Is Shankar Dada an ahead-of-its time example of decline and fall masala, a.k.a. teetering towards embarrassingly debauched and past its prime/backwass masala? Or is it a brilliant synergy of style and substance? You decide!
Exhibit A: story
The description of Shankar Dada from the back of its Ultra DVD box says more about the movie than I could ever come up with. Here it is exactly:
Amarsingh an honest Police Officer deligent, hardworking, dutiful and devotee of nation leads a happy life with his loving wife Shante and twin sons Ram & Shankar.At least all the answers is available! Be grateful for small consistencies.
Babu Dada an antinational, antisocial, criminal wants to buy Amarsingh the honest police officer, who defies and is trapped in a murder case. Innocent Amarsingh is sentence for life imprisonment.
The family of Amarsingh is scattered. All three are separated. Wife Shanta becomes Half-mad. Ram becomes a Police Officer and Shankar becomes a criminal.
Amarsing after serving his term in jail, comes out as a different person in disguise of docit Lakhan singh and takes a vow to un-earth all the antinational activities of Babu Dada alais Babu Bhai. He succeeds in his mission. How?
I. G. Praises Amarsingh's honest and dutiful role and recommends government to reopen his case and re-instate him as police officer. Amarsingh gets re-instatement or not?
Ram & Shanker could meet together again or not?
What happened to Amarsing's Wife Shanta? The answers to all this is available on Ultra DVD of 'Shankar Dada.'
Let me try to straighten this out a little bit for you, the esteemed jury. Pran is Amarsingh,
and after he is unjustly incarcerated, his twin sons and wife are separated. His twin sons grow up to be evil Shashi Kapoor (Shankar)
and good Shashi Kapoor (Ram),
and his wife (Anjali Kadam) is barely scraping by. After being duped in a song by dancer/gang member Bindiya (Bindu), Shankar joins forces with supreme baddie Babu (Anwar Hussain), not knowing that Babu was the one ultimately responsible for his pathetic orphan back story. Once out of prison, Amarsingh takes on the disguise of dacoit Lakhansingh to infiltrate the gang. Dedicated Amarsingh can't make do with just one disguise, though: he also becomes a near-deaf household servant (cue stupid comic relief) and a community-minded beggar. Shankar and Ram variously go under cover as each other, which is possibly less to do with the plot and more just an excuse to put Shashi in more disguises, but that's okay, because that is a Beth Loves Bollywood-approved goal for 1970s filmmaking. Ashok Kumar plays the superintendent of police, Ram's boss. Neetu Singh shows up as Roopa, the niece of Babu, and daughter of the head of the mint, whom the gang has kidnapped. She is coerced into seducing officer Ram in "Ek Main Ek Tu," one of the best Neetu songs ever (and a fine Shashi one too, because he is both flustered and manic), complete with a round spinning bed and fake-pretend drunkenness.
Neetu and Shashi make a cute couple, even though it's vaguely weird that she's his niece (ditto Babita) and that in another movie released the same year as this one she plays his son's girlfriend.
Somewhere in all of this, Ram and Shankar meet up with their long-lost parents,
and the parents themselves even have a near-miss that would be sad if I didn't know it'd be sorted out in another hour. More crazy stuff happens and there's a gigantic fight at the end involving every single extra who appears anywhere in the film.
Exhibit B: visuals
And that's just the credits! Throughout the movie, there are jarring juxtapositions of colors and patterns in the costumes and set design.
This last one is an oval spiral staircase at a hotel. If you know where this hotel is in real life, please let me know so I can book a stay immediately.
There is no safe place for your eyes in this film.
Update to post (December 14, 2008): Alert blogger Bollywood Food Club has posted some pictures from the 1970 film Sawan Bhadon, and the kaleidoscopic pattern that appears behind the producer's name in the titles of this film also appeared in the titles of that one!
Exhibit C: well done
I was so relieved to find out that Ashok Kumar was not going to be Shashi's long-lost twin. Shashi and Amitabh as twins, okay; Shashi and someone twenty-seven years his senior, no.
Ashok, here 65 years old, dances! And he's great! He has a song with Bindu in which she tries to get money out of him and he, pretending to be a nawab (so yes, another disguise!), sings about all the starlets he has known (nudge nudge wink wink) - including Hema Malini, Parveen Babi, Helen, Bindu, and Shabana Azmi - so she'd be foolish to think she could pull anything over on him.
