Classic, Film, Hindi, India, Review

Johny Mera Naam

Sohan (Dev Anand), a police officer in Bombay, assumes the identity of a small time crook, Johny, to infiltrate a group of smugglers headed by Rai Bhupinder Singh (Premnath) who has his hideout somewhere in Nepal. He befriends a smuggler called Heera (Jeevan) inside a police station, wins his trust and offers to reach diamonds that he had smuggled from Hong Kong to a certain address for a Rs 5,000. He then stages his own escape, collects the tennis racket that contains the diamonds worth Rs 80 lakhs from the hotel where Heera had put up and reaches them to another hotel room where they are received by a beautiful young woman Rekha (Hema Malini). He charms his way into her confidence; Rekha offers Johny Rs 10,000 to meet her at Nalanda and help her reach the diamonds to Nepal. They fly to Kathmandu from Patna with the diamonds and reach them to Moti (Pran) who works for Rai Bhupinder Singh. Meanwhile Babu (Randhawa), a trusted gang member is entrusted with the money fetched from the sale of the diamonds to reach it to Rai Bhupinder Singh at his hideout near the Indian border. But Babu makes plans to escape to Singapore with the money, along with his girlfriend Tara (Padma Khanna) and start a new life there. Johny gets to know of it through a concealed microphone and betrays them to Moti. Moti takes the couple to Bhupinder Singh’s hideout where the leader orders his men to shoot Babu and then takes his girlfriend as his mistress. Johny wins Moti’s trust and replaces Babu in the hierarchy and gains an important step towards reaching his goal, that of locating the gang leader and breaking the back bone of the gang. Throughout, he is accompanied in his quest by the beautiful Rekha who is none other than the daughter of the so-called Bhupinder Singh, the kingpin. But there is a catch: she herself has never met her father since her childhood and her entire purpose and role as a smuggler is to reach her father and find out why did he suddenly disappear from their lives 15 years ago in Lucknow? In the process Johny and Rekha fall in love and after tumultuous journey that takes them through dangerous missions, it is revealed that Moti and Johny are actually long lost brothers – Mohan and Sohan, who were separated during childhood…

Coming three years after Jewel Thief (1967), this film reaffirms the mastery of Vijay Anand as an accomplished craftsman in the annals of popular Hindi cinema and continues many of the elements of the previous film in terms of intricate plotting, themes and style. Here, as in Jewel Thief, the hero assumes different identities to hoodwink the members of the group that he infiltrates and like in the previous film, for a considerable stretch of time even the viewers are taken for a ride as to his actual identity. If in the earlier film Dev Anand was subjected to shock treatments by the villains to brainwash him into believing that he is somebody else, in this film, Dev Anand is beaten, albeit clumsily by a gang member to find out if he is truly what he claims to be – a crook, or a pretender. A simple tale of hero’s quest to reach his goal assumes complex and sometimes confounding layers that keep piling on till it pushes all the boundaries; where could it go from here? But unlike in the other film, in this film the director continues to push the envelope still further and the viewers are happily lost in a maze that carries us from one crisis to another through innovative plot twists and revelations that keep us on tenterhooks.

The screenplay by Vijay Anand, based on a story by KA Narayan (who also wrote the story of Jewel Thief), is pompous to the point of being ludicrous but the calibre of the director lies in his ability to pull it off with a straight face without bothering about niceties. This is not to say that the weaving lacks logic or poise; in fact it is an extremely taut screenplay that flows from scene to scene with an ease that belies its complexity. Relevant information is conveyed in the most casual manner through dialogues that never sound verbose or unduly informative and the scene immediately cuts to the next movement. The director comes straight to the point without beating around the bush and resorts to freeze frames at certain places to telescope events which otherwise would take more screen time to establish. One recalls the kid Mohan, just after he has knifed the killer of his father, being discovered by Premnath, hiding inside the dicky of his car in the beginning of the film. The shot freezes and cuts to the next shot where we see a grownup Mohan, now Moti (played by Pran), accompanying an aged Premnath. The print of the shirt of the young Mohan and grown up Moti is the only indicator that they are the same character. No frills, no trappings, straight on to the point, let’s move forward with the story sir.

