The Bollywood thriller Gumnaam isn’t shy about the sort of films that have influenced it. Adopting the sort of jet set internationality of the 1960s, it becomes an amalgamation of old-fashioned “old dark house” murder mysteries and pop-art modernism filtered through the lens of films like Arabesque, James Bond, Mario Bava’s 1960s output, and Charade starring Cary Grant, the title theme of which (by Bobby Darin) is adapted into “Gumnaam Hai Koi” (sung by Lata Mangeshkar), which in turn becomes the primary musical motif running through film. At the same time, as with many Bollywood productions of this era, it does not seek to scour itself of its Indian identity, incorporating both fashion, attitudes, and social issues (primarily in the conflict, however superficially mentioned, between light-skinned and dark-skinned Indians — the north-south dichotomy that seems to plague pretty much every culture in the world) that are uniquely Indian but still universal in their way, especially during the emerging age of jet travel and globetrotting, when once “exotic” locales and customs were suddenly much more accessible, be they an Indian sari, a Russian ushanka, or American cowboy boots. This stew of influences is layered colorfully on top of a base fashioned from Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, a frequently influential (and oft adapted) story that gave fans of genre cinema one of the most time-tested of all plot tropes: gathering a group of strangers in a remote location so that, one by one, they can be murdered by a mysterious assailant.
In the case of Gumnaam, the group of strangers is a who’s who of popular matinee idols and character actors of the time, anchored by experienced hands Pran, Helen (most often present only for dance numbers but here given an actual role), and comedic actor Mehmood, whose cartoonish appearance and exaggerated movements only thinly veils rather a more melancholy character. Joining them at the remote haveli at which they find themselves stranded are character actors Dhumal, Madan Puri, Tarun Bose, and Manmohan (Indian cinema was not big on last names at the time). Rounding out the cast are theoretical leading woman and man Nanda as Asha and Manoj Kumar as the handsome young airline steward Anand. “Theoretical” because, in the relatively straight roles they are given, it’s hard to command the screen in the presence of a dedicated artist like Pran or an unstoppable firecracker like Helen. So Gumnaam is more of an ensemble piece, where the supporting players are more memorable than the leads and get more interesting things to do. But then, even Helen, Pran, and Mehmood can’t pry the film away from Laxmi Chhaya, the jubilant dancer who opens the film and go-go dances wildly through one of the greatest musical numbers Bollywood ever devised.
The music was composed by the duo of Shankar Singh ram singh and Jaikishan Dayabhai Panchal, who worked under the shared monicker Shankar Jaikishan. The opening number (which takes place after a short montage in which a murder is orchestrated, and the murderer soon finds himself murdered) is almost impossible to recover from. It is too good, too glorious, too full of boundless energy. To expect anything else to match it is unfair and unrealistic, and so the perfectly enjoyable film that follows in its wake seems more modest, less enthralling by comparison. But then, you can’t fault someone for making a grand entrance, and “Jaan Pehechan Ho” is about as grand as they come. It’s an instantly memorable song, a surf guitar and brass driven rocker performed by Mohammed Rafi in reality and, within the context of the film, attributed to a slick looking bunch of domino mask and Chelsea boot clad lads called Ted Lyons and His Cubs, a pitch-perfect Swinging London band name if ever there was one. In fact, they appeared in a previous movie, 1964’s Jaanwar, playing a song called “Dekho Ab To,” a cover of the Beatles ” Wanna Hold Your Hand.” They would appear in several more films after Gumnaam (Tasveer starring manly man Feroz Khan, Love Marriage starring Dev Anand, Bedaag starring Manoj Kumar, Shehnai, and Mere Sanam), creating an odd sort of connected pocket of films in Bollywood, though few people ever discuss the “Ted Lyons and His Cubs cinematic universe.” The song has taken on a life of its own, and people who have never seen Gumnaam, or any Indian film, or even know a country called India exists, have likely heard the song in one place or another thanks to its popularity in American films and advertising as well as cover versions and samples.
Towering over it all is Laxmi Chhaya, a dancer whose frantic hand-shaking, head-tossing, smiling, and leaping is almost overwhelming in its joie de vivre. In 1963, a woman named Candy Johnson made her cinematic debut in the Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello film Beach Party, playing a character known only as Perpetual Motion Dancer, a billing to which she lived up. Candy’s dancing was so frenetic, so energetic, and so over the top, that at times it seemed like she was in actual danger of rending her own head from the rest of her intensely gyrating body. She appeared in several of the subsequent “beach party” movies, each times as an utterly lunatic go-go dancer, and it’d be surprising if her memorable performances weren’t in some way an influence on choreographer Herman Benjamin, who worked on countless Bollywood dance scenes but perhaps none so dynamic and memorable as “Jaan Pehechan Ho” (in which he appears, as Ted Lyons himself). The sheer spectacle of it all, not to mention the fantastic music, can cause one to lose sight of just how good Laxmi Chhaya is, never forgetting to act and throw comical facial expressions as she tears up the dance floor and leaves all before her utterly shredded and exhausted by the sheer brilliance of it all. Similarly, it’s all so mad that it’s easy to miss how good the direction is in this scene, and how well it works with the choreography. Manic thrashing suddenly becomes a perfectly choreographed chorus line. Frantic flailing gives way as the camera swoops back as the dancing transitions seamlessly into lockstep precision. A violent, chaotic shimmy with the impact of a Jackie Chan fight becomes Ronettes style snapping and dancing in unison.
