Shalimar


Director: Krishna Shah
Music: R.D. Burman; Lyrics: Anand Bakshi
Duration: 2 hours, 22 minutes
Year: 1978

What a crazy concoction this is. Crazy and yet in another universe possibly quite entertaining. Someone's fevered imagination decided to combine the "B" film worlds of Bollywood and Hollywood and create a hybrid film that probably should have been drowned at birth, but I am grateful it wasn't as it manages to be so uniquely silly that it's wonderful in a warped sort of way. Silly it may be but unambitious it is not. This was a very big budget affair in 1978 and it shows with more explosions than D-Day and lots more dancing too! It was also an unmitigated disaster at the box office - proving that it hasnít been time that has made this film so cheesy and in fact this cheese may have actually aged for the better in the subsequent 35 years.

Recently, much publicity was derived from having Bo Derek appear in the Indian film, Boom. As it turned out her much vaunted scene lasted all of thirty seconds with a replay of her emerging out of the ocean ala "10" except she is wearing a sari. So when I read that Shalimar starred three actors from the West I was fully expecting to see them whiz by at cameo like speed - blink and you miss them - but in fact all three have very lengthy roles in this film. So appearing here are Henry Higgins himself - Rex Harrison, American actress Sylvia Miles (Midnight Cowboy, Farewell My Lovely) and American actor John Saxon. Saxon is likely the only person in the world who can claim that he worked with both Bollywood legend Shammi Kapoor and the legend himself, Bruce Lee (in Enter the Dragon). Now what state their acting careers were in when they accepted this I can only guess - not so much that it is a Bollywood film - but a totally insane Bollywood film that is doing its best to appeal to a non-Indian audience - and yet not having a clue how to do so (despite the fact that the director/producer Krishna Shah had gone to film school in the U.S. and most of his film credits are U.S. based - Hard Rock Zombies, American Drive In and Sleepaway Camp 4).
Let's begin the fun. It begins in Bombay as all good things do. Vamp par excellance Aruna Irani is teaching dance classes to a group of thirty something nerds who look like they think being able to do the cha cha cha will lead to them finally losing their virginity when all they really need is a good haircut and some clothes that don't spell "dork". The dance studio though is just a cover for a gambling den that is behind the curtain - I guess cops would never think of looking there - and is managed by Kumar (Dharmendra). One of the gambling patrons keels over from a heart attack and the dancers all come and gawk at him for a second and then immediately go back to "1 cha cha cha, 2 cha cha cha". Hopefully, if I ever have a heart attack some day it won't be among people doing Latin dances.
Kumar helps him downstairs - not generally a wise policy for a man who has just had a heart attack - and on the way to his car the fellow is shot by a sniper in the shoulder - and then on the way to the hospital Kumar steals his wallet. Definitely a should have stayed in bed day for this guy. Thatís about all we end up seeing of him, though we thankfully learn that he survived and is now taking dance lessons. Kumar on the other hand it turns out was the real target of the sniper and the mob is after him for skimming from the gambling proceeds. He is given a due date to pay them back or the next bullet may not miss (if they hire a sniper who can shoot straight). Fortunately, he finds a fancy invitation in the stolen wallet to a get together of some kind on an island and he thinks this may be his opportunity to make some money - or steal it.
Of course, if you have seen enough films you know that taking the place of someone invited to a mysterious destination rarely is smart, but Kumar boards a boat and arrives on the island - described as "so small you would need a microscope to see it" but large enough seemingly to house much of Manhattan. Among the other guests he soon discovers are a religious man (Shammi Kapoor - a good deal more portly than in his starring days in the 60's), a German trapeze expert (Sylvia Miles - a bit long in the tooth and even longer in the cleavage department), a mute (a lucky Saxon doesn't have to mouth any dialogue), some other fellow who has a smile that would get him thrown out of most bars (O.P. Ralhan) and finally the lovely Zeenat Aman who is the hostís secretary and who also turns out to be an old girlfriend of Kumarís until she left him when he was caught in bed in the clutches of a blonde. The host is none other than the impeccably polite Rex Harrison who not only learned to speak to animals in Dr. Doolittle, taught Eliza proper diction in My Fair Lady but speaks fluent Hindi here! (actually dubbed by Kader Khan). All of them it turns out are master thieves Ė the best in the world! The fact that most of them are older than a bad vaudeville joke, slow of foot, a bit heavy around the middle and one of them has a wooden leg should not in the least detract from the credibility of this fact.
Rather than animals, Harrison has surrounded himself with a South Pacific native tribe that he saved from certain death and a castle modeled on something out of a fairy tale. He uses the tribe for security, service, entertainment, fashion statements and target practice. He tells his crew of motley guests that he is dying and that he has in his possession the immensely valuable Shalimar diamond. Everyone gasps audibly upon hearing this. His dying wish is that it be passed on to a worthy thief and so he offers them a contest - whoever can steal it can own it - but there is a price for failure Ė likely death. It won't be easy he assures them and to demonstrate this he waves his hand over a leaf in the garden and shakes it ever so slightly - which leads to near keystone cop chaos - with guards blowing bugles, some riding full gallop in gas masks on horses, others rappelling down from the castle turrets, hordes popping out from hidden underground bunkers and sundry others just milling about trying to get some work in as extras. Oh, and there are also landmines everywhere. They of course all eagerly volunteer to join up in this fun adventure.
Though this turns into a bizarre heist movie, let us not forget that it is still Bollywood and so there are plenty of occasions to stop this silliness and simply sing and dance. With an island full of colorful natives this can be quite entertaining and the score from RD Burman is exotically strange and melodic. Though there seems little doubt that the film was made in complete seriousness, one has to really wonder what drugs the filmmaker was on to think this was a serious effort Ė yet it has a goofy charm that time has spread over it like quixotic dust.

My rating for this film: 6.0 but worthy for its uniqueness

Song 1

Song 2