All the elements that constituted popular Hindi cinema of that time are played to their hilt in such a confident style that even so many years since it was made, we can only marvel. It has the theme of brothers separated through a misadventure, done to death in innumerable Hindi films; one brother goes to become a smuggler while the other becomes a police officer, only to be reunited before the climax through an accidental recognition (in this case, their boxing ability as they fight each other on a cliff top); it has ‘hi-tech’ devices like a cigarette lighter that can take immaculate photographs and a transistor radio that acts as a transmitter of covert conversations if one of its knobs is attached to the body of the concerned person. Gang members communicate through secret transmitters concealed behind false walls; diamonds are hidden inside tennis rackets and transferred to a false book with cavities carved out from its pages to hoodwink the customs. Cannabis and other dangerous drugs are concealed in containers meant to carry musical instruments; jewelry belonging to Radha-Krishna statue is smuggled out inside a tanpura, strummed by Rekha (Hema Malini) who sings a bhajan (Chup Chup Meera Roye) dressed as a sexy jogan to fool the cops and other devotees. Moti, Johny and Rekha assume roles and don make-ups as and when the situations demand to outwit the police or whoever comes in their paths; Rekha gains entry into her father’s den dressed as a local village belle and sings a song of fatherly love (Babul Pyare) that reaches the ears of her (actual) captive father…

Coming to song picturizations, Goldie’s mastery comes out in full steam in the romantic numberPal Bhar Ke Liye Koi Hume Pyar Kar Le. The camera traces Dev Anand from window to window at a cottage as he romances Rekha through this quintessential Kishore number and a coquettish Hema Malini closes one window after the other, but Johny continues to peep through the next available window till she grows exasperated. The whole song is shot in a series of long sweeping takes as the camera gently follows the main characters in that limited film space effortlessly without calling attention to itself. The whole scene exudes sensuousness as we revel in the ethereal beauty of the Dream Girl along with the Evergreen Hero of Hindi cinema as he tries to court her. It is through such wonderful songs and lovely picturizations that the magic of Hindi cinema continues to charm us through generations and we continue to hum its tune and conjure up the images which have become almost iconic.

If the above song situation overwhelms us with its sensuousness and lyrical quality, then Husn Ke Lakhon Rang thrusts itself on us, quite literally, as a voluptuous Padma Khanna teases Premnath in a no-holds barred striptease that stops short at her shocking red bra and panty. It is one of the highlights of the film and is funny, sexy, bawdy and supposedly poignant too, because she puts up the act to save her fiancé Babu from the clutches of the evil man. But this noble act on her part fails to serve her purpose; Babu is shot dead in the jungles outside and Premnath succumbs to her charms and makes her his mistress without her getting to know about the fate of her lover till towards the end when he also shoots her dead and she dies with the name of her lover on her lips; a sad ending to a vibrant life that dreamt of a better life with her lover outside the world of vice and greed, but by that time she had fulfilled one vital role in the film: provide the viewers with a dosage of sex that heroines of those days shied away from.

In the context of the above song, one interesting observation emerges in retrospect at a screenplay level and the ‘rule’ that the protagonist should necessarily be ‘empathetic’ to endear himself to the viewers. We don’t bat an eyelid when Dev Anand betrays the character of Babu who tries to transcend his criminal milieu and aspires to a straight and honest life with his girlfriend Tara. We are carried away by the swift movement of events and do not stop to bother about the immorality of the entire act where two ‘innocent’ people are killed in order for Johny to gain trust and entry into the gang: Johny has blood on his hands but the director pulls it off smartly. Again, this is due to the strength of the screenplay.

Kalyanji-Anandji’s compositions are spot on and capture the varying moods and tone of the film to perfection, be it the Lata Mangeshkar bhajan or her pathos filled Babul Pyare; or the sexy cabaret number by the quintessential Asha Bhosle in Husn Ke Lakhon Rang or the romantic numbers sung in the charming voice of Kishore Kumar and Asha in their inimitable styles. Each song captures the mood of the prevailing scene and its characters and raises the film several notches, which of course is immensely aided by Goldie’s deft handling of the song situations. The background score (like the art direction which is gaudy) in contrast is tacky and obvious, but somehow it feels that the tackiness blends with the innocent charm of the film because it is after all a pulp fiction, albeit of a superior quality.

