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Johny Mera Naam - Reworking the Formulaic in the Details

18 Jun, 2020 | Reviews by Sneha Dasgupta
Johny Mera Naam (1970). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives

Hindi popular cinema is often criticised for producing what may be construed as the same narrative over and over again, save for a few superficial rearrangements of plot elements that attempt to feign originality in an extremely homogeneous industry. But as with any industry that produces cultural artefacts in the narrative form, the Hindi popular film industry has a tried and tested repertoire built over several decades, in order to keep its audience coming back to fill the seats of film theatres across the subcontinent. And even in reproducing the same, apparently tired old tropes, the devil lies in the details, and a single trope can never be articulated the same way twice.

Johny Mera Naam, produced by Gulshan Rai in 1970, is a film that demonstrates this with great flourish. Written, directed, and edited by Vijay Anand, with a story by K.A. Narayan, Johny Mera Naam, begins with a hymn sung to the three deities purported to be the holy trinity of Hinduism, framing the logo of the distribution company, Trimurti Films. As the logo fades the title sequence begins, typed in a peculiar, saffron tinted font that makes the letters look like they're dripping off the screen. The accompanying music is, in accordance with the typography, wonderfully raucous; featuring a robust cacophony of horns and percussion, reminiscent of the soundtrack to a chase sequence, as the names of the cast and crew flash across the screen.

Even in reproducing the same, apparently tired old tropes, the devil lies in the details, and a single trope can never be articulated the same way twice.
And so begins the saga of Johny, in a long shot framing a boxing ring in the middle of a field, surrounded by an enthusiastic audience, cheering on the two young boys facing off against each other in the ring. The camera zooms into the action, just as the penultimate round of the match comes to an end and the parents of the two brothers pitted against each other wonder who will win the fight.

The bell rings, signalling the beginning of the final round and the two brothers, Mohan the elder, and Sohan the younger, spring into action egged on by the crowd and their father, while their mother winces and grimaces at their violent antics. After a lightning fast sequence of action shots, neither of the boys emerges a loser, the principal of the school announces that they both qualify as champions and the film cuts to the boys' home where their mother is praying to Shiva, as most pious women in Hindi films tend to do.

As their mother prays, the two boys play at cops and robbers, a foreshadowing of the least subtle, but most effective sort, for the events to come. The boys' mother finishes with her display of piety and chides the boys to stop with their violent games and get ready for dinner, but the boys are adamant to eat with their father, whom their mother sends them to fetch from a friend's home. And this is where the sequence of events begins to go awry.

The boys' father, a decorated inspector in the Mumbai police department, leaves his friend and colleague's house, only to be waylaid by an assassin who efficiently offs him, just in time for his sons to witness the event. And in witnessing it, the two boys react completely differently. Sohan, reacts in fear, calling for his father as he dies, while Mohan passionlessly pulls the knife from his father's back and trails after the killer as he makes an escape into the dead of the night.
As their mother prays, the two boys play at cops and robbers, a foreshadowing of the least subtle, but most effective sort, for the events to come.
As the boys' mother waits patiently for her family's return at the dinner table, we see for the first time, the main antagonist of the film, Ranjit, played by Premnath Malhotra (credited as Prem Nath) paying his murderous henchman before quickly taking his leave. Oddly enough, the lighting of the sequence changes dramatically between the shot of the boys' mother and the subsequent chase - night turns almost immediately to day, as Mohan takes revenge for his father's demise by stabbing the assailant through the heart and taking refuge in the trunk of Ranjit's escape vehicle. Elsewhere the boys' father dies in agony, calling out Mohan's name as his son is discovered by the villains. A time skip takes place bringing us to the unfolding of the film's convoluted, noir inflected, plot.

The trope of the two brothers separated by time, space, and morality, has been a main stay of not only Hindi popular cinema, but melodramatic modes of narrative articulation for many a decade, it would be reiterated again, for years to come, notably in 1975's Deewaar, under vastly different circumstances. Johny Mera Naam, however, is quite unique, in that it preserves the intrigue of the lost brother's identity at the level of the narrative, but leaves massive clues to the identity of the lost brother in its visual design, prominently in the many action sequences that pepper the film.
 
A lobby card of Johny Mera Naam from the Cinemaazi archives
Johny Mera Naam, however, is quite unique, in that it preserves the intrigue of the lost brother's identity at the level of the narrative, but leaves massive clues to the identity of the lost brother in its visual design, prominently in the many action sequences that pepper the film.
In the wake of the time skip we are introduced to the meat of the film's story; an international cartel of thieves and smugglers operating primarily in India and Kathmandu, pursued by the Indian police department, as they steal jewels and artefacts to sell to buyers from across the globe. In this, the character of Sohan, played by the inimitable Dev Anand, acts as the intrepid double agent of the police department, working tirelessly to stop the dastardly villains from draining the nation's wealth and redistributing it across the world for the sole profit of the cruel and selfish Ranjit and his network of operatives.

