The tagline on the DVD cover caught my eye first: “A Murder Plan That Forced Indian Railways To Change Their Train Timing!” I am not sure that Indian Railways actually did worry that much about murders galore being unleashed on the Indian public, but it was enough to attract me. The film stars a very young Amitabh Bachchan, Yogita Bali, Navin Nischol and Shatrughan Sinha, and is directed by Jyoti Swaroop, who directed two of my favorite films (Padosan and Chorni). It was billed as a thriller of sorts, although there is no effort made to disguise “whodunit”—it’s marginally more of a “howdunit”.
It is a very stylish and nicely-paced production, however, and showcases the soon-to-be overwhelming charisma of its anti-hero Bachchan to great effect (especially compared to milquetoast-y “hero” Navin Nischol).
Kumar Sen (Amitabh) is an artist befriended by elderly Ashok Varma (Om Prakash) and his beautiful niece Asha (Yogeeta Bali). Kumar has long nursed an unspoken (to Asha anyway) love for her, but Varma is a “modern” guy who feels that Asha should choose her own husband, and he has said as much to Kumar whenever the painfully shy Kumar brings up the subject of marriage to Asha.
Our first intimation that Kumar may be creepier than he appears on the surface (besides his obvious belief that Asha is Varma’s property to do with what he will) comes quickly, when he sends an anonymous telegram to Asha—on vacation in Ooty—telling her that her uncle is very ill and she needs to return home immediately. She rushes home to find Mr. Varma in perfectly good health, and Kumar ready and waiting to escort her to a friend’s engagement party (and though he comes to the airport to watch her disembark, he doesn’t meet her or give her a ride home).
Asha treats Kumar like a brother, and drags him away from the party in order to talk to him about something obviously important. She has promised her uncle that he could choose her husband (they seem to have had a complete communication breakdown on this point) and she wants Kumar’s help: she has fallen in love and needs her uncle to understand.
She narrates her new romance to Kumar via flashback to the previous few weeks.
At a dance competition in Bangalore, Asha wins the top prize of a two-week trip to Ooty courtesy of the wealthy Singh family who owns a tea estate there. She beats out Kamla Singh (Laxmi Chhaya, who of course in my humble opinion is always the clear winner of everything) and a joke is made about how Kamla has always kept the prize in the family until now, rendering it sort of pointless but never mind.
In any case, Kamla’s mother Sarita (Lalita Pawar), Kamla herself, and brother Rajesh (Navin Nischol) are thrilled to have someone new to bestow it on; and Rajesh is obviously smitten with Asha. His mischievous sister is happy to egg things on.
It is such a delight to have Laxmi onscreen here, although sadly she isn’t used much through the rest of the film. She and Sarita happily conspire to push Rajesh and Asha together, until Kumar’s machinations draw the blossoming romance to an abrupt (albeit temporary) close.
As her story ends, Asha seems oblivious to Kumar’s distress at her confession (he puffs away furiously on one cigarette after another while pacing back and forth in front of her). But his shy silence finally broken, Kumar shows her his vast collection of Asha-inspired pieces and tells her about his own affection (to put it mildly) for her. He is quite the Renaissance artist! but I think it’s…yes, creepy.
While I might have simply run screaming, Asha calmly tries to let him down easy and seems convinced that she has done so. I am not so sure. When Rajesh sends a proposal of marriage to Uncleji, Varma accepts it with delight as he knows it will make Asha happy (he has spotted Rajesh’s photograph in her room). Poor Kumar isn’t helped by the fact that Asha herself falls sadly short in the empathy department.
Although he initially tries, Kumar cannot accept Rajesh’s entry into Asha’s life and heart, especially after Rajesh arrives to continue his wooing in person and is greeted with open arms by all. Brooding and miserable, Kumar goes to Varma once more to beg for Asha’s hand, and when Varma refuses, saying gently that Asha must decide, Kumar threatens him.
Now angry, Varma throws him out of the house; Kumar takes refuge in a nightclub where Helen dancing with two extremely be-ruffled men (one of them my beloved Oscar looking like a blue Big Bird) fails utterly to soothe him.
This is not improved by Rajesh and Asha’s appearance there too, where their cuddling makes Kumar’s already sour mood even worse.
Kumar now obviously has gained a new sense of purpose, and begins laying the groundwork for his plot. First he lets his neighbor know that he’s going to Calcutta by train; then he writes Varma a letter and has a pilot friend agree to mail it from Bangalore (as a “prank”); he contrives anonymously to make a late evening appointment between Rajesh and a fictitious tea agent so he’ll be alone in his office; and he buys an airline ticket. The film is not subtle about letting us in on the victim of his plan, either.
That afternoon, Kumar is driven by his neighbor’s chauffeur to the Victoria train station, who watches as he boards a sleeper car bound for Calcutta and the train pulls away. Rajesh tells Asha that he will meet her at her friend Shakuntala’s wedding that evening after his meeting with the tea estate agent at his office.
But that night Varma’s neighbor and friend Mr. Ghosh (Asit Sen) hears a frantic Rajesh calling Varma’s name and hurries across the hall to find Varma dead in his office. Rajesh tells him that he is there because Kumar called to say Varma had had a heart attack and he, Rajesh, needed to get over there.
Upon investigation, however, the police discover that Varma was strangled to death, and that Kumar was on the train to Calcutta at the time of the murder and his supposed phone call to Rajesh. He is met at the Howrah station by the Calcutta police, and “reluctantly” tells them that Varma had received bad news about Rajesh’s character (the letter from Bangalore) and had been having second thoughts about Asha’s marriage and had sent Rajesh a letter saying so.
Faced with what looks like the obvious, the police arrest Rajesh for Varma’s murder after a letter is delivered to him, in Varma’s handwriting, accusing him of being a horrible person and telling him that he will not allow the wedding to go forward. The only problem—which nobody ever mentions—is that this letter is delivered to Rajesh seconds before the police show up at his door, and he hands it over to them unopened and unread! If this is his motive, he must have been prescient. Plus, Varma had asked his buddy Mr. Ghosh to investigate the allegations he had received in the letter from Bangalore, and Ghosh says nothing about it or the mysterious “confirmation” Varma supposedly received from someone else.
Khair. I am thrilled to see Abhi Bhattacharya as a police inspector and Shatrughan Sinha as the gleefully courtroom-scenery-chewing prosecutor.
Despite it being her uncle’s handwriting, Asha knows that Rajesh is not guilty and stands by him as the trial begins. How did Kumar pull this frame-up off? He was on the train when it left the station in Bombay and arrived in Calcutta. And how will he react when he realizes that Asha is undeterred and still loves Rajesh, and believes in him?
Of course the title refers to the proverbial (and often sung- and written-about) moth that is drawn to a flame, leading to a disastrous ending for the moth…at one point in the story, Kumar actually holds his hand over an open flame to prove how much he loves Asha.
As I said, this is not so much a whodunit mystery as it is a suspenseful howdunit—and will it ever be solved properly? I found it quite entertaining and engaging, and the visuals help a lot in that regard. The period style is of course a favorite of mine (look at these outfits!):
and Swaroop and his cameraman use interesting camera angles and shadows to highlight both the tension between people and Kumar’s own internal suffering (oh, and my very favorite home decor staple appears too):
The acting is competent from everyone except Shotgun (but his overacting is quite entertaining in itself, it being him); and as I said, Amitabh is compelling as the brooding artist choosing the wrong path despite himself. He is just a couple of years short of becoming the breathtaking hero he was destined to be, but his charisma and acting abilities shine through his youth and relative inexperience.
There are worse ways to kill a couple of hours on a rainy day than this!