Ah, the altruistic thief. So far Indian cinema has given us Jugnu, Guru, Fakira, and now Dus Numbri. Out of all of these, Dus Numbri might strike the most fear into the hearts of his less civic minded criminal brethren, thanks in no small part to his customized logo tee and omnipresent beret and sun glasses (“to hide the tears”), not to mention star Manoj Kumar’s mumbly, monotonic portrayal of him.
Rising to fame in the 60s as a hero of “Patriotic” films, the stone faced Kumar provides Dus Numbri with a center that doesn’t necessarily hold. Thankfully, other of its stars seem more in tune with the film’s reckless silliness. Hema Malini plays another in a long line of sharp tongued, street smart beauties, and is even given a whip at one point so that she can summon the past glories of Seeta aur Geeta. Pran, as seems often the case with his more comedic roles, is given the opportunity to ham it up in a series of wacky disguises. As much as this kind of typecasting might put these stars on auto pilot, there’s no question that they nonetheless light up the screen whenever upon it, providing a welcome contrast to the lead footed heaviness of Kumar’s turn as the tortured, albeit whimsically attired, hero.
Here Kumar plays Arjun, whose policeman dad is framed as a counterfeiter by his fellow officer Karamchand (Om Shivpuri) and subsequently thrown in jail. Arjun’s mom is driven mad by the ordeal and later, when the wife of Karamchand (Hema Malini), the true counterfeiter, threatens to report him to the authorities, he has her killed. Karamchand’s infant daughter is then whisked away to be raised by someone named Fernandez. In the aftermath, Arjun ends up growing up hard, spending more time in jail than out of it. By the time we catch up with him twenty years later, he has embraced his undesirable status, adopting the moniker Number 10 (it says so on his shirt), a common, largely pejorative term for a parolee.
With a gift for appearing seemingly out of thin air, Number 10 uses his might to extract a punishing “tax” on the ill gotten gains of any criminal operating in his area, which is then used to help the needy. It is through these vigilante activities that he comes into contact with Rosy (Hema Malini again), a savvy street hustler who is actually Karamchand’s child grown up. Rosy initially responds to Arjun’s shutting down of her street card game operation by hiring thugs to kill him, but, after seeing him handily dispatch those thugs, falls in love with him.
Aside from economic redistribution, Arjun’s other passions include (1) proving his father’s innocence and (2) curing his mom of her dementia. When his mother, meeting Rosy, mistakes her for her mother, Arjun starts to see her as the key to his mother’s recovery. Mom, in a momentary lapses into lucidity, also lets it slip that Rosy’s mom had evidence of Arjun’s father’s innocence. Arjun, with some difficulty, then tracks down his father in a jail in Calcutta, where he learns the truth that Karamchand was the actual counterfeiter. To set things right he enlists the aid of Pran as the corrupt but kind hearted police officer Karan Singh.
In order to draw Karamchand out, Arjun and Karan Singh go into business with “Dilruba from Delhi” (Bindu), a dancer and madam who runs a formidable counterfeiting operation out of her basement. Karamchand’s associate, Police Inspector Jaichan (Prem Nath), begins an aggressive crack down on the operation, finally staging a raid on Dilruba’s home. Jaichan, it is soon revealed, is actually the brains behind the whole counterfeiting scheme and will stop at nothing to get his hands on Dilruba’s top quality printing plates, including torture and the kidnapping of Arjun’s addled old mom.
When it comes to its villains, Dus Numbri continues the steadfastly populist tradition of Indian action cinema by making the primary proof of their evil be the fact that they are members of the moneyed classes. The generously proportioned Prem Nath is perfect for this kind of role, a literal fat cat who looks like he eats orphans sandwiched between 1000 rupee notes for breakfast. He also comes equipped with a lair that, thanks to some sloppy editing, appears to have its own rapidly self assembling gas chamber.
Other signs of sloppiness put Dus Numbri in an interesting position: somewhere between hastily assembled “B” thrillers like Saazish on the one hand and the more lavish crowd pleasers of a Manmohan Desai or Nasir Hussain on the other. Dus Numbri’s labyrinthine plot certainly has the ambitions of those latter films, but there seems something rushed and corner-cutting about its telling that makes it at times hard to follow – especially once its doubles are doubled and allegiances start to switch with every new, and frequent, revelation of a character’s hidden identity.
Of course, not really caring whether or not you understand the plot is often a key asset in enjoying these types of masala films, and, if that’s you, there’s no reason not to watch Dus Numbri. For one, it has a great selection of upbeat songs from Laxmikant-Pyarelal. Manoj Kumar has a classic “I’m going to sing about how I’m going to kill you in front of everyone and you’re going to nod along like a fat idiot” number, which is rapidly becoming my very favorite genre of Bollywood tune. Furthermore, during one of Kumar and Pran’s disguised escapades, they sing the antic “Na Tum Ho Yaar Aloo”, the lyrics of which spin a ridiculous shaggy dog story about finding a missing washer woman.
Plus, if you’re a fan of Hema Malini-based meta humor, Dus Numbri will scratch that very peculiar itch as well. The visit by Malini’s Rosy to the mental hospital where Arjun’s mom is housed brings her face to face with a patient who thinks she’s Hema Malini (another thinks she’s Rekha) and, later, during the aforementioned jokey musical number, Ashok produces a snapshot of Hema Malini he boasts of finding in a wallet. All of these are indications that not everyone involved in Dus Numbri took it entirely seriously. If you follow suit, the film will likely provide some modest rewards.