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Kaun Shareef Kaun Badmaash – Navketan and the Journey of the Hindi Caper

26 Sep, 2020 | Short Features by Cinemaazi Team Member Nildeep Paul
Jewel Thief (1967). Image courtesy: Cinemaazi archives

Imagine a scenario – the hero is a small time crook who has charmed his way into the ranks of a crime syndicate. But his tall tales have run him into trouble and the boss suspects he is not who he says he is. At the drop of a hat the hero invents a backstory to counter the suspicions and is promptly welcomed back into the fold. In the very next scene, the hero is questioned by the heroine about his intentions. Cue the hero concocting a completely different identity to assuage her doubts. This dance of the seven veils is an integral part of the popular Hindi capers of the late 1960’s and 70’s, deftly blending the conventional morally upright hero with the winking allure of the con man.

The caper enjoyed a reasonable run of success in the 1970’s, its pulp fiction roots making for some fun-filled romps, predominantly featuring Dev Anand. In fact, Dev Anand’s career is intrinsically linked with the journey of this subgenre in Hindi cinema.
The caper enjoyed a reasonable run of success in the 1970’s, its pulp fiction roots making for some fun-filled romps, predominantly featuring Dev Anand. In fact, Dev Anand’s career is intrinsically linked with the journey of this subgenre in Hindi cinema. While Anand had made his debut as a romantic hero in Shaheed Latif’s Ziddi (1948), his decision to make a film like Baazi (Guru Dutt, 1951) signaled a major shift in the image of the Hindi hero. During his struggling years, Anand had befriended a young Guru Dutt and the two had promised to work with each other. Keeping his promise, Anand chose Dutt as the director for the second feature to be made under his newly-founded Navketan Films banner. The film, written by Balraj Sahni, which features Dev Anand as the down-on-his –luck young man Madan, who is forced into a career as a gambler by his social conditions was a major success. It was influential in starting a slew of crime dramas made in the 1950’s. The themes of alienation and struggle set in an urban underclass of small time criminals, taxi drivers, bar dancers and pimps would become a recurring feature in Navketan’s other successful films of the 1950’s. Taxi Driver (Chetan Anand, 1954), House No. 44 (M K Burman, 1955), Nau Do Gyarah (Vijay Anand, 1957), Kala Pani (Raj Khosla, 1958) all featured narratives emerging from the noir pool of angst and cynicism. 
 
Baazi (1951) marked an important shift in the image of the Hindi film hero. Image courtesy: Cinemaazi archives 

