwise fun espionage plot. Rajendra Kumar and Mala Sinha get top billing, so I was hoping to collect some Nahiiin Face additions for the Gallery but they were fairly restrained. They are supported by a stellar cast of character actors led by the inestimable Shyam Kumar as the eye-patch wearing Japanese villain, Dharmendra at his peak, saucy Kum Kum, some really special special effects, and a host of small details that made it eminently watchable.
Our setting is WWII (but with fashion-forward Seventies style!) Assam, on the border with Burma, where Japanese forces are menacing. Rajan (Rajendra Kumar) and Ram (Dharmendra) are brothers in the Air Force and Army respectively. Rajan is a sober Wing Commander who commands great respect. He loves and is loved by Usha (Mala Sinha), a doctor and the daughter of Base Commander Choudhury (Nasir Hussain).
He is too shy to declare his feelings for Usha, and is teased about his “mystery” woman by younger brother Ram, who is a dashing Major with an eye for all the ladies but a cynical attitude towards love. To be honest, he’s a bit of a cad.
Ram is adored by Toshi (Kum Kum), the daughter of the local tribal chief. His army buddies convince him to take advantage of her feelings in order to persuade her to dance for them at their Christmas party. I think this is reprehensible, but Ram convinces her that he loves her.
Unbeknownst to the military population and to her father is the fact that many of her people are spying on them for Japan with the logic that the military represents British rule and “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Of course these people are also Assamese and their physical resemblance to the Japanese is exaggerated in every way possible (high cheekbones, slanting eyes, black hair with the fringe cut straight across).
Of course the Japanese General himself isn’t Japanese, but I don’t care because it’s Shyam Kumar, the most bombastic character actor ever! How I love him. His men are building an airstrip on the border between Assam and Burma so they can bomb Calcutta, and he has a plan to keep the Raj forces from finding it.
The smartest pilot naturally is Wing Commander Rajan Kapoor, and off he goes, straight into the trap orchestrated by the Japanese and their tribal traitors (all code-named things like Cheetah No. 4 and equipped with radios that work perfectly as long as the user shouts into the receiver from deep inside the jungle, in caves, between high mountain cliffs, and so on). When Rajan realizes their peril, he commands his three wing men to turn back and takes the enemy fire. I am delighted by the teeny airplanes that appear and disappear randomly.
He makes it back to base in his flaming aircraft, much to everyone’s relief, and since Usha is the doctor treating his injuries there is a long interlude where they sidestep around confessing their romantic feelings. Finally–to my great relief–Usha decides to take the initiative by stealing his diary and reading it. Normally I would disapprove of this kind of invasion of privacy, but Rajan is such a coward when he’s not in his tiny plane!
She has meanwhile gone to Shillong with her father for the Christmas show starring poor misled Toshi, where she meets Ram who–unaware that she is his brother’s “mystery” woman–flirts with her and then falls in love with her. This strikes me as a) unnecessary to the plot and b) completely unbelievable and c) taking way longer than it should, although it also provides these moments:
Oh, Garam Dharam. And poor Toshi!
Usha returns home to her Rajan, unaware of the turmoil she has created in Ram’s bare chest. Rajan has called his father and asked him to come and arrange their marriage. Have I mentioned the fantastic Seventies clothing and accessories dotting this WWII-era story?
On the afternoon of his father’s arrival, Rajan is sent by his Commander on another dangerous reconnaissance of the Japanese airfield with new intelligence on its actual location. Undaunted by his previous near miss, Rajan takes off as his brother Ram arrives to see Usha and tell her of his love. She doesn’t take him seriously, but he stumbles across Cheetah No. 4 giving the Japanese the information that Rajan is on his way. He races back to camp, but it’s too late. They radio Rajan who cannot turn back, although he manages to give them the coordinates for the airstrip. Ram and the Commander listen as he is shot down in his little bomber by the gleeful General and his second-in-command (Shetty, of course).
The entire base is plunged into grief at this terrible loss, and when ex-Colonel Kapoor arrives for what should be a happy occasion he suffers a shock so terrible that Dr. Brahm Bharadwaj (how many doctors did he play during his career?) is inspired into a diagnosis that bends my mind.
So naturally, the only thing to be done is…
Yup! The only good news that will work is if his other son gets married! Usha is forced into an engagement with Ram and voila! instant cure. Of course nobody tells Ram that Usha was all set to marry Rajan, so he’s happy even though practically nobody else is, especially Toshi.
It is all so very dysfunctional that the Japanese General–who has discovered that Rajan did not die and taken him prisoner–seems almost sane by comparison.
Commander Choudhury sends Ram at the head of a crack commando unit to destroy the airfield, but their mission is once again betrayed by the tribal spies (this time including an angry Toshi who has been convinced that once caught, Ram will be returned to her).
Will they succeed despite this betrayal? Will Rajan be rescued? Will he find out that Ram and Usha are now engaged? Will Ram discover that Usha loves Rajan, not him? Will Toshi’s love for Ram stay true?
As I said at the beginning, the military/espionage pieces of this film are a whole lot of fun, and even the romance between Usha and Rajan is sweet enough that I didn’t mind it. But the interruptions are long and often jarring, and Ram’s treatment of Toshi is pretty reprehensible. Also as you might have figured out from the description and screen caps above, people like Dara Singh, Dev Kumar and Agha are completely wasted. I’m not sure Dara even speaks a single word! It is a lovely character actor party, but they are mostly relegated to wallflower status. Kalyanji-Anandji’s music is just okay (I do like the catchy theme song “Aaj Ga Lo Muskura Lo”), but Mala Sinha singing one of her songs is a bonus.
All that said, it’s a good watch with a working Fast Forward button in your hand.