Chalbaaz begins with the sound of the 007 theme, and the sight of Indian stunt film king Dara Singh in a crisp black suit, dispatching a gang of armed goons with cool but deadly efficiency. And then he wakes up. It turns out that, while he may dream of being James Bond, Dara's character here, Ranjit, is instead a hapless beat reporter for an undistinguished daily rag who still lives with his mom. Nonetheless, we will still, by the time the film has run its course, see him become enmeshed in a perilous international intrigue involving rival gangs of enemy spies and a much coveted figurine that conceals within it some kind of secret something-or-other.
I've mentioned elsewhere that Dara Singh functioned as a sort of all-purpose action hero during his mid-to-late 60s heyday, able to embody Hindi versions of Samson, Zorro, Flash Gordon, Prince Valiant, etc. as his films -- and their wardrobe departments -- required. Still, the makers of Chalbaaz made a wise choice by casting him as an everyman here. Even though their obvious intent was to churn out yet another Bollywood cash-in on the popularity of the Bond franchise, to cast Dara as an urbane super-agent in the 007 mold would have undermined his earthy, up-from-the-streets appeal, which was largely dependent upon on a charming lack of sophistication. Such qualities did not, however, prevent him from portraying the kind of classic Hitchcockian dupe, unwittingly embroiled in a web of international espionage, that he does here.
Chalbaaz's makers also benefitted greatly from a Dara Singh who, at this point in his film career -- while perhaps not developing into any kind of master thespian -- was becoming increasingly comfortable in his role as a movie star, and consequent with that, was showing an increasing ability to make fun of himself. Thus, in contrast to the monolsyllabic jugernaut who marched through his early films, dutifully hurling bodies left and right as the fight choreography required, we have a more loosey-goosey Dara Singh who gamely mimes along to romantic duets, cracks wise at his opponents during fight scenes, pulls off a couple of madcap comic masquerades, and generally takes part in a lot of good natured clowning around. This of course means that, as spy movies go, Chalbaaz is certainly on the more whimsical end of the spectrum, a fact underscored by its being populated by, in addition to a somewhat dopey protagonist, a seemingly endless parade of walk-on caricatures, from wacky bellhops and eccentric auctioneers to goofy newspaper editors and zany restaurateurs.
The problem is that, despite these comedic elements, Chalbaaz also wants to provide its audience with the kind of thrills expected from a straightforward 1960s spy picture, and -- whether from a lack either of financial means, commitment or imagination -- never goes far enough in either direction to set itself apart from the already quite overcrowded pack. I'd be curious to know what percentage of all feature films made in the world between 1965 and 1969 were spy films. If I had to guess, I'd say... well, let's just say that it would be an awful lot of them, of which I think I've seen an embarrassingly large sample. Among these, even the very cheapest feature some pretty over-the-top elements, which means that any contender really has to push the envelope in terms of absurdity to make any kind of impression. Absurdity and over-the-top-ness both being things that Bollywood has historically shown no tendency of shying away from, it's all the more disappointing that Chalbaaz so frequently can't come up with anything more to dazzle us with than an overlong foot chase set to needle-dropped surf music.
To be fair, habitual Bollywood bad guy Shyam Kumar does raise the stakes a wee bit when he shows up in the second hour as a ringleader with a small platoon of Mrs. Peel-like, female karate assassins. Not only does this further prove that no country with men in it is immune to the charms of Diana Rigg in a form fitting cat suit, but it also provides a precious smattering of exactly the kind of campy silliness that Chalbaaz would need an awful lot more of to make it worth me recommending it. Still, I should make allowances for the fact that the VCD of the film was not subtitled in English, and the corresponding possibility that its Shakespeare level dialog and mindbogglingly ingenious plot twists, had I understood them, would have more than compensated for the lack of purely visual stimuli. I kind of doubt it, though.
While my own returning to the Dara Singh well again and again is turning out to be a game of diminishing returns, it must be said that Chalbaaz will be less of a disappointment to some than to others. For instance, its song score by Lala Sattar, while no classic, boasts its fair share of real toe tappers, and its leading lady, Sanjna, is indeed easy on the eyes. More importantly, a training montage featured in the film's opening minutes will likely be seen as a boon to those ladies -- and gentlemen -- whose interest in Dara Singh goes somewhat beyond his ability to execute all the standard, federation-approved holds. And to you folks in particular I say, "You're welcome."