The noir form was the perfect medium for what the Anand brothers  were attempting to articulate. Ranjani Mazumdar, has commented on how the Anands’ association with the Indian People’s Theatre Association led them to make films that differed significantly from the two major trends of Indian cinema at the time. The predominant contemporary genre was undoubtedly the social, having dethroned the mythological since the mid-1930’s in popular appeal. The social was a name attributed to a certain form of family drama, usually laden with patriarchal values and carrying forward a nation-building rhetoric. The question of what it is to be a modern Indian lay at the heart of it. On the other side was a different form of social – one that was disillusioned with the supposed ‘progresses’ of the newly-independent nation, aiming to highlight the struggles of those falling through the cracks of nation-building project. Chetan Anand, Dev Anand's elder brother, had earlier made the globally acclaimed Neecha Nagar (1946), which definitely belonged to the latter category. But Navketan’s films chose to focus on the varied dynamics of urban life, its cosmopolitan make up and the aspirations and dreams of its inhabitants. The rhythm of the city was etched on Dev Anand’s street smart and fast talking avatar, which would come to influence the later incarnations of the star as well. At their heart, the films are sympathetic towards the marginalized but chose to express on a musical and colorful urban canvas. Dev Anand’s attitude towards the progressive writers’ activism was always that of pragmatism. While he was never an outspoken advocate of their cause it was under the Navketan umbrella that Majrooh Sultanpuri and Sahir Ludhianvi would do some of their most compelling work. Combined with the musical genius of S D Burman, these films would have soundtracks for the ages. Regardless these films would often take very dark turns, compromising the protagonists’ ethical authority (such as Tony in Guru Dutt’s Jaal with his suspect intentions or Babu from Raj Khosla’s Bambai Ka Babu who accidentally causes the death of his friend Malik) complicating the ultimate reconciliation to a degree. 
Navketan’s films chose to focus on the varied dynamics of urban life, its cosmopolitan make up and the aspirations and dreams of its inhabitants. The rhythm of the city was etched on Dev Anand’s street smart and fast talking avatar, which would come to influence the later incarnations of the star as well. At their heart, the films are sympathetic towards the marginalized but chose to express on a musical and colorful urban canvas.
The noir emerged from the gangster genre to address a wave of post-World War unemployment and alienation. A crumbling moral order was the salient feature of the noir, disaffected with the realities of a world barely living up to the exalted claims of idealists. Post-World War America was a nation struggling with its identity - in the grips of McCarthy era paranoia and rapidly eroding social liberties. The caper usually refers to a lighter, more humorous variant of the film noir usually centered on a heist. J. P. Telotte comments that its characters often demonstrate an alternate set of skills than what is valued in society (the gambler, the con man, the driver, the lock-picker) usually in conflict with the institutions of the gentry. If the pulp fiction novel upends the middle class morality of the typical bourgeois novel, the caper casts a similar ironic gaze at the classic romance.
The caper usually refers to a lighter, more humorous variant of the film noir usually centered on a heist. J. P. Telotte comments that its characters often demonstrate an alternate set of skills than what is valued in society (the gambler, the con man, the driver, the lock-picker) usually in conflict with the institutions of the gentry.
But if one were to trace the lineage of the 70’s capers to films like Baazi and Jaal it will be difficult to ignore the radical shift in tone of the later films. The transition point for Navketan was undoubtedly their 1967 success Jewel Thief (Vijay Anand, 1967). Shot in the picturesque city of Gangtok, the film was an explosion of colour and energy, combining a Hitchcockian plot with James Bond – esque flair. A series of similar films followed in the 70’s – Johny Mera Naam (Vijay Anand, 1970), Chhupa Rustam (Vijay Anand, 1973) and Shareef Budmaash (Raj Khosla, 1973). Jewel Thief used the popular trope of mistaken identities to create a Hitchcockian MacGuffin, concealing its major twist behind it. It was also interesting to note that Ashok Kumar, the star who arguably started the trend of playing the anti-hero in Kismet (Gyan Mukherjee, 1943), played a major role in the film. Johny Mera Naam uses another popular film trope – the siblings separated at birth – to create its narrative arc. While infinitely enjoyable, their differences with the 50’s noir films are evidently clear. 
 
Johny Mera Naam (1970) was a colourful fun-filled romp, a far cry from the noirish Baazi. Image courtesy: Cinemaazi archives 
 
