The second of my "Persistence of Vision" columns for Yahoo! India is up. This one is about Agatha Christie filtered through Manoj Kumar's quivering lower lip, Helen's swimsuit dance and Mehmood's Hitler moustache. Here's the link.
The full post:
Lost on Translation Island
The pilot announces that the engine has a snag and they have to make an emergency landing. The passengers - a small group of lucky-draw winners whose prize was a trip to "videsh", and a young steward named Anand (Manoj Kumar) - disembark and wander about what could be a jungle, an island, a desert or possibly all three at once. Then the plane takes off, leaving them stranded (but thoughtfully unloading their luggage before going).
So the wrathful tourists converge on the steward, who seems a natural candidate for co-conspirator in this turn of events. Manoj Kumar is facing the camera, brooding handsomely, contemplating a long future playing martyred characters in patriotic films. Why not get in some practice? He looks down, covers half his face and says in a broken tone that somehow manages to be understated and overwrought at the same time: "Mera iss mein koi haath nahin. Main kuch nahin jaanta!" ("I had no hand in this. I know nothing!") Laurence Olivier, preparing to play Iago at the Old Vic, would have had a jealous tantrum if he had witnessed this scene.
Thus unfolds the central premise of the eye-popping 1965 film Gumnaam, which was one of the few movies of its vintage that I actively sought out as a child, scouring the city's video-parlours until I had a new cassette of the film in my hand. Only because I had heard that it was based on one of my favourite Agatha Christie mysteries, And Then There Were None (also known by the less politically correct title Ten Little Niggers, or Ten Little Indians). But Gumnaam turned out to be so, so much more. It forever changed my conservative ideas about how a book should be turned into a film.
Christie's novel, one of her best-crafted, is about ten people - each of whom has a guilty secret - brought together on an island by a mysterious, absent host who then proceeds to knock them off one by one. As their number diminishes, the survivors get increasingly paranoid; it's obvious that the murderer is one of them. For a (mostly) straight-faced screen version of this story, you can't do better than the 1945 And Then There Were None, directed by Rene Clair and featuring a cast of very honourable character actors including Walter Huston, Barry Fitzgerald and Judith Anderson. It deviates from the book's ending, settling for a more upbeat climax, and there are moments of tongue-in-cheek silliness, but the events it describes are recognisably from the world of the classic thriller.
Gumnaam, on the other hand, takes the original template and works in slapstick comedy, a hurriedly developed romance, a confusing back-story about an inheritance, truly bizarre set design, a couple of item numbers, a dream sequence featuring statues of Egyptian mummies with glowing eyes, and even a red herring about a "bhatki hui aatma" (wandering spirit). And boy, does it play with our expectations of Hindi cinema's star personalities. Pran was the leading screen villain of the time, so naturally he is framed in various sinister ways - giving the camera a knowing smile as he closes a door, for example - that make him the most obvious suspect early on. Likewise, the swimsuit-wearing Helen is clearly the "bad girl" (though she's easily the most graceful thing about the film), especially when compared to the demure Nanda; but since this is a mystery, could the "twist" be that the murderer is someone we least expect it to be? The film's original viewers must have struggled with these questions. I know I did.
The thing I loved most about Gumnaam as a child was the soundtrack, especially the rambunctious 'Jaan pehchaan ho', which plays in a brilliant nightclub scene early in the film, and the title track 'Gumnaam hai koi' (the tune of which, I later discovered, was "borrowed" from Henry Mancini's score for Charade). But alas, some of the loveliest songs in old Hindi movies are mismatched with tacky visuals or careless lip-synching, so that the music and the images belong to completely different worlds. Thus the plaintive etherealness of Lata Mangeshkar's voice as she sings "Gumnaam hai koi" goes hand in glove with shots of Manoj Kumar's twitching eyebrows. The song leads the protagonists (and us) directly to a large mansion, and thence to a magnificently silly scene where a shrouded figure lying on a dining table rises slowly like the Frankenstein monster and then drops the sheet ... to reveal Mehmood, wearing a Hitler moustache and a lungi.
(From the Christie novel: "In the open doorway of the house a correct butler was awaiting them, and something about his gravity reassured them ... The butler came forward, bowing slightly. He was a tall, lank man, grey-haired and very respectable.")
Hitler-Mehmood looks around at the party and giggles. Everyone smiles, relieved. Hey, it's only Mehmood. He has to be harmless, right?
And indeed, he is. He's the bawarchi who has been hired to receive these guests (the Rene Clair film turns the butler Rogers into a comic figure too, but it's nothing compared to this), and one of the great joys of Gumnaam is how quickly everyone comes to terms with the morbid situation and settles down into what is effectively a five-star heritage hotel. They have their own rooms with fancy furniture and beach views; Mehmood brings them tea and snacks; since there is no television, and cellphones and the Internet haven't yet been invented, they spend their time smoking and drinking copiously, and forming little cliques. Even after the killings begin, there's a general sense of bonhomie, and some of them treat the whole thing as a game: "Tum kehte ho ke main kaatil hoon. Main kehta hoon ke tum kaatil ho. Isska faisla toh ek aur laash ke baad hi hoga." ("You say I'm the killer. I say you're the killer. We'll know only when another body turns up.") Twenty-first-century reality TV could learn a trick or two from this film.
Gumnaam is filled with little mysteries that Agatha Christie would be hard put to resolve. Why does Manoj Kumar randomly scratch his cheek while singing "Jaane chaman, shola badan" to Nanda in the rain? (Is it a form of naturalistic acting?) Why would anyone sing "Jaane chaman, shola badan" to Nanda in the rain? What's with the brief shot of the statue of Jesus on the cross, with a pigeon fluttering near his shoulder? What was the film's set decorator smoking? Where did the two pink, green and white beach-balls come from when Helen sings 'Iss duniya mein jeena ho'? (Was someone carrying them in their luggage?) That rock band we see in the nightclub scene - is it really called "Ted Lyons & His Cubs"? (Lyon cubs?)
That nightclub scene, incidentally, reappeared when I least expected it, in one of the greatest WTF moments in my movie-watching career. I had just acquired a DVD of Terry Zwigoff's indie film Ghost World. I slipped it into the player and sat gaping as 'Jaan pehchaan ho' began to play alongside the credits, accompanied by the familiar sight of Laxmi Chhaya (aptly credited as "Masked Dancer" on Gumnaam's IMDB page) convulsing across a dance floor. The video is being watched by Ghost World's protagonist, the sullen social misfit Enid, whose love for "old Indian rock videos" suggests a non-conformist, even warped, bent of mind. I think she would have liked the rest of the film.