For a serious student of 1970s cinema there can be few things more fulfilling than watching Shabana Azmi and Neetu Singh in colourful bell-bottoms, merrily knocking their ample hips together while Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna ride motorcycles in circles around them. I experienced this and much more while watching Manmohan Desai's Parvarish last night. (Other highlights include Vinod Khanna lifting his trousers to show off a very hairy leg that, much to Amitabh's astonishment, doesn't have a bullet wound in it. Later, VK discloses that he was wearing a stocking that hid the wound. Borrowed from Helen, no doubt.)
Given that it's from Amitabh's golden period, Parvarish isn't a hugely popular film (hell, it's probably Manmohan Desai's fourth most popular film of 1977, a year in which he hit the jackpot with Amar Akbar Anthony, Dharam-Veer and Chacha Bhatija). But it's a rollicking entertainer: extremely fast-paced, with good action scenes for its time (notwithstanding the repeated close-ups of a toy submarine in a bathtub), fine performances by two very charismatic leading men – and, naturally, dollops of unintended humour (though nothing to equal the Gay Dosti of Dharam-Veer). The only serious flaws are the mediocre music and Shammi Kapoor's heavily gelled beard, though Shabana and Neetu's bell-bottomed dancing compensates at least for the former.
The plot is complicated: it begins with the rotund but fearless Inspector Shamsher (Shammi Kapoor) arresting Mangal Singh (Amjad Khan), a bandit. Mangal's wife dies in childbirth but not before calling Shamsher "mere bhaiya" (it works every time) and asking him to ensure that her baby boy has a good upbringing, away from his father's shadow. Shamsher takes the baby to his palatial home where his wife (we never learn her name, it doesn't matter) is waiting, and they decide to raise the child themselves, as a brother to their own infant son.
Flash-forward a few years and Kishan, the inspector's real son, is a bit of a prankster while Amit, the adopted boy, is goody-goody. This leads to one of the more disturbing scenes in the film. The inspector smacks Kishan hard, locks him in his room without supper and then says to his wife (as a tanpura plays mournfully in the background), "Kitni afsos ki baat hai! Daku ka beta itna shareef hai par hamara apna beta shaitan nikla." ("Immense tragedy abounds! The bandit's son is decent but our own boy is the Devil.") What, you might reasonably ask at this point, was the 10-year-old's great crime? Answer: he bunked school to watch a movie. Models of good parenting, these people...
Anyway, to cut a long story short, a bitter Kishan (Vinod Khanna) grows up under the mistaken belief that he is the adopted son, which is why he’s being treated like a pariah. Though still living in the Inspector's house and working as a teacher at a blind school during the day, he throws in his lot with Mangal Singh and aids him in nefarious underground activities. Meanwhile the steadfast Amit (Amitabh Bachchan) becomes a policeman, unaware that his own brother is part of the smuggling operation he has been trying to crack.
Parvarish is a classic example of the Manmohan Desai approach to movie-making – using a plot simply to string along one audience-pleasing setpiece after another, with no concern for such trivialities as character development or credible relationships. Another filmmaker, for instance, might have used this intricate story to at least briefly touch on the nature-nurture debate. But not Desai. (The big mystery is how either of the boys grows up to be well-rounded given the insipidity of their parents and the garishness of the house's living room.)
Also, the character played here by Vinod Khanna is, in theory at least, a strong anti-hero – he comes from a long tradition of characters (going back to Karna in the Mahabharata) whose righteous indignation about being discriminated against and never getting their due leads them into morally ambiguous terrain. In this case, though Kishan is a small-time crook and Khanna's handsome sneer suggests a studied cynicism, we can see that his heart is uncorrupted – as indicated by the important plot device of the blind school where he works. (If this were a film made by a Serious Director, how much fun we'd have psycho-analysing the function of the blind students! One would have to make the point that Kishan's secret guilt requires him to spend most of his time around people who can't look into his eyes.)
Even within the limitations of mainstream Hindi cinema, this sort of character has been treated with a measure of complexity in other films – the obvious example being Amitabh's brooding role in Shakti, as a policeman's son who feels unwanted and deliberately moves as far as possible from his father's moral compass. But Parvarish being a Desai film, there's no pretence of exploring the nuances of Kishan's character. In fact, the whole thing quickly turns into a friendly in-joke: given the easygoing relationship the grown-up Kishan has with his parents, there is little motivation for his wrongdoings at all (except the most important motivation of all: allowing Vinod Khanna to come up against Amitabh's upright policeman so there can be some friction between the two heroes).
But Parvarish is a joyous work that deserves to be seen for many other reasons, including the spiky walls and the quicksand in the villains' den, and the sight of Kishan cowering behind a plush sofa while the trigger-happy Inspector fires about the house in fatherly wrath. Best of all: a young and callow Tom Alter as a henchman named Jackson who strips off and puts on a scuba mask when he has to dive and check for bombs on the outside of the submarine.
P.S. In another Manmohan Desai film released in 1977, Amar Akbar Anthony, Bachchan and Khanna reversed roles: AB played the loveable rogue, while VK donned the police uniform. That's probably Desai's version of expanding his repertoire.
Earlier posts on Bollywood kitsch: The Turning Brain, Insaaf Kaun Karega, homo-erotica in Dharam-Veer and Bollywood's Keystone Kops