Batman has really let his
standards for partners slide.
According to its overenthusiastic trailer, Gumnaam was "India's first suspense thriller," which might explain why it's such an awful example of the genre. As a means of generating tension, the movie is a lost cause. However, Gumnaam (the title means "lost one") has gained some kind of strange fame in this country because one of its musical numbers was used as the opening credits of the well-regarded indie film Ghost World. Let's just say that the makers of Ghost World lifted the best moments from a mostly tiresome undertaking.
A movie that is upwards of two and a half hours long shouldn't peak in the first ten minutes, yet that's what Gumnaam manages to do. As the film opens we see a man named Khanna signal a car from his balcony outside a nightclub. Moments later the car runs over a man on the street. Khanna goes back inside, makes a number of cryptic phone calls to people (including the dead man's niece), and is then brutally shot dead by an unknown assailant. The film's title spirals out of his lifeless eye, and when the credits are done we move inside the nightclub to see the kind-of-famous number "Jan Pehchan Ho." In case you haven't seen this number, everyone in the nightclub wears a Robin mask and grooves to surf rock. The band, if you believe the inscription on their set of drums, is "Ted Lyons and His Cubs." We had trouble swallowing the fact that the Indian Ceasar Romero lookalike belting out a catchy tune in Hindi is really named "Ted Lyons," but with all the other distractions in this scene, it's not something you'll need to spend much time pondering. The male dancers wear open-breasted suits with tuxedo ruffles (they probably raided Jon Pertwee's closet) while the women wear dresses dripping with lamé fringe. They all dance a step that can best be described as cross between the bat-tusi and an epileptic seizure.
"And don't forget to tip your waitress!"
This incredible display is but a prelude to the announcement of the results of a contest. The seven lucky winners are awarded a vacation to an undisclosed location. These winners (five men and two women) blithely board a plane with no travel companions but each other. Before arriving at their destination, however, the plane has mechanical troubles and lands on a remote island. The contestants (the plane's sole passengers) are allowed to take a stroll while repairs are made, but the plane takes off, leaving them stranded with one of the co-pilots.
The party decides that the best course of action is to explore the island in the hopes of finding shelter. While wandering over a variety of landscapes, the castaways are drawn to a seaside mansion by the sound of a woman's voice, which sings an eerie song:
Someone is lost, someone is bad
Who is it? It's a stranger
We don't know yet, but someone knows
Who is it? It's a stranger
Someone we thought was our own
Be glad you're not playing poker
with her, 'cause she's got two pair.
This song turns out to be incredibly prescient, as it applies directly to the group's eventual predicament. At the end of the film we find out the singer had no particular connection to what's going on, so we can only assume she read the script.
Upon their arrival at the mansion, our wanderers are met by the film's Odious Comic Relief: the butler (Mahmood), who goes unnamed, but introduces himself by rising, Dracula-like, from beneath a sheet laid upon the dining room table. (Somebody's been watching too many Hammer horror films.) The Odious Comic Relief, as in most Bollywood films, takes up a truly epic amount of the running time. The only break we catch is that he inexplicably disappears for the last hour or so of the film, although he does reappear in the movie's final minutes. After revealing that he knows each of them by name, the butler tells our befuddled characters that they are expected, and a letter informs that they will die. Yes, this is a variation on Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, though in this case the title is far more appropriate than usual.
Why you should never mix plaid and stripes.
The characters are barely developed, but with three hours to fill the film has lots of time to introduce two romantic subplots, which in turn involve a variety of musical numbers. Our nominal hero is Anand (Manoj Kumar), the co-pilot who shouldn't be there at all. He's kind of handsome and despite being unprepared for the unscheduled stay, he has a surprising number of outfits at his disposal. He is soon sparring adorably with Asha (Nanda), whom you'll remember as the niece from the early scenes with Khanna. On the seedier side is Rakesh (Pran), whose only character traits are his supposedly sparkling conversation and his bottomless hip flask. He's attracted to the fair-skinned Miss Kitty (Helen), who handles most of the dancing in the film. Then there's Mr. Sharma (Tarun Bose, who looks like Inspector Detector from Speed Racer), a doctor, and considering that we've already had three Gilligan's Island parallels, we'll just call the others "the rest." If you're getting the feeling that few of India's film stars were given last names at birth, you're not wrong. That feeling won't go away when we tell you that one member of "the rest" is played by a familiar (to Bollywood fans) character actor named Dhumal.