It’s also easy to forget the movie hasn’t even really begun.
The plot proper kicks off after that dynamic number, as a group of people present at the club win an all-expenses-paid vacation that is cut short when the plane they’re on encounters engine trouble, makes an emergency landing in a convenient field, and then makes a quick getaway while they are all milling about outside, leaving the group stranded in the middle of nowhere with nothing to occupy them except for Pran’s incessant whiskey swilling and Helen’s fabulous outfits. Unenthusiastic about dying in the jungle, the group sets out with the hope of randomly stumbling across some manner of shelter when suddenly they here a mysterious siren song luring them through the jungle, up some hills, over some rocks, through more jungle — seriously, this goes on for a while. And while the song (the aforementioned “Gumnaam Hai Koi”) is fantastic, the many, many minutes long scene of the cast randomly walking through the woods and occasionally staring is as plodding as the previous number was overwhelming.
Eventually they find themselves led by the mysterious singing to a mansion cut from the cloth of a Gothic Mario Bava film, all color and opulence on the inside, all crumbling ruins, cobwebs, and eerie lighting outside. They are greeted by Mehmood’s butler, a comical “provincial” who it seems is playing up his southern bumpkin persona to cover a much cleverer mind than he wants to let on. He certainly knows a lot about each of the guests who have arrived at the estate, the impossibility of which is ruminated on until such time as every decides oh well, time to eat. If you have to be stranded in the middle of nowhere, you might as well make the most of the fact that nowhere provides you with a lovely mansion, comfortable beds, and a butler who’s good in the kitchen. It’s obvious someone is up to something, but there’s no point in worrying about it. Well, at least until the first murder victim is discovered.
From there, the film dutifully follows the template for all such films, which suspicion being cast on each character as more bodies pile up. Of course, no amount of murder can stop Helen from wearing a fab little skirted bathing suit and cape, or get in the way of Pran urging everyone to enjoy more whiskey. Eventually, suspicion settles most firmly on Manoj Kumar’s Anand, who as part of the flight crew tat left them stranded, was already getting the side eye from everyone. It would seem, through a series of convoluted revelations, that everything is happening because of the murders at the start of the film, one of the victims of which was Asha’s uncle. But the more one thinks about the plot and the final act twists and revelations, the less they make sense. In such cases, as was often the case with murder mysteries, one is well-advised to cut the film a little slack as long as the ride up to the reveal has been fun, and despite some of the flab typical of Indian films, Gumnaam was certainly a fun ride.
Although “Jaan Pehechan Ho” is the film’s legacy, there are several more great numbers, three of which given Helen a chance to show what she does best and why she was the industry’s go-to dancer for decades. “Hum Kaale Hain To” takes place during a dream sequence involving Helen and Mehmood (and is underscored by tension between different cultures in India), and being a dream sequence, they allow themselves license to go a little surreal, summoning dozens of dancers to parade across stylized sets and moody lighting and music and dance jumps wildly from various flavors of traditional to modern go-go and rock ‘n’ roll. “Gham Chhodke Manaao Rang” is another twangy guitar driven number that accompanies Helen in her swimsuit and cape dancing on the beach, so that’s pretty great for that alone.
Helen’s role in films was often to show up for a dance number then depart, taking either no or very limited participation in the rest of the movie. On the occasions she was given a full role, she proved she could be much more than just an “item girl.” Her character here, Kitty, is the kind of character who could be played as conniving, sleazy, mean, or evil, but in Helen’s hands she’s just sort of delightful and carefree. Well, except for the crack about Mehmood’s skin color, but that turns into not only the film’s second best musical number but also Mehmood’s best and most overtly political joke, in which he angrily quips that “A spot the color of my skin on light skin is considered a beauty mark, but a spot of light skin on dark is considered a disease.” And maybe that’s what makes Mehmood enjoyable in this: rather than pure “lovable goofball” antics, there’s something angry under the surface of his performance.
