While cops and robbers both have been the mainstay of numerous popular Hindi films, a sustained view into their worlds that would form a better part of a film’s narrative has been rare. One could safely state that beginning with the 1950s with Apradhi Kaun? (1957), then films like Gumnaam (1965), Intaqam (1969) and in the recent past, Manorama Six Feet Under (2007) and Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015), the detective genre has enjoyed regular mainstream interest but by comparison, the procedural drama has not received the same love to enjoy a sub-genre like status a la Hollywood or European cinema. In the recent past, Ab Tak Chappan came close to being one of the best procedural films made in mainstream Hindi cinema but it still remains more invested in the soul of the lead character as opposed to the procedural talents that he possesses. While police and law dramas still have some degree of procedure thrown in for good measure, crime rarely gets any attention beyond the perfunctory. It’s in this light that discovering Aafat (1977), a barely recalled 1970s’ urban crime thriller, becomes a thing of joy.
Watching the opening credits of Aafat (1977) sets up the intent of this little known urban crime thriller to do something different. The first shot shows a knife cutting the belly of a dead fish to retrieve stolen diamonds and follows the intricate fashion in which smugglers peddle the stash with a police informant Jagpal (Mac Mohan) on the trail. The plot of Aafat isn’t important and beyond a point, even the story doesn’t really matter. What makes the trip worthy are inspired set pieces and an array of characters, which on the face seem typical of both the genre as well as the era in which the film was made, but manage to transcend the trappings.
Following the growing smuggling and drug-related crimes in Bombay, Din Dayal (Nazir Husain), an influential and respected businessman, uses his sway in Delhi to get a special CBI officer Inspector Amar (Navin Nishcol) on the case. Din Dayal’s nephew, the sole heir to the family’s fortunes, has become an addict and he personally requests Amar to nab those who are hell-bent on ruining the young of this country.
At a basic level, Aafat might appear escapist and even stupid but scratch a little and you’d notice how it’s actually about the various roles emancipated women chose to play.
Acting on a lead from Jagpal, Amar zeroes in on a newspaper’s editor, Balraj (Sajjan) but before Jagpal can reveal more, Shera (Amjad Khan) — an assassin hired by a secret gang — kills him. Amar lands up at the newspaper and meets Mahesh (Mehmood), the paper’s crime reporter and his childhood friend. Although Balraj is keen to share the details of the gang’s modus operandi, he backs out the moment he gets a threatening call from Jenny (Faryal), the gang’s resident moll. Amar decides to come back later in the night to investigate Balraj’s office but finds him dead and bumps into a mysterious woman (Leena Chandavarkar), who overpowers him and runs off with the evidence that Amar seeks. Later, Amar finds out that the mystery woman is, in fact, a cop — Inspector Chhaya — and she is also investigating the same gang.
Later, Mahesh and Amar track Rajni (Jayshree T.), the courier for the gang who is given drugs in exchange for her work, who also turns out to be Chhaya’s younger sister. Amar doubts the commissioner Hardayal (Kamal Kapoor) to be in cahoots with Jenny, Shera, and the ilk and along with Mahesh and Chhaya inches closer to unravelling the mystery. Things promise to fall into place when Amar finally meets Champa (Prema Narayan), a street dancer employed by the gang of smugglers, and she gives him vital information about a consignment due in few days. But seeing a hungover Champa leave Amar’s hotel room in the wee hours of the morning, Chhaya imagines the worst and decides to go her separate way to solve the case. After numerous crests and troughs, the mystery is solved, as is the confusion between Chhaya and Amar.
The meandering screenplay fails to seamlessly string the narrative and a few things being stilted to the extent of hilarity notwithstanding, Aafat is thoroughly enjoyable. The ease with which Navin Nischol embraces the proceedings and his general effervescence is a treat to watch, as are most of the scenes featuring Mehmood and a few the set pieces such as the one where Amar and Chhaya are trapped in a burning library. The dialogues are campy especially gems from Amjad Khan such as – Meri maut khanjar ki shakl mein mere panje mein qaid rehti hai (My death? My death’s imprisoned within the knife I wield in my hand) and Meri awaaz ka gramophone record banalo aur jukebox mein lagakar sunte rehna (Make a gramophone record of my confession that you have recorded and play it in a jukebox) — and some memorable one-liners from Mehmood.
The only weak link of the film is Leena Chandavarkar and more so the abject lack of chemistry between her and Navin Nishcol. In the scenes with even the slightest hint of sexual tension, Chandavarkar shifts gears to become cold and distant and Nischol then interprets the scene from a comic point of view – he even lovingly, as if it were possible today, refers to Chandavarkar’s full figure in bovine terms. The near sibling or buddy aspect of the leads is hardly an issue thanks to the camaraderie between Nischol and Mehmood and Jayshree T’s chutzpah. Had Aafat tried to explore the crackling intensity between Prema Narayan and Nischol in a handful of scenes they share, it could have even circumvented the need for a traditional female lead.
At a basic level, Aafat might appear escapist and even stupid but scratch a little and you’d notice how it’s actually about the various roles emancipated women chose to play. Usually, in popular Hindi cinema whenever a narrative strives to depict any kind of liberated female characters, it willy-nilly resorts to typical symbolism to convey the point. It even throws in a couple of dialogues such as ‘look how far you/us women have come’ but Aafat simply does away with any such imagery. The four primary women characters – Chhaya, Rajni, Champa, and Jenny – are shown doing things ideally associated with independent, free-thinking 1970s’ women but neither do they make a fuss about it nor do the men patronise them. Take for instance Chaaya’s run-ins with Amar. In every single pow-wow, even though Amar disagrees with her, he never doubts her professional skills as a policewomen; or Jenny’s decision to seek a partnership with Shera once she realises that it’s the likes of her who actually do all the dirty work for the faceless boss; or Mahesh’s decision to enlist Rajni and her pals from the Judo club to take on the gang of smugglers for the simple reason that they would be more proficient. Even when Champa, the so-imagined standardised amoral street dancer, confesses that she couldn’t care less for the memory of a dead Jagpal, who loved her. She isn’t judged or sermonised either by Amar or even the narrative.
Directed by Atma Ram, who, unfortunately, is relegated, to be known as Guru Dutt’s younger brother, the film’s wafer-thin veneer of modernity is just perfect. Ram’s credentials as a documentary as well as ad filmmaker seem to come in handy as well. Aafat might pale in comparison to Shikar (1969), Atma’s Ram’s most recognised work, which incidentally was also a well-crafted procedural drama, but along with Aarop (1974), a drama about corruption in journalism, this one deserves to be unearthed.
This article was originally published in Firstpost on 1 April, 2019. Images used in the feature are taken from the internet.
Gautam Chintamani is a film historian and the author of Rajneeti (Penguin-Random House, 2019), the first biography of Rajnath Singh. He is the author of the bestselling Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna (HarperCollins,
2014), The Film That Revived Hindi Cinema (HarperCollins, 2016) and Pink- The Inside Story (HarperCollins, 2017).