50 Years of Jewel Thief: Sriram Raghavan explains why this film still gives him goosebumps
Vijay Anand’s Jewel Thief was among the top ten films of 1967, also the year of Dilip Kumar’s double whammy in Ram Aur Shyam, Manoj Kumar’s patriotic Upkar, Jeetendra’s Euro-spy Farz, Shakti Samanta’s breezy An Evening in Paris and B.R Chopra’s thriller Hamraaz.
I recently watched Jewel Thief again, wondering if the film would hold today’s modern viewer with serious attention deficiency. Some classics do date. But I am happy to report that Jewel Thief still sparkles and holds its place as ‘the Kohinoor’ amongst Hindi mainstream thrillers. It’s often said that even the best thrillers don’t have repeat value. Why would you want to re-watch a thriller once you already know the twists and turns and big reveals? That is the genius of Goldie, aka Vijay Anand. It’s his direction, the terrific plot and clever screenplay that make Jewel Thief work.
Also, the music, the girls, the villain and of course, Dev Anand. I remember once chatting with BP Singh, the creator of Aahat and CID series, and he told me that he learnt about direction from two films – William Friedkin’s The French Connection and Vijay Anand’s Jewel Thief. We spoke about the birthday party scene where Shalu (Vyjayanthimala) accuses Vinay (Dev Anand) of being her fiancé Amar. The scene famously ends with Amar having to take his shoes off to prove that he’s not the man they claim him to be. One of my assistants who saw Jewel Thief for the first time on a black and white TV in school compared its final big twist to The Sixth Sense. A big twist scene is basically one that makes the viewer run the entire picture through his or her head again, compelling him to re-watch the film to confirm if the filmmaker has played fair.
Goldie made his debut at 22 with Nau Do Gyarah, a road rom-com that climaxes in a thriller. He followed it up with the social drama Kala Bazar which features Dev Anand as a black marketer. In one scene, he is selling tickets outside Bombay’s Metro cinema when he encounters some college students (played by Waheeda Rehman and friends). Guess who’s her boyfriend? Vijay Anand! And guess the houseful film that they are here to watch? Hitchcock’s North by Northwest! And a looming Hitchcock stares out from the posters. “The stronger the villain, the stronger the picture,” Hitchcock said once. Jewel Thief has one of the most memorable villains. Anything more will be a spoiler. It’s a long movie but new viewers can think of it like they are binge-watching four episodes of a favourite series.
Both Jewel Thief and North by Northwest share a common premise and I often wonder if it was Hitchcock’s film that planted the germ of the story in the filmmaker’s head. I must add here that the story of Jewel Thief is by KA Narayan, who’s also responsible for Brij’s Chori Mera Kaam, Anand’s Johny Mera Naam and a dozen more cops-and-crooks capers.
The magic of Jewel Thief lies in its terrific screenplay, how the viewer is constantly being tricked by the filmmaker. Doppelgangers, innocent on the run, mistaken identity and brainwashing are themes from the darkest of noir capers. But there is nothing noir in Jewel Thief, which is full of splashy colours, costumes, grand sets and songs. If Goldie loved Hitchcock, he also loved the James Bond pictures, four of which had released by 1965. Jewel Thief has debonair Dev Anand getting seduced or seducing a bevy of bold and sexually forward women. Who is the femme fatale or they all are? Choose between Vyjayanthimala, Helen, Faryal, Anju Mahendru and the cutest Tanuja you will ever see.
Goldie is a master of song picturization and in Jewel Thief, each one of them advances the story like in the best of Hindi mainstream cinema those days. Yeh dil na hota bechara sees Vinay flirting with the rich jeweler’s daughter. Who other than Dev Anand can pull off the song, prancing on a lonely road with a fishing rod and a plastic fish? I love Rula ke gaya sapna’s mise en scène and even as I watch it now, I can only marvel at the set which has Dev Anand in a boat following Vyjayanthimala paddling alone in a lake at midnight. Again this sublime song of loss advances the plot and yet, connects us on to the couple on a personal, non-plot level. Raat akeli hai is a seductive delight thanks to Tanuja and Asha Bhosle. But it’s not just an item song. It’s a vital plot device that becomes the first of the film’s many turning points.
It is said that Goldie introduced the concept of the ‘climax song’ in our movies. In Nau Do Gyarah’s See le zubaan, Shashikala is dancing in a gothic haveli trying to warn the hero about the threat looming around him. See le zubaan by Geeta Dutt and SD Burman is perhaps the first climax song of Bollywood. It’s perfected ten years later in Honton mein aisi baat in Jewel Thief. Brilliantly choreographed by Sohanlal Master, the climactic number is a sumptuous showcase of Vyjayanthimala’s dancing skills and Vijay Anand’s ability to use sweeping camera movements and dynamic cuts to ratchet the tension. One stanza of the song is done entirely in one take! Baithe hain kya uske paas is shot in a dim-lit nightclub. Helen, in plumes, dances on a circular bar top as another dancer imitates her on the floor. And we wait for Dev Anand’s descent down the stairs in his iconic checked cap. Is it Amar or Vinay? That was the poster shot. Sad to note that on YouTube the song video has less than 15000 views!
I didn’t know the Anand brothers on a personal level. But I met Dev Anand twice. Once as a rookie journo I got a chance to watch the shoot of Anand Aur Anand – his son Suneil’s launchpad – in Mehboob studios, Bandra. The second time was a bit different. I was shooting an episode of Aahat for BP Singh in Tata Bungalow, Marol. My production told me that I have to finish my episode quickly because the location was booked for a big mahurat the next day. I was in a hurry and flurry wrapping my shots and by evening the location was swamped by the mahurat team planning their programme. I was irritated that they were getting in my way and I kept pushing them about to complete my deadline.
Suddenly, I saw that it was Dev Anand and his team who were all around me. Dev saab was busy explaining what he wanted the next morning to his team. He probably had no idea there was another shoot happening in the adjacent room. I was so thrilled to watch the man himself in action, full of charm and infectious energy. We finished our shoot by dawn but the mahurat never happened because, as I found out later, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had invited Dev saab to the now famous Lahore bus trip.
(As told to Shaikh Ayaz)