May 25, 2010

Flashback : Jewel Thief (1967)

Starring Dev Anand, Vyjayanthimala, Ashok Kumar, Tanuja, Helen

The main question raised by the thriller is not what kind of world we live in, or what reality is like, but what it has done to us. Vijay Anand's noir tale presented in a dazzling fashion lives up to the adage. Even after four decades it manages to keep the audience on tenterhooks. On the surface the story of a master thief who becomes a challenge for the Indian police might look convoluted, but when the jigsaw puzzle unfolds you realise how a master auteur was taking you for a ride!

Some films are defined by their repeat value. Thrillers generally don't fall in this category. But “Jewel Thief” is an exception. When you know the secret, you want to know how he did it. When you realise how he executed it, you get eager to gather where he fooled you. The film's greatness lies in the fact that every time you visit it, the script grips you, while S.D. Burman's timeless gems and Vijay Anand's smart dialogues take charge of the atmospherics.

They say songs have no place in a thriller as they kill the pace of the screenplay, but one of the strengths of Goldie, as Vijay was lovingly called, was that he was a master at song placement and picturisation. With him at the helm, songs used to add layers, giving us a perspective of the times he was talking about. When Tanuja, a welcome exception from the sweet, Savitri-like heroines of the period, effortlessly serenades Dev Anand in “Raat Akeli Hai Bujh Gaye Diye”, it represents the growing expression of sexuality among women of the elite class.

“Jewel Thief” also started a trend where directors began putting a song before the climax, but not many could match the depth and splendour of “Honthon Mein Aisi Baat”. In a thriller, the camera should be an active narrator, and Vijay knew this too well. For instance, in “Honthon Mein Aisi Baat” (brilliantly choreographed by Master Sohanlal), as the camera follows Vyjayanthimala, he uses the circular tracks, dynamic angles and cuts to build up the tension to a crescendo. Here is an example of how Western technique could merge with Indian art. Even as you enjoy the aesthetics of dance, you are anxious to know what's next.

The film's basic ethics are drawn from a Hitchcockian model, but Vijay wanted to play by his brother's image as well. So he carved his character in a James Bond mould, somebody who doesn't mind flirting with more than one woman to reach his goal. A novelty in those moralistic times, Dev Anand, fresh from “Teen Deviyan”, pushed the envelope further and bonded well with Helen, Anju Mahendru and Fariyal — apart from the triangle he forged with Vyjayanthimala and Tanuja.

Staple devices

Vijay uses staple thriller devices like mistaken identity and loss of memory. He introduces us to the world of secret chambers, false ceilings, fake walls and hidden bars. All of them have lost their value due to repeat abuse, but in “Jewel Thief” they still conjure up magic because they are integral to the script. A significant portion of the film was shot in serene Sikkim, which was not part of India at that time.

When the film was being made, S.D. Burman was sulking as his classic compositions of “Guide” were ignored for the Filmfare Award. But this didn't cast its effect on the melody. It is said that he had composed “Yeh Dil Na Hota Bechara” for Guru Dutt's last film “Baharein Phir Bhi Ayengi” but when he opted out of the film, he offered the tune to Dev Anand and he lapped it up. This was the time R.D. Burman had begun to assist his father, and his effervescent beats reflect in the compositions.

This was also the time when Vyjayanthimala was about to get married and was not too keen to finish the films on the floor, but again it doesn't reflect in the final print. Such was the professionalism of the times.

The film hangs on the bent shoulders of Dev Anand, who played Vinay, mistaken for his supposed lookalike Amar/Prince, the jewel thief. He was into his 40s but still managed to woo audiences with his trademark fast dialogue delivery, and his deliberate nodding was still a rage.

But the biggest surprise of the film was the casting of Ashok Kumar against his popular image. One doesn't want to divulge the details, but the film is a showcase of Kumar's mettle. Perhaps Dev Anand was paying back Kumar, who gave Anand his first big opportunity with his production “Ziddi”.

Dev Anand once said he and Goldie could have won the Oscar for “Guide” if they had had enough time to lobby in the U.S. “We had to rush back to India to launch ‘Jewel Thief'.” We don't mind it, folks!