Babu's be-neckerchief-ed brigade of henchmen.
The gang's lair and its various outposts of evil have some neat touches, like a purple tunnel from the street, button-operated peep-holes at card games, and trapdoors at art galleries.
The sets, while totally eye-scarring, are exuberant, and either the production design team found some of the most god-awful interiors in Bombay or they spent a lot of money creating these things. Either way, I have to give them many points for effort.
When realizing that they are long-lost twins, Ram and Shankar have a conversation that goes like this: "Bhai?" "BHAI?" "BHAI?!?" "BHAI?!?!?!?!?!?" (For a discussion of the emotional efficacy of similar conversations, see PPCC on "A Joy like Knives.")
At one point, after evesdropping on the gang and discovering they have stolen the deity from the local temple, Amarsingh, now in disguise as a beggar, sings "Amiro Watan Se," an incongruous but awesome socialist, somewhat jingoistic song about how the rich and powerful should set upon a course of social improvements.
O rich people, eradicate poverty from the country.... You buy the innocence of youth, liquor, and fair bodies, this beauty, this kohl, these anklets, these bells. Buy joys with the tinkle of money. If you save on tax, blow it up on sex. Blow it up! .... So many martyrs sacrificed their lives and got us freedom with great difficulty. Bapu’s death is immortal who gave his blood for peace of the country. Make the poor, too, a part of your progress. If the people of the country were with the government this country would make tremendous progress. There would be no theft, no corruption, no adulteration, and it would rain money in India. Wipe out poverty from the country. Everyone together say eradicate poverty from the country. Say it!Both Helen and Gandhi make appearances in archival footage. I wonder if there's any other song that can make that claim!
An India made of people! Cool!
The movie has the very best secret identity revelation I have seen yet in Hindi cinema - and it's more fun than Keyser Söze (though with less overall impact for the story)!
Exhibit D: needs improvement
It is disingenuous to list Helen as a "guest appearance" in the opening credits when really she is just in a few seconds of archival footage. Everybody knows that the combination of the words "Helen" and "guest appearance" means she's doing a song.
Bindu's makeup and hair in her musical numbers, particularly the nightclub song, make her look like a drag queen. V unfortunate.
I don't think the outfit and its underpinnings help - she looks unreal up top. She looks perfectly pretty elsewhere in the movie, and it seems so unfair to make an item girl look freaky in her item.
While we're on the topic of not-quite-right musical numbers with sparkly red outfits, after conning a queen out of some jewels, Shankar hides out as tawaif. As in Haseena Maan Jayegi, our beautiful Shashi still makes one heck of an ugly woman.
He also still looks like a man, thus undermining the utility of the disguise.
And there's a third one! It's not really a song - just some people dancing in the background while Shankar plays cards. The man wears a white satin martial arts-ish outfit and the woman wears a red minidress and pleather boots. She does go-go moves and he...um, I guess does karate. All choreographed nicely under a disco ball, of course.
This number has potential for epic weirdness. But it's not given the attention it would need to be a full-on over-the-top song. It's a wasted opportunity but yet too distracting to be mere wallpaper. Not that you could overlook the wallpaper in this movie if you tried.
Occasional moments of horrible writing, like the scene in which officer Ram drives a jeep in pursuit of diamond-smuggler Shankar, who is in a helicopter. This guy is Ram's office contact and keeps bellowing the same completely obvious instructions - "Stay with the helicopter! Do you read me?" - to him over and over and over again.
Antarra's Ramblings proposed that this guy must be the director's uncle. I agree.
Lack of regular cast of bad guys like Mac Mohan and Yusuf Khan. Lack of regular half-mad mother Nirupa Roy or even Durga Khote.
Worst, though, Shankar Dada does not rollick along like one wants a 1976 masala movie to do. It clunks. There's really no excuse. It's 1976! Neetu is not used to anything near her full potential (though she gets to do a little more than in Deewaar). Shashi looks tired through half of the film. Maybe he too was uninspired by the ramshackle plot. Maybe it's because he had eight other movies out that year and had been incredibly busy. Maybe it's because they kept putting Shankar in pants that are four inches too short and show off his red socks.
Beth Loves Bollywood's verdict
Overall it's just kind of a mess and never really takes off. There's too much scrambling around and not enough wackadoo and dil squish. Does not live up to potential. What say you, people of the court?