Playing the role of the primary female protagonist is Hema Malini, as Rekha, an accomplished thief and smuggler, and a woman in search of her lost father, whose motives are divulged gradually through the film's narrative and romantic entanglement with Sohan, who operates under the guise of a petty thief who introduces himself quoting the film's title "Johny mera naam". Sohan's first encounter with the smuggling ring takes place in a holding cell which houses Hiralal (Omkar Nath Dhar, credited by his stage name, Jeevan), whom he promises to do a small job for in order to ingratiate himself into the cartel's operations. It is in doing this first job that Sohan/Johny meets Rekha, and falls in love with her almost immediately, as is expected in a film as formulaic as Johny Mera Naam.
 
A lobby card of Johny Mera Naam from the Cinemaazi archives
But despite its formulaic nature, Johny Mera Naam shines in the very fact that in its repetition of the most overplayed tropes in the history of Hindi popular cinema, the film usually manages to stretch the limits of these tropes to ridiculous, and often surprisingly reflexive, iterations of what they originally were.
But despite its formulaic nature, Johny Mera Naam shines in the very fact that in its repetition of the most overplayed tropes in the history of Hindi popular cinema, the film usually manages to stretch the limits of these tropes to ridiculous, and often surprisingly reflexive, iterations of what they originally were. For example I.S. Johar's roles that won him the Filmfare award for the Best Performance in a Comic Role; instead of the usual, comedic double role, Johar plays a triple role - Pehle Ram, Dooja Ram, and Teeja Ram - who aid Johny in his mission to stop Ranjit and his goons, mainly by continuously being mistaken for one other.

In fact, Johar's role accounts for a number of the film's most reflexive moments. After the protagonists land in Kathmandu, at a casino which serves as one of the cartel's base of operations and a site for a rendezvous, Deeja Ram wins a game of roulette and in his euphoria attempts to kiss the young white woman next to him, only to be interrupted by a jump cut. In response to this rude interruption, Dooja Ram turns to an old man next to him and asks if this is the work of the censor board. This almost throw away sequence refers to the unwritten ban on kissing in Indian cinema that operated well into the 1980s, but complicates it significantly. Kissing was only banned between Indian couples as it did not reflect "Indian culture", but not foreign ones. Dooja Ram attempts to kiss a white woman, but is interrupted any way - a humorous and caustic dig at the limits of censorship in cinema.
In response to this rude interruption, Dooja Ram turns to an old man next to him and asks if this is the work of the censor board. This almost throw away sequence refers to the unwritten ban on kissing in Indian cinema that operated well into the 1980s.
The film's music is chiefly directed by the Gujrati composers Kalyanji–Anandji, who do an apt job of scoring the film, making sure to match its zany tone with an equally zany mix of Hollywood noir inspired music modulated through Indian instruments that fits it perfectly. As for the songs, they are sung by Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, and Asha Bhonsle, and instead of operating outside of the film's narrative structure, conform more to the style of Hollywood musicals, where the songs actively play a role in developing the narrative, and distracting from the immediate danger posed to the characters (usually the protagonists) in question in any given situation.

In terms of visual design, Johny Mera Naam seems to represent the classical kitsch emblematic of the Hindi cinema of its time. And while it may look like very little care has been taken in devising the way the film looks, on closer inspection, the film reveals itself to be quite reticent of the colours and coding of its characters, making it quite a treat for the attentive viewer, leaving an ample number of clues for the resolution of the film's plot. This is especially striking in the film's climactic sequence in the colour coding of the protagonists' and antagonists' costumes.
While it may look like very little care has been taken in devising the way the film looks, on closer inspection, the film reveals itself to be quite reticent of the colours and coding of its characters.
Johny Mera Naam was the highest grossing Mumbai based Hindi film in 1970. It won Vijay Anand the award for Best Screenplay at the 18th Filmfare awards, and was generally well received in the months following its release. And despite reproducing several tropes that in retrospect must be understood as problematic (the privileging of certain feudal values, a healthy dose of misogyny, regressive portrayals of tribal culture) Johny Mera Naam, is a film that would set the stage for several developments in the repertoire of Hindi popular cinema in the decades to come. In this, it is a significant film in the history of Indian popular cinema that despite its many idiosyncrasies is worth watching, and watching closely, if one is to understand the turbulent course of Hindi popular cinema through the decades.
 

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About the Author

Sneha Dasgupta is an M.Phil student at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. With a background in Film Studies, Mass Communication and Videography, she splits her time between studying snuff film and worrying that words don't mean the same thing in different historical epochs.