Friday, May 21, 2010

PoV 2: the many wonders of Gumnaam

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.


  1. Jai,

    You asked the most pertinent question ever in the history of Bollywood - who'd want to sing Jaane Chaman Shola Badan to Nanda? :))

    Considering it was Manoj Bharat Kumar, though, I think the Q answers itself. Personally, I think the shola badan bit refers to her ample backside-to-beat-all-ample-backsides in that era.

    One caveat. You didn't touch upon Mahmood's unrequited romance with Helen, which was the better romance angle in the movie than the leads', IMO. And Hum kaale hainn toh, of course.

    Looking forward to your next :)!

  2. Just finished reading introductory POV. It is Collector's item for someone who for a long time thought that Khalid Mohamed was the God of film writing.

  3. Yes, the band is actually named 'Ted Lyon and the Cubs'. It has appeared in many movies.
    And Laxmi Chhaya is wrongly referred to as the 'Masked Dancer' in Gumnaam. It was the singer who was masked and not the dancer.

  4. Laxmi Chhaya is wrongly referred to as the 'Masked Dancer' in Gumnaam. It was the singer who was masked and not the dancer.

    Indisch: check the clip on Youtube (I've linked to it in the piece). She's masked in the early parts of the song.

    It is Collector's item for someone who for a long time thought that Khalid Mohamed was the God of film writing

    Paresh: I know you mean that as a compliment, but I'm afraid I can't take it as one!

  5. Sumantics: thanks. I'd already exceeded the ideal word-count for the column - couldn't touch on everything that's worth writing about in this film!

  6. Hi

    Comparing you with Khalid something is not acceptable. You not accepting the compliment is somewhat understandable.

  7. I checked this film out a few weeks back. Enjoyed it a lot more than the novel. I thought the book was standard Christie fare with a somewhat original resolution.

    The Rene Claire film was a fairly conservative adaptation with unobtrusive camerawork.

    [i]Gumnaam[/i] in contrast, feels like a Leone western on occasion, what with all the closeups in the song sequences (especially the Gumnaam hai koi song early in the film). Some might say it's vulgar and over-the-top, a criticism often rightly ascribed to the Leone films. Maybe it is. But what's wrong with a bit of vulgar fun once in a while.

  8. Rest of the comment later, but "Ted Lyons and His Cubs" is a legitimate band. More about it here.

  9. I didn't compare you with KM; I just mentioned my ignorance about film writers, having grown up reading KM & few other Indian writers. Most of the names mentioned in your column are new to me, that is all.

  10. Paresh: no problem. I actually liked some of KM's writing from a couple of decades ago, given of course the constraints he had to work with. If I were to review regularly for a mainstream Indian newspaper that was obsessed with star ratings, I'd be just as sloppy.

  11. Enjoyed your post on Gumnaam and the detour to Mr.Bharat!

    Hope you will do Aandhi soon. Would like to know your views on that movie( these movies were before my time; I havent seen Aandhi its just the songs that blow me away every time I hear them).


    BTW from some of your earlier posts, I know you are dont particularly have a high regard for Sanjeev Kumar.

    Would you care to respond to this opinion I found on an Aandhi review page:

    "..Ashok Kumar once said that Sanjeev Kumar's greatest strength and weakness was his natural performance. He always was the character. In fact, because he was so natural that one often failed to comprehend and appreciate his acting talent. One is always more prone to talk about something which is more obvious. But he had that rare ability to become invisible and let the character take over. That's what he does in Aandhi as well...."

  12. Jai_C: I don't remember Aandhi too well - saw it as a kid. Anyway, this column will mainly be about films (Indian and non-Indian) that mean a lot to me, not just random reviews.

    I know you are dont particularly have a high regard for Sanjeev Kumar.

    I'll qualify that statement: I don't have a very high regard for him relative to his inflated reputation as the ultimate actor's actor. Also, I think he was overrated as a dramatic performer but quite good in many of his lighter roles.

    And about always being "so natural" and "becoming the character" - I think those ideas tend to be overstated. Like most other actors in mainstream Hindi films, SK had his own tics and mannerisms - notably the tight-lipped, gritted-teeth intensity that was common to so many of his dramatic roles.


  14. Still remember almost falling off my seat when the trailer for GhostWorld (showcasing Jaan Pehchaan Ho) started playing in little white-only Waynesville.
    Hearing the song play in that little mid-western town was memorably surreal.
    Didn't know the song though - and till today I thought that Shammi Kapoor looked kind of strange!
    Guess I need to see Gumnaam.

  15. Laurence Olivier, preparing to play Iago at the Old Vic, would have had a jealous tantrum if he had witnessed this scene.

    Oooh, brilliant! Looking forward to PoV 3 now!

  16. I was under the impression that its based on Ice Station zebra . isn't it ?

  17. Prashant: no, I don't see much similarity there, though the book was published just a year or so before Gumnaam was made.

  18. Really enjoying your column - that scene in Ghostworld is what turned me on to the world of Bollywood. I ended up finding Gumnaam at a cult video rental place. I brought it home and watched it by myself. When it was over, I sat there stunned and frustrated I had nobody to talk to about this insanely intriguing movie!

  19. Have been spending a lot of time reading thru your blog. It's very very perceptive and time just flies past reading.....
    Your WTF moment was really was for precisely that curiosity I watched Ghost World...Had found it very odd than an Amer teen cud actually like these song dance routine..I still cant get over the 'Indian Rock' phrase - its like im still floundering over its meaning..

  20. Arthi: thanks. Yes, it makes me think of how someone from another culture will always have a very different perspective on the things that I grew up with. By the way, on the Youtube video of "Jaan Pehchaan Ho", there are loads of comments from non-Indians who thought the masked "singer" in the video was Mohammed Rafi, because Rafi was credited as the artist! There are comments like "Man, I love that Rafi's moves". Made me laugh out loud.

  21. This post reminded me, have you ever reviewed "Mahal" on your blog? Quick search doesn't turn up anything. Would like to read about it.

  22. Weren't you a tad harsh on Nanda? I always liked her-there was such a serene quality about her; I even liked the early movies of Manoj Kumar. He was so tall (I think he and Sunil Dutt were the only 6 feet tall stars in Hindi movies prior to Amitabh's ascent) and handsome, and occasionally funny too (before he morphed into Bharat Kumar). Of course, quite a few of his later films were somewhat odious.