After watching this movie twice, I'm still not sure I know what the titular question is: perhaps a philosophical inquiry into a man's true nature? a study of the real cost of crime to society and individuals? a discussion of whether genuine reform is possible?
Or maybe the film is just wondering if 1982 is too late for Shashi to play Inspector Ravi Malhotra, a cop with a fresh approach to law enforcement and a devil-may-care concern for his own safety when fighting crime?
"Kabhi nahin!" the film seems to answer, but our esteemed colleague Post-Punk Cinema Club would disagree. I'm somewhere in between. I agree with PPCC that our beloved, stalwart moral and ethical masala hero is looking a little ragged, but at least his co-stars (Sanjeev Kumar as smuggler Dhanpathrai Mehta, a villain who might help the police if the price is right, and Prem Chopra as the even more hardened smuggler Shamsher Singh) are in the same boat. Had the cast included Amitabh and Vinod, I don't think this would have worked as well.
There are no young men here, angry or otherwise; while there are car chases, dishoomery, and an exciting shoot-out in a zoo (no animals harmed!), this is a more philosophical, maybe more complex and mature approach to sins and sinners. If the masala rainbow ever faded to gray, this is probably what it would look like. The tone is less exuberant overall and many elements have been stripped away - there are no missing siblings or children (no characters under 18 or so at all, actually), and a parent is merely arrested rather than lost for a generation. (But Helen still dances in a neon nightclub and Shashi has a disguise). Ravi is a good cop but not a superman; his plans don't always go right the first time, and he doesn't have a perfect answer for how to deal with the discovery that his girlfriend Sonia (Poonam Dhillon) is Dhanpathrai's daughter. Dhanpathrai has an even bigger dilemma: after a great personal loss results from his illegal activities, does he stick with the crimes that have given his family their very comfortable lifestyle,
Nothin' says "rich" like room-sized mattress-sofas and scenic photographic murals!
reform but stay quiet, or make the ultimate resolution and turn to the police (headed by Ravi, of course) knowing that his gang's punishment for informants is death?
I'll answer one question for you with certainty, though: at 44, Shashi is way too old to be 20-year-old Poonam Dhillon (Sonia)'s love interest.* The first time I saw the characters' initial interaction, I thought the subtitles had typos and they were in fact siblings instead of a couple. Look at them! Look at her baby face! Urk.
No, creepy old man! You may not have more than a hug! The less said about this romance, the better. A bad way to start off a week honoring a veteran pyaar-ster and the filmi king of my heart (or king of my heat, as he has said elsewhere), I know.
Here's another: I wish this pared-down film had also bypassed comic relief/emotional touchstone/token musical performer Vicky (Sonia's brother) because Randhir Kapoor has all the appeal and grace of a hyper-caffeinated squirrel. It's been a long time since I so badly wanted to strangle a fictional character played by an actor almost 30 years ago. If his performance in Sawaal is at all typical, I'm going to avoid-yaar Randhir Kapoor like my sanity depends on it (for indeed it might).
This may not be his fault, but for some reason Randhir whips off his hat at the beginning of the opening song and keeps it in his hand for the rest of the number. Even while harassing (by which the film means "romancing") Reshmi (Swaroop Sampat - and if my sources are correct, she's married to Paresh Rawal? How cool is that!) - it'd be a lot easier to take her hand if you actually had it free, eh, doofus? Randhir's other song, "Zindagi Haseen Hai," is a pleasing diversion but didn't do anything special for me. Like Karz's "Om Shanti Om," it features a Kapoor man tippy-toe prancing** around a giant rotating circular stage; instead of a record player, this time we get a globe surrounded by a pink slide and a chorus dressed in various Indian costumes, I suppose in an "It's a small world after all!" sort of way.
Vicky is just so very, very irritating. He talks nonstop and very quickly, never letting anyone else speak, and there's something about the way he's always saying "our daddy" this and "our daddy" that that I found creepy. He comes off as stupid, too; I know Dhanpathrai's family is in the dark about his real line of work, but apparently Vicky has not seen any 70s masala films to realize what a giant roomful of crates and an army of gun-toting men mean.
