Whodunits aren’t easy to make. To get the mystery right is part of the magic that, many a times, is enough to soak you in. But what truly fascinates me about the whodunit is that how some of them, the really good ones, continue to hold the same intrigue for decades long after the proverbial cat has been let out.
For a genre that has delivered one good film every decade and attracted every big star once in their career, whodunits haven’t been getting much mainstream Bollywood love. The last time commercial Bollywood saw the genre flourish was way back in 1997 with Rajiv Rai’s Gupt and now with Talaash the genre finally gets some well deserved attention. The genre first came into prominence with the Raj Khosla directed Dev Anand-Shakila-Waheeda Rehman starer C.I.D. (1956). Although today one remembers the film more for OP Nayar’s songs like Leke Phela Phela Pyaar and Aye Dil Hai Mushkil Jeena Yahan, the film’s mystery kept the plot brilliant intact. If the success of C.I.D. suggested that that the genre might not be able to free itself from the song and dance routine then BR Chopra’s Kanoon (1960) changed that perception. The experimental songless drama was a first for Hindi cinema and it’s success made the decade that followed the golden period for whodunits.
Kanoon’s rubbed off on the genre but it couldn’t really help escape the songs, something of a hallmark of the films from the 1960s. Raj Khosla, the man who practically ushered in the genre, would be the genre’s poster boy in 1960s with his trilogy of sorts - Woh Kaun Thi (1964), Mera Saaya (1966) and Anita (1967). Khosla was known for his innovative song picturization and for him to imagine a film without songs would have been impossible. These three films blended thriller, suspense and whodunits along with some lilting tunes that remain memorable even after four decades. BR Chopra, too, returned to the genre with Humraaz (1967) that bettered the Kanoon experience and even had great songs like Neele Gagan Ke Tale and Kissi Patthar Ki Murat Se from Ravi. In between there was Gunmaan (1965), which was based on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and possibly the best example of just how Hindi cinema loved the genre. Gumnaam can be best defined as a great testimony of how a combination of Hindi cinema’s beloved independent components such as music, exotic locales, comedy and an ensemble cast were bought together for the whodunit.
The 1970s only bettered the genre and it became almost like a rite of passage for future stars. In The Train (1970) the superstar of the day, Rajesh Khanna, played a cop who gets romantically involved with the prime suspect in series of murders that take place on a moving train and Dharmendra was entangled in a web of mystery with Kab? Kyonn? Aur Kahan? (1970). Amitabh Bachchan’s captivating performance in an equally enthralling Parwana (1970) would not only be the only silver lining in his abysmal career till then but also announced his arrival as an actor to watch out for. By the time Zanjeer (1973) released the landscape of popular Hindi cinema started gravitating towards simpler and straighter Angry Young Man or vendetta films but every now and then a whodunit like Dhund (1973) and Khel Khel Mein (1975) would charm the viewers. The genre had to compete with the Parallel Cinema, the Bachchan One Man Industry onslaught and the general mess of the 1980s, yet there were three films that managed to seep in through the cracks. Vinod Chopra’s Khamosh (1985) is one of the best whodunits ever in Hindi cinemas. An interesting premise where a
murder that takes place on a film set during an outdoor shoot, Khamosh has a cast that would make the heavens stop- Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Pankaj Kapur, Amol Palekar Soni Razdan, Pawan Malhotra and gets better with every subsequent viewing. With Aditya Pancholi, Sangeeta Bijlani and Shakti Kapoor most wouldn’t recommend Qatil (1988) but it’s one of those films that suffered for reasons other than its own. A law student (Pancholi) wants to prove his lawyer father wrong for advocating the death penalty. He gets himself falsely implicated for murder to tell his father than an innocent could get victimized but is forced to go on the run when someone makes it look all too real. You don’t expect a lot from Ramsays, the big daddies of horror, when they try a whodunit but Khoj (1989), the tale of a harassed husband (Rishi Kapoor) forced by his family and the law (Naseeruddin Shah) to accept a stranger (Kimi Kathkar) as his missing wife when in fact she isn’t has a very campy feel and is a great watch.
Before Gupt there was Khiladi (1992), a rehash of Khel Khel Mein, but the music and action elements enjoyed more success then help revive the whodunit. Even Ram Gopal Varma’s Kaun (1999) didn’t help even though the film enjoys a near cult status today. Since the late 1990s Bollywood has progressively regressed where the need to play it safe overrides everything else. With the whodunit the risk of getting it wrong runs very high and this could very well be the only reason that in spite of regular success the murder mystery doesn’t feature high on the list for mainstream Bollywood. The last good Hindi whodunit was Manorama Six Feet Under (2007), a retelling of Chinatown set in small town Rajasthan, and even though it set new standards for Bollywood’s most difficult genre it wasn’t mainstream in the sense of the word. Now, with Talaash Bollywood finally gives the whodunit a long overdue elite makeover. And you know the deal with such big films- their success sets off a domino effect and while every similar themed film that follows might not be up there but at least one would hopefully get to solve some more mysteries.
Gautam Chintamani is an award-winning writer/filmmaker with over a decade of experience across print and electronic mediums.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)
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