In the caper of the 70’s the undercover police officer willfully engages in the masquerade of multiple identities. This enacts a clever blurring of images – a principled officer of the law deftly utilizing the tricks of the rogue con man.
The obvious departure is the shift from a primarily urban milieu to accommodate scenic locales like Sikkim, Kathmandu and Himachal Pradesh. This change comes hand-in-hand with the evolution of the iconic Dev Anand character. From the disaffected young man who is often times an outlaw, he transitions to playing mostly an agent of the law. In films like Baazi, Anand’s character is compelled to take on the role of the gambler due to harsh financial conditions and ethical obligations. In the caper of the 70’s the undercover police officer willfully engages in the masquerade of multiple identities. This enacts a clever blurring of images – a principled officer of the law deftly utilizing the tricks of the rogue con man. This collapsing of the two roles is indicative of a shift in social paradigms. What was a sign of social corruption for the Balraj Sahnis in the 50’s has become part of the norm – the policeman cannot help but also be a con man. The films extend this trope to even the most sacred of all Indian film characters – the mother. In Johny Mera Naam, Dev Anand’s mother refuses to recognize her own son in front of the villains, in order to protect his cover, smartly assuming the role of an old confused woman. As the villains torture the mother in order to force the spy out of hiding, the police officer (Dev Anand) remains resolute in his act. It is the other brother, played by Pran, raised as a gangster, who breaks his pretense and comes to her rescue. A similar scene is played out in Besharam (Deven Verma, 1978) where the undercover Ram Kumar (Amitabh Bachchan) is asked by the villainous Digvijay Singh (Amjad Khan) to spit on his mother. While the scene does not utilize the ingenious trope of the mother also performing an alternate identity, the commonality between the two scenes cannot be denied. The focus seems to have shifted to the construction of an enigma, able to embody both sides of the law, but ultimately dedicated to the protection of national interests. Similar tropes would appear in the writings of Kader Khan as well in films like Mr Natwarlal (Rakesh Kumar, 1979) and Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (Prakash Mehra, 1978).
The obvious departure is the shift from a primarily urban milieu to accommodate scenic locales like Sikkim, Kathmandu and Himachal Pradesh. This change comes hand-in-hand with the evolution of the iconic Dev Anand character. From the disaffected young man who is often times an outlaw, he transitions to playing mostly an agent of the law.
Perhaps the worst victims of this change are the female characters. Kalpana Kartik’s confident and principled doctor Rajani from Baazi, who is not afraid to balk social conventions and Geeta Bali’s sympathetic bar dancer Leena from Baazi are all but gone in the 70’s. Much has been said about the confident assertion of sexuality by women in the later films (a la Tanuja in Raat Akeli Hai from Jewel Thief), but often their portrayal veers closer to sexploitation (see Padma Khanna in Johny Mera Naam or Bindu from Chhupa Rustam).     
 
Chhupa Rustam (1973). Image courtesy: Cinemaazi archives 
 
Perhaps the worst victims of this change are the female characters. Kalpana Kartik’s confident and principled doctor Rajani from Baazi, who is not afraid to balk social conventions and Geeta Bali’s sympathetic bar dancer Leena from Baazi are all but gone in the 70’s.
What was the reason behind this shift in tone? Was it a form of escapism from the steadily darkening political climate of the nation? If disenchantment with the project of nation-building was present in the 1950’s, it had assumed volcanic proportions by the late 1960’s. Popular movements against the Congress’s hegemony were springing up left and right, and the Emergency was looming on the horizon. By the 60’s many films were already commenting on the increasingly elusive promise of democracy made in 1947. A cynical tone had crept into many of the films made in the 60’s. In Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Satyakam (1969), the idealism of Satyapriya Acharya (Dharmendra) proves untenable. Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi (1970) addressed the myriad bottlenecks to the aspirations of the youth. Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta trilogy (Interview,1971; Calcutta 71, 1972; and Padatik, 1973) was a searing investigation into the failure of the nation to provide for the marginalized. O P Ralhan’s Phool Aur Patthar (1966), the film that made Dharmendra the He –man phenomenon, and Yash Chopra’s Aadmi Aur Insaan (1969) continue a similar disillusionment with the status quo. 

The charge of escapism is often prematurely laid on popular cinema. While Hindi cinema took a decidedly escapist turn in the 70’s (case in point the zany insanity of Manmohan Desai’s films), it is indicative of a generalized frustration with the system. Dev Anand himself was equally critical of both Indira Gandhi and her opponents the Janata Party in his autobiography. His initial support of the Janata Party and later frustrations at their failure was a precursor to his own entry into politics with the National Party of India. The Hindi caper of the 70’s reflects these ambiguous frustrations – trying to perform a difficult balancing act, of challenging moral codes as well as upholding the sanctity of the nation’s dream. 

Notes

Mazumdar, Ranjani. Cosmopolitan Dreams. https://www.india-seminar.com/2009/598/598_ranjani_mazumdar.htm. Accessed January 25, 2019.

Telotte, J.P. Fatal Capers: Strategy and Enigma in Film Noir, Journal of Popular Film and Television, 23:4, 1996. 163-170, DOI: 10.1080/01956051.1996.9943702

Mayer, Geoff , “McCarthyism, the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the Caper Film”, Encyclopedia of Film Noir, Greenwood Press: Westport/London, 2007. 

Anand, Dev. Romancing With Life, Penguin Books: New Delhi, 2011.  
 

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