Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Big-hearted: Shammi Kapoor

Shammi Kapoor has long been a favorite among those who love Golden Age Bollywood; Memsaab has written that "I would rather watch Shammi in a bad movie than many other actors in good movies." Now that I've (finally!) seen my first Shammi movies, I'm beginning to understand why he inspires this sort of passionate fandom.

There is something completely endearing about him. Imagine someone with Elvis's charisma, but without a trace of self-consciousness. Someone who is big and teddy-bearish, but also surprising graceful. My partner compared him to a young John Wayne, but a John Wayne who can sing,* and dance, and emote: Shammi wears his heart on his sleeve. Watching him is just a joyful experience.

Here are brief reviews of the three movies of his we've seen, in the order in which we viewed them:

Brahmachari (1968; directed by Bhappi Sonie, written by Sachin Bhowmick)

A brahmachari is one who lives modestly and virtuously—an apt description of Brahmachari (Shammi), an orphan himself, who runs a home for orphaned children (and yes, the kids are too cute for words). Brahmachari's work as a photographer barely brings in enough money to keep the orphanage going. Its main source of income comes from blackmailing the landlord next door: whenever he shows his house to prospective tenants, the kids threaten to raise a huge ruckus that will scare them away. (In this case, as in many others, the higher virtue of supporting the kids outweighs the minor mischief that is sometimes required in order to do good in a corrupt and heartless world.)

One day, in search of a dramatic photograph for his editor, Brahmachari spots Sheetal (Rajshree) as she's about to throw herself into the sea. She's in despair because Ravi Khanna (Pran), a rich playboy, has refused to honor his promise to marry her. Brahmachari tells her that he will help her win Ravi if she will give the orphanage financial help after her marriage. Of course, Sheetal agrees.

Brahmachari infiltrates Ravi's birthday party as a deliberately clumsy waiter in blackface (!?), and then (shoe polish removed) performs a song with Ravi's new girlfriend Rupa (an adorable Mumtaz):

"Aaj kal tere mere pyar" was composed by Shankar-Jaikishan with lyrics by Hasrat Jaipuri; the playback singers are Mohd. Rafi and Suman Kalyanpur. (Apologies for the sometimes distracting lack of synchronization between sound and image.)

Of course, as he works to transform Sheetal with a glamorous makeover and compel Ravi to pop the question, Brahmachari falls in love with her himself, and Sheetal with him (and the kids). Ravi, though, is attracted to the new Sheetal, and is not used to being thwarted when he sets his sights on a girl. When Brahmachari is threatened with foreclosure, Ravi agrees to pay the debt and save the orphanage—but only if Brahmachari pretends in Sheetal's presence to be in love with Rupa instead. And just to be sure nothing goes wrong, Ravi plans to kidnap the kids...

Will the orphanage be saved? Will Ravi's kidnap attempt be thwarted? Will the villain be reformed, the truth emerge, and true love win out? Of course, there is no doubt about the outcome, which the final half-hour prolongs unnecessarily. But who can resist Shammi and a dozen orphans? Not me, and not the Filmfare Award voters: Brahmachari won Best Film, Shammi Best Actor, Shankar-Jaikishan Best Music Director, Shailendra Best Lyricist (for "Main Gaoon Tum So Jao") and Mohd. Rafi Best Male Playback (for "Dil Ke Jharoke Mein").

Professor (1962; directed by Lekh Tandon, written by Abrar Alvi)

I was a bit taken aback by the writing credit on Professor. Abrar Alvi is probably best known for writing the Guru Dutt dramas Pyaasa (Parched, 1957) and Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper flowers, 1959), and both writing and directing the harrowing Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (Master, mistress and servant, 1962). Those films would seem to be worlds away from the comedic Professor. But Alvi also wrote the comedy Mr. and Mrs. '55, which features a strict, censorious aunt named Sita Devi, played by Lalita Pawar, who tries to prevent her niece from falling in love.

Pawar also plays a strict aunt named Sita Devi in Professor, only here she's trying to prevent two nieces from consorting with men. Rita (Parveen Choudhary) and Neena (Kalpana) recently lost their parents, and have been placed under the care of Sita Devi. She advertises for a tutor for the girls, but specifies that only an old man will be hired. Pritam (Shammi), who must somehow pay for his mother's life-saving treatment in a tuberculosis sanitorium, decides to apply in disguise, and as the elderly "Professor Khanna" he's hired.