On a not particularly related point, I found it surprising that Randhir is actually nine years younger than Shashi; at this point in their individual Dreaded Male Kapoor Aging Arcs, they almost look the opposite.
This is another film where women don't have much to do. Waheeda Rehman is excellent, of course, as Dhanpathrai's wife Anju, and her character handles the discovery of his duplicitous life with a fairly strong backbone. Unfortunately, she and Sonia are basically reduced to being pawns once Shamsher captures them and holds them as collateral in his fight against the police. Which brings me to a question of my own I've been wanting to investigate for awhile: does anyone else find it extra skeezy when villains force the "good" female characters to watch the sexually explicit and/or for-male-pleasure dances by the "bad" ones? Near the end of this film, Shamsher ties up Anju and Sonia in his hideout [I just typed that as "hideous" and am delighted two words are just one letter apart] (actually a hotel ballroom, I'm sure) and makes them witness scenes like this in "Dilruba Hoon Dilruba."
Do click on the right picture to get an up-close look at that magnificent eyeshadow. Who is this dancer, by the way?
I suppose it's another sign of their depravity that they would subject decent women to brazen sexuality, but it also seems like an opportunity for filmmakers to indulge (and whet) viewers' desires for the kind of fake-o lesbianism that mainstream pop culture loves - that is, women interacting with each others' sexuality for the gratification of men. It gives me the icks. Anyway, in addition to this number, we've got two other item-ish songs - maybe to make up for the lack of misplaced orphans or estranged siblings? One stars Helen in that nightclub with the orange neon squares (also seen in Janbaaz and Kalyug)
I love this sequence: she snaps her fingers in Shashi's face and then says "Look over here." So direct! So commanding!
and the other features two more excellent dancers I cannot identify in a qawwali for the villains.
For having such a gray tone in parts, Sawaal manages to squeeze in some pretty fly details. Sometimes the style is in the little things, like having four telephones in the head smuggler's ocean-view office
or requisite smuggled loot.
Note the box of Johnny Walker on top. I like to think these crates got re-used throughout the 70s and 80s. Oh the stories they could tell.
There are some silly get-ups and accessories...
Sparkly bow tie!
and random groovy extras, like these rainbow time zone clocks and a pink sofa in one of the villain hangouts.
The camera crew gets in on the fun with some usefully artsy shots.
It also has masala-standard foreshadowing
and religious symbolism - mostly Christian, in this case, with icons in Dhanpathrai's office
and an important summit between the smuggler and the cop at a church.
And although Randhir's attempts at comedy in Vicky were not at all to my liking, this exchange between Ravi and one of his officers made my self-reference-loving heart leap with joy. When paying an unannounced visit on Shamsher as they search for the missing Sonia and Anju, Ravi and his crew quickly come up with a great ruse to search the place.
Oh how I wish I'd had these in time for the 70s interiors post! And speaking of visual style, how about these titles?
For me, Sawaal was a bit of a wash. It starts out with a bang - Shashi chasing a thief on a train while Randhir romances Swaroop in "Maana Churaoge Badan" - but quickly fades in intensity and interest. I don't think I really got it (if in fact there was anything to get) and none of the story or performances moved me, but it certainly wasn't bad. Shashi and Sanjeev bring a sort of weariness to their characters that was quite appropriate, if perhaps not as emotionally satisfying as more buoyant or passionate people they've played in other films. The three songs picturized on female dancers who aren't otherwise in the film may have been Sawaal's strongest, most definitive features (and the music by Khayyam was solid throughout). Happily, Yash Raj Films has posted the original trailer, so you can make up your mind just like original audiences did.
* Figuring out Poonam Dhillon's age is a little tricky. Some sites list her as born in 1956, but her own website says she was 16 when she made Trishul and 17 when she was offered Noorie, which were released in 1978 and 1979 respectively, so by that math she was born around 1962. Shrug. Either way, I think she and Shashi look very weird as a couple.
** This one's for you, Temple and crew!