He killed it with his breath.
After a full hour of exposition and setup, some of the house's inhabitants finally begin to die. Does that stop our characters from bantering wittily, or from trying to get each other into bed? No, it does not. Does the plot take any further steps towards resolving itself in the next hour, other than by eliminating characters in a slow, methodical fashion? No, it does not. Does Gumnaam hold any hope for entertaining its viewers other than by breaking in with a completely inappropriate musical number every fifteen minutes? No... it... does... not!
The two musical numbers most worth mentioning are, naturally enough, the most inappropriate to be placed in a murder mystery. The first is a fantasy number sung by the butler, whose advances have been spurned by Miss Kitty. After Miss Kitty departs his company, he explains to no one in particular that he doesn't have any trouble getting women in his dreams. To prove it, we visit such a dream, which is set on the stage of a psychedelic Vegas floorshow. This set, which looks like what might happen if Liberace threw up, is populated exclusively (with the exception of the butler himself) by Indian dancing girls. Miss Kitty herself is there, shaking her groove thing and further cementing her position as the character we'd least like to lose. She's a heck of a looker, a charming actress, and, with the strange exception of the seizure dance from "Jan Pehchan Ho" (which she reprises during this scene), a terrific dancer. This, coupled with the fact that she plays the immoral bad girl to Asha's innocent young thing, means that she is marked for death. Allah forbid that the interesting characters should remain in the movie!
"Do you know where Speed Racer is?"
The other scene you mustn't miss is a beach party number that, apart from the fact that it's sung in Hindi, could have been lifted from any Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach flick. Miss Kitty warbles a happy tune which says, in effect, that even though she expects to die at any moment, she plans to go on chanting and dancing as if nothing were wrong. The other characters, grinning like lobotomized morons, play along, tossing beach balls and worshipping Miss Kitty in time to the music. The lyrics, roughly translated, go something like this:
if you want to live in this life
then listen to what I say
leave your sorrows behind and join the party
take my advice
those who want to live
live with laughter and singing
let your hair down and relax
people of this world what do you know?
come to me and I'll explain
whoever there is who will see me
will stop worrying
in this world fish swim freely here and there
That's fine for an Indian film, but if you're making a suspense thriller, dialogue in which the characters claim that they're not going to worry about impending gory death tends to disperse the suspense. If they don't care about their own lives, why should we? At the very least, we're at a loss as to why should we care for anyone other than Miss Kitty, whose death would affect us on a very deep and meaningful level.
"Better a bottle in front of me
than a frontal lobotomy."
Gumnaam is an extraordinarily well-made film technically, particularly for a Bollywood undertaking. The sets are first-rate, the camera work is consistently excellent (watch in particular the scene in which Asha and Kitty get drunk together), and the intense colors put us in mind of Black Tight Killers. The storytelling, too, has spots of actual merit. We really liked the catchy tunes and the actors were perfectly engaging, at least when they weren't bantering incessantly, going to great lengths to make weak jokes. Even the script has some thought behind it, with some interesting messages about the role of alcohol in sexual relations and the differences between women like Asha and Kitty. But darn it all, the pacing of the film just killed us. When the butler introduces himself, for example, we get reaction closeups from every single one of the characters. Not once, but twice! Every scene is shot this way, although rarely with quite as much coverage. Get used to the static two-shot of a soon-to-be murder victim and the butler it's a sight you'll see many times during the course of the film.
Two hours in, Gumnaam finally hits high gear and the killer is revealed. What a surprise, the killer is revealed as some guy we haven't even heard mentioned before! (Agatha Christie fans won't be surprised by the murderer's "identity.") Nor do we get explanations as to what all the relationships were that led the killer to target these specific people, especially Asha. These are exactly the kinds of thing a really good suspense thriller would have resolved satisfactorily, but not Gumnaam. We guess it's tough to make a suspense thriller when all you know is musical comedies.