Thursday, May 16, 2013

Gaddaar (India, 1973)


Few Indian crime films are as pure as Gaddaar. Within seconds of its opening credits, we are right in the middle of a thrilling depiction of its central crime and meeting our criminals. And what criminals they are – brutalizing women, children and the elderly with equal abandon, murdering innocent witnesses. These are hard, awful men.

And what a cast playing those hard, awful men! While Gaddaar provides a good showcase for star Vinod Khanna and his matinee idol good looks, its arguable main attraction is the first rate assemblage of Bollywood character actors who portray its crooks. Not only do we have career bad guys like Madan Puri and Ranjeet doing what they do absolutely best -- even if Ranjeet’s wardrobe is a bit disappointingly sedate -- but MVP’s like Iftehkar taking a rare step outside his usual police official roles to essay the part of the noble villain. And then there is B.K., probably one of the all time great Pran roles. Prone to referring to himself in the third person and making extravagant claims of infallibility, B.K. is a figure at once ridiculous, imposing, and tragic, ultimately undone by his own ego.


Gaddaar begins with the gang of seven men led my B.K. stealing a royal fortune of forty lakhs from an electrified palace safe in a meticulously planned robbery. Their number includes Sampat (Anwar Hussain), an acrobat, Professor (Iftehkar), the science guy, Babu (Ranjeet), who punches people, Kanhaiya (Madan Puri), the driver, John (Ram Mohan) and Mohan (Manmohan). Just as it seems the gang is going to get away free, a guard pulls an alarm and a shootout ensues. B.K. is wounded and the gang is separated. Later, everyone makes it back to the hideout except for Kanhaiya, who was carrying the money. The men wait, becoming more quarrelsome by the moment.

Night falls and the gang make their way to Kanhaiya’s apartment. There they come upon Raja (Vinod Khanna), a small time thief, in the process of an attempted burglary. Raja knows who they are and asks for a cut of the loot in exchange for his silence and his assistance in tracking down Kahnaiya. Before B.K. can answer, he escapes. Later the men go to see a cabaret dancer (Padma Khanna) who is a known consort of Kanhaiya’s. Raja shows up again and takes the woman into his custody, again asking the gang for a guaranty of a cut. B.K. agrees, and Raja strong arms the dancer into divulging Kanhaiya’s whereabouts before apparently shooting her in cold blood.


Kanhaiya’s trail leads to the village of Rampur in the snowy Himachal Pradesh region of Northern India, where Vinod Khanna and his giant swastika necklace arrive in short order. Lost in a snow storm, he comes upon the isolated Hotel Mansaro. This turns out to have been recently purchased by Kanhaiya, who lives there with his daughter Reshma (Yogeeta Bali) and young son Tito (Master Raju). The hotel is otherwise empty for the off season, with the only other guests being Mathur (Satyenda Kapoor), an alcolholic doctor, his wife, and Shankar (V. Gopal), the hotel’s porter.

Meanwhile, the rest of the gang is hiding out in a cave near the hotel, with B.K. overcome by a racking, consumptive cough that gets worse by the minute. Informed by Raja of Kanhaiya’s presence, they make their way to what they think is an abandoned barn on the property, where an armed guard seriously wounds Sampat before being shot dead by them. The men then descend upon the hotel and take the staff and guests hostage. After B.K. threatens little Tito with torture, Kanhaiya reveals that thirty five remaining lakhs of the treasure are buried in a cave nearby. B.K. and Professor follow him there, only to find that the cave is the very one that they had just been hiding in. Kanhaiya begins to dig up the strong box, but then pulls a gun and shoots Professor. As he dies, Professor asks B.K. to promise him that there will be no bloodshed. B.K. does, but we can’t see whether or not he’s crossing his fingers.

Like any great “heist gone wrong” tale, Gaddaar descends into greater and greater violence as it goes along, depicting the erosion of trust between the criminals in fairly unflinching detail as the bullets fly with increasing frequency. Leavening this somewhat are Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s musical sequences, which include a strange, Egyptian-themed nightclub number that involves white hippie girls and a lot of eating. Overall, the duo’s song score here is pleasantly heavy on the tribal rhythms and traditional melodies, while the film’s instrumental score relies heavily on needle dropped cues from Enno Morricone’s score to For a Few Dollars More. Anand Bakshi’s lyrics are also clever. Upon learning of the remaining loot, the gang archly celebrates Madan Puri’s Kanhaiya with a rousing rendition of the theme song:
“You are a traitor after all
you are a cheat after all
you are our old friend
At least you love money.”
 


Gaddaar was apparently only the second film as director – and the first as producer – for Hamesh Malhotra, a career director whose work included 1986’s fanciful “snake lady” film Nagina. His talent is nonetheless well in evidence, from his arresting use of bold primary colors, to his shrewd, atmospheric use of the snowy Himachal Pradesh locations, to his taut staging of the opening heist. True, there is room for all kinds of films under the Bollywood action banner, from the sober social drama of Deewaar to the comic book histrionics of a Maha Badmaash. But it is films like Gaddaar that hold down the rare generic middle ground. As such, it is one that I’d recommend to any fan of either great caper films or crime films of an international nature, whether or not they’ve yet gotten their Indian cinema training wheels.

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