Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Passage to Agatha

Much like Laxmi Chhaya's infectious dancing to Mohammed Rafi's, Jaan Pehechaan Ho, many Bollywood films tend to be bizarre, silly, surreal, manic and all over the place, stylistically speaking. At the same time, they are loaded with energy, fun, and are endlessly entertaining even when they make no sense whatsoever. The incredibly uneven films may give one tonal whiplash, but it's an enjoyably sustained type of injury. So with neck-brace in hand, I decided to check out one I had been meaning to see for a long time.

While researching my post back in July concerning the five theatrical adaptations of Agatha Christie's novel, And Then There Were None,  I was reminded of the 1965 Bollywood film Gumnaam which was said to bare a striking story resemblance to the classic murder mystery. I did not include it among the five adaptations reviewed at that time because I felt sure it would contain widely disparate elements and be it's own odd conglomeration of genres and tones giving it a uniqueness deserving of its own examination.

It turned out, I was correct. After viewing the film, I realized there was no fair way to compare it to the other adaptations. It wasn't a case of apples and oranges, more like apples and unicycles. The movie did contain plot elements that were direct boosts from the Christie novel in that there is a group of people who are left on an island and sentenced to death for murder by an unknown accuser. There is also a love story between the leads and a key red herring, but the similarities mostly end there. It's not just the half dozen songs that make it a thing of its own, but the wild genre jumping from noir to musical to mystery to horror to comedy to thriller that is typical of many Bollywood films. This ever-changing aspect will either delight or frustrate viewers, but makes it all but impossible to compare to its counterparts as its ultimately a unique product aimed at its own unique market. Personally, I love the sheer audacity of attempting to pack so many dissimilar elements into one film and found myself watching Gumnaam with my jaw on the floor but still smiling all the while.

The film's prologue begins in a very noir-ish manner with a mysterious man on a balcony engineering the hit and run death of a man named Sohanlal on the street below. The mystery man then begins making phone calls to various people in what is obviously a plan to get a hold of the victim's estate. While in the midst of these calls, another mysterious man enters the room and guns the first down. While confounding, this turn effectively plunges the viewer into the story and the opening credits which involve a nighttime drive through the city ending at a nightclub.

We then enter the Princess Club where "Ted Lyons & His Cubs" (Mohammed Rafi) are playing Jaan Pehechaan Ho with Laxmi Chhaya going stark raving bonkers on the dance floor. This is hands down the best song in the feature and endlessly fun. If it appears familiar to western viewers, it's because Terry Zwigoff used it in the opening of Ghost World with Thora Birch's Enid mimicking the moves of Chhaya while the movie played on her TV. It was also recently used by Heineken in an ad to sell their suds. It's difficult and rare for something from Bollywood to make its way into the American culture, but this song and dance number's charm is something that cannot be ignored. The nightclub setting is not only a good excuse for the musical interlude but provides pretext for the subsequent gathering in the form of a vacation giveaway to celebrate the club's "Silver Jubilee." Seven winners of a holiday trip are selected by the club's MC and the audience meets each in turn. Among the group are Asha (Nanda), who is the niece of the original murder victim, Rakesh (Pran), a boozing barrister, and Miss Kitty (Helen), a sexy ingenue who enjoys the company of those who drink more than drinking herself as she later explains.

The story then cuts to the seven winners on board a DC-8 winging to their holiday destination. Complications ensue, however, when the aircraft apparently develops engine trouble and has to set down on a remote island for repairs. The group, along with the co-pilot Anand (Manoj Kumar), then go for a walk, at which point, the plane takes off stranding them all. As they search the island they begin hearing the ethereal voice of Lata Mangeshkar singing the spooky song Gumnaam Hai Koi. It may not be the best song in the film, but it does provide a spooky atmosphere that reappears throughout the story.

The group eventually discovers an estate complete with a goofy, but accommodating, butler played by Mehmood. 
The Christie aspect of the story then kicks in with the group being accused of murder followed by characters being killed off one by one. Romance, comedy and musical numbers also ensue, so much so, that the mystery and murder aspects almost take a back seat to the fun and frivolity. I do not exaggerate when I say that for every murder that takes place, a happy-go-lucky song occurs. But this is s.o.p. in Bollywood filmmaking which takes standard cinematic rules concerning tone and pacing and happily chucks them right out the window. I actually like this kind of loopiness which has an innocent and unique charm all its own. And the remaining songs in Gumnaam are pretty darned good and quite entertaining in their own right. In particular, there is a fantasy sequence song, Hum Kaale Hai To Kya Hua featuring Helen and Mehmood (again sung by Mohammed Rafi), that's easily my second favorite production in the movie. Before this number, Mehmood's over the top comedy was really getting on my last nerve, but I warmed to him considerably subsequent to this cheeky performance.

Helen has some very very fluid dance skills as she effortlessly shows when zipping down a huge stair case in heels. She's involved in three musical numbers, but really shines in this one thanks in part to the elaborate sets, her three costume changes and Mehmood's antics. She also shows off her comic chops in a later number she performs with Nanda that's kind of an ode to drunkeness called Peeke Hum Tum Jo Chale.

I actually preferred Helen's saucy bad girl, Miss Kitty, to Nanda's standard damsel in distress, Asha. In fact, the lead characters (and romantic bait), Anand and Asha, felt pretty generic as did their musical numbers together, although I did admire one which was performed in tsunami-like conditions and had to be a tough go for the two leads to execute without laughter or irritation at the elements.

Besides the rather lackluster lead couple, there were a number a few problems with the film outside of the obvious structural one caused by the merging of murder mystery and musical. The biggest issue was lack of character development amongst some of the secondary characters. For example, I never did understand how Mister Dharamdas (Dhumal) was related to the story, or even who he was, or what he did for a living. He wore a safari hat, carried around poison, and whined a lot. That's about as much as I got from his character. The other characters' presence were ultimately explained or could be intuited, but Dharamdas was an unintentional and frustrating enigma.

More on the nitpicking side, but it was nevertheless a big irritant for me, was Mehmood's Hitler mustache. It was obviously done for comic purposes and is even joked about in those terms later in the film, but it really annoyed me to no end. Charlie Chaplin got away with it because he was outright mocking Hitler, but as a comedy prop, it's a massive distraction and an epic fail. Similarly, Manoj Kumar's red hat did nothing for me, but at least it wasn't worn by a former dictator, it's just a goofy, horrible fashion choice on its own.

Finally, the end of the film went on forever, in part, due to an information dump of epic proportions which drags here-to-fore unmentioned characters into the story by way of the killer's motivation. It's a long-winded, Scooby-Doo explanation and reveal that were just not necessary and slow an already long climatic scene down even further. In fact, the whole Agatha Christie aspect to the film only served to slow it down with unneeded ancillary characters and plot. The movie probably would have been better served if it had been some kind of caper film or haunted house story rather than being an elaborate murder mystery. As a musical, I enjoyed it very much, but as a suspense thriller, I found it somewhat ponderous and hazy.

Score 6.75/10