He soon discovers that the two girls are chafing under their severe aunt's rigid rules, and that they see him as a collaborator with her restrictive authority. They play tricks on him and tease him mercilessly; in "Yeh Umar Hai," Neena (in white) and Rita (in blue) tell him that "It is our era." "I too was young once," he responds. "...There was someone who used to love me; we thought it was our era too":

The music is by Shankar-Jaikishan with lyrics by Hasrat Jaipuri; the playback singers are the sisters Asha Bhosle and Usha Mangeshkar (a nice touch for the sisters Neena and Rita), and Manna Dey.

The Professor tries to help Neena and Rita understand that their aunt's strictness is an expression of her love for them, and tries to encourage the aunt to recognize that her nieces are nearing adulthood and that it's time to relax her rules—but to no avail on either side.

Pritam and Neena meet in the village when he is out of disguise, and soon the two are falling in love. Complicating matters, though (as if they needed any complicating) is that the tyrannical Sita Devi starts to become sweet on the Professor—and, strangely, she's less opposed to love stories when they involve herself. But, of course, Pritam's deception is discovered, and he is bitterly rejected by both Sita Devi and Neena. Can Pritam win back Neena's love, gain Sita Devi's approval for their union, and reunite the family? Are Shammi's eyes green?

Bluff Master (1963; direction and screenplay by Manmohan Desai)

Ashok (Shammi) has moved from his village to the big city. But without a job he finds that he has to scam strangers and neighbors in order to get by. He's not malicious—with his ill-gotten gains he buys cookies for the neighborhood kids—he just needs money (don't we all?).

After reading a want ad for a position as a newspaper photojournalist Ashok pulls a con on a shop owner to get a camera, and then lands the job—depending on the stories he can find. On his first assignment Ashok encounters petulant rich girl Seema (Saira Banu), and captures a photo of her slapping a harasser on the street. The front-page picture makes that issue of the newspaper a huge success, and Ashok thinks his job is assured; the only problem is that Seema herself is the owner of the paper (inherited from her deceased parents) and he gets fired.

Seema's financial affairs are being (mis)managed her by her uncle (Niranjan Sharma). He is looking to rescue his fortunes by marrying Seema to the wealthy London-returned Kumar (Pran). Kumar inspires nothing but indifference in Seema; Ashok, though, inspires annoyance, and so we know that love is sure to follow.

This being a Manmohan Desai movie, the songs often don't really further the plot. But they are so much fun, who cares? A prime example is the first number in the movie, in which Ashok dresses in drag as "Munnibhai" to perform a qawwali with Seema, "Chali chali":

The music is by Kalyanji-Anandji assisted by Laxmikant-Pyarelal, with lyrics by Rajinder Krishan; the playback singers are Shamshad Begum (Shammi) and Usha Mangeshkar (Saira).

As in Professor, though, Ashok's run of luck can't last. When his ma (Lalita Pawar) comes from the village expecting to find her son respected and successful, Ashok's deceptions begin to unravel. The heartless and venal Kumar now sees his chance to marry Seema and get his hands on her money. Will Ashok be able to regain his ma's respect and win back Seema's love? I didn't think I was a big fan of Manmohan Desai movies, but the charming Bluff Master makes me wonder whether I've been missing something.

I certainly let too much time go to waste before watching my first Shammi movie. And I haven't even seen the legendary Junglee (The wild man, 1962, with Lalita Pawar and Saira Banu) or Teesri Manzil (Third floor, 1966) yet. More to come...

For another perspective on Shammi, please see Memsaab's wonderful appreciation and her very entertaining reviews (with screencaps!) of Brahmachari, Professor, Bluff Master, and other Shammi films. She also got the chance to meet Shammi in person and talk about his films.

* Of course Shammi doesn't actually sing, but he performs to the playback of Mohd. Rafi and others as he does everything else in his films, with complete conviction.


  1. Perhaps Jean Gabin or Yves Montand, street urchin rags to masculine film idols, might be the better parallel?

    —M. Lapin

    1. M. Lapin, your suggestions are much closer comparisons than mine: Shammi definitely has something of the rugged mien of both Jean Gabin and Yves Montand. But what separates Shammi from the actors both you and I mentioned is his gift for comedy and his willingness to be utterly undignified (the qawwali-in-drag is a case in point). He really has a unique combination of—very appealing—qualities.

      Thanks for your comment!