The story and the screenplay offered tremendous scope for a wide gallery of colourful characters that fill the screen and the actors deliver some marvelous performances. In a plot driven screenplay, characterizations generally tend to be one-dimensional and stereotypical, especially the stock characters like the Bombay Police Commissioner played by Iftekar or the mother (played by Sulochana). The protagonists in such films are defined more by their physical quests but in this case they – Johny and Rekha, have been provided with back stories which serve as springboards of the story and also constitute the emotional quotient of the film; and that make their characters more rounded and defined, more so Rekha’s character since she is puzzled by the inexplicable disappearance of her father who was charged with discrepancies in the Lucknow bank where he was the manager and now it seems he is heading a smuggling cartel for which she works.

Pran’s character goes through the maximum transition in this bewildering tale of calculated killings, ever-shifting identities, clever plot twists and earth-shattering revelations: from being a juvenile killer to being a smuggler who ends up fighting for the law against his benefactor, it’s a life time role for any actor and he carries it off with panache. IS Johar in a tripe role provides the necessary comic relief whenever the screenplay tends to get heavy and pulls it off with flair that is typical of his style.

Dev Anand is at his charming best as usual, with his quintessential mannerisms and titled hats and hunched shoulders as he romances Hema Malini or fights the bad guys awkwardly with equal flair, but we really don’t mind. Whoever bothered about Dev Anand’s histrionic abilities, anyway? Hema Malini reminds us of the days when voluptuous Hindi film heroines wore sleeveless blouses and the sensuous magic of translucent chiffon hipster saris showed off their curvaceous bodies and belly buttons to the best possible advantage, alluding to a promiscuity that fell just short of promise and acted only as teasers.

If there is one character in the film who takes the cake,icing and cherry with his performance, it is Premnath. He is to Johny Mera Naam what Gabbar Singh was to Sholay. Hitchcock rightly said in one of his interviews that to have an attractive villain adds to the commercial value of a film. And in Premnath, we have a wholesome villain who repels us and charms us at the same time with equal effect. He is demented, a sadist and makes pehelwans fight each other for his entertainment as he grapples scantily clad girls in half saris. He also speaks immaculate English (one recalls the auction scene where foreign smuggles come to his den to buy smuggled jewels). He is at his charming best and wins our heart and also puts us off through his antics and evil deeds. He is coarse, funny, sophisticated, vengeful, smart and lovable! It is not frequently that we see villains like him and he is still fondly remembered for his brilliant role in Johny Mera Naam. No discussion of the film could be complete without his mention and his portrayal of the unmitigated evil that he plays to perfection. The later day villains of the 80s are a pale shadow of Premnath and rapidly deteriorated to buffoonery. But of course, the 80s were the worst period for mainstream Hindi cinema.

At the end, Johny Mera Naam is a simple moral tale of a battle between bad guys and good guys where the good guys ultimately win over the bad guys and social order is restored. Almost 37 years later, another film is made that pays homage to this film and its director and borrows from its name. Sriram Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddaar (2007) is a fitting tribute to the genre of thrillers as exemplified by Vijay Anand (not to count the plethora of other influences) but he carries the thriller agenda further to suit the contemporary times that we live in. Sriram’s film, unlike Johny Mera Naam, is an immoral tale about immoral people who have no qualms to disturb the social order to achieve their narrow and immediate goals in life, come what may. There are no good guys, no redemption at the end, just a roller coaster ride that transports us from one plot twist to another. Goldie Anand, if he had been alive today, surely would have loved the journey and found in Sriram Raghavan, a true successor!

Johny Mera Naam continues to be an important milestone in the genre of popular Hindi cinema not only in terms of its entertainment value but as a seminal study in the craft of immaculate story-telling methods that has continued to inspire film historians, critics, students and filmmakers over the years.

Hindi, Thriller, Drama, Color

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