The other big number is “Peeke Hum Tum Jo,” and while it’s not become as internationally iconic as “Jaan Pehechan Ho” it did feature “Helen dancing while brandishing a whiskey bottle,” a bit that would show up countless times in other movies, basically whenever someone got drunk. In the case of Gumnaam, it’s Helen and Asha who look to blow off a little steam in between running from murderers; two gals having a bit if tipsy fun while Manoj Kumar scowls disapprovingly. The rest of the songs are good but don’t necessarily accompany memorable scenes, unless you consider watching Manoj and Nanda walking along some rocks for five minutes to be memorable. Nanda also gets in a wet sari dance, pretty much de rigueur for such a film, but once you’ve experienced Helen and Laxmi Chhaya (who pulls a Helen and is not in any part of the film other than her one dance number), it’s hard to notice poor Nanda, even in the rain. Nanda was an accomplished actress (and the niece of director V. Shantaram), and Gumnaam was a big hit for her, but it’s not really that interesting a role. It’s underwritten, gives her almost nothing to do but stand around while a similarly dull Manoj menaces/romances her. One would think that, as the niece of a man whose murder is presumably central to the plot, she would play some vital role, but her presence is surprisingly incidental. It’s hard to play the straight woman in a cast full of colorful characters. Laura La Plante in The Cat and the Canary she is not.
Mehmood is one of those actors whose shtick can grate on the nerves in that Jerry Lewis sort of way. But he’s relatively subdued here, hamming it up a bit but always pulling back before he goes over the top or crosses into the realm of slapstick. There’s also something almost sinister about his character, or if not sinister than at least a little dark and angry. There have been times when he, like fellow comedians Johnny Lever or, if you prefer, Franco and Ciccio (seriously though, no one prefers Franco and Ciccio), has inspired the abandonment of a movie. Not so with Gumnaam, where he’s pretty interesting, keeps the comedy relatively subdued, and comes across more like, I don’t know. Maybe Cantiflas? Someone who could play it broad but also reel it in a bit if needed and give a cartoonish character an extra layer of complexity. Manoj has been a chunk of wood in other films, and Pran and Helen are expected to deliver the goods as they do. It is, however a bit surprising to find oneself entertained by Mehmood and bored by Nanda.
“Gumnaam Hai Koi” appears too often in the film to point to any one scene as it’s signature appearance, though the best is the one in which Asha and Anand search the spooky, overgrown grounds for a missing member of the unlucky entourage. I have no proof that director Raja Nawathe knew anything about Mario Bava or might have been influenced by the Italian’s boldly colorful Blood and Black Lace (released in 1964), but fans of Bava’s cinematography and surreal use of colored lighting, canted angles, shadows, and the sinister trappings of Gothic horror will see, if not direct influence, certainly a kindred style in many of Gumnaam‘s scenes, especially this moody journey through these old ruins strewn with spiderwebs and crumbling Christian iconography, all while accompanied by the haunting “Gumnaam Hai Koi.” Despite being a murder mystery, this isn’t exactly a horror film, but when it trades in horror imagery, as in this scene and in one particularly gruesome and artfully staged murder near the end, it does so very adeptly. The final two murders and subsequent finale push the film into more straight-forward horror territory. Given that this is based on an Agatha Christie novel, and that the violence and intensity escalates shockingly in the last half hour, Gumnaam could reasonably be considered a Bollywood adaptation of the giallo film, at least as the giallo stood in the mid-1960s. There’s even a straight-razor wielding killer in gloves. Granted, the gloves are pink rather than black, but why hold a festive sense of color against a serial killer?
Even when Gumnaam seems to spinning its wheels and just killing time, Nawathe’s direction keeps it looking exciting. Working with cinematographer K.H. Kapadia, they create a stunning movie drenched in color and full of lively camera movement. Given how nutty the dancing is in “Jaan Pehechan Ho,” one can miss how great the camera work is, sweeping through the action without ever distracting from it. They maintain that style throughout the film, creating a number of gorgeous scenes full of fluid, dramatic movement that makes even the down time visually thrilling. They also play a lot with focus in a way that reminds one of James Wong Howe, with very deep focus and the placement of props and players at times creating almost three-dimensional effect. They’re at their best during “Jaan Pehechan Ho,” the previously mentioned nighttime visit to the ruins, and any time the characters are in the large hall of the mansion, which gives director and cinematographer a vast, candy-colored stage with which to play. Even though current prints of the film have not benefited from restoration, they still work wonders with the bright Eastmancolor palette, especially when it comes to Helen’s gorgeous outfits, Nanda’s more traditional but no less fashionable attire, and whatever the heck it was Dhumal was wearing as Mr. Dharamdas.
If Gumnaam itself is somewhat overshadowed by its most famous dance number, that’s no great crime. It’s a thoroughly serviceable comedic thriller and boasts some inspired direction, but it never rises to the giddy heights it sets for itself in that magnificent club scene, though “Hum Kaale Hain To” gets pretty close. Watching Helen go from traditional dance to mad go-go is a real treat, and placing it alongside “Jaan Pehechan Ho” makes it apparent how much of an identifiable style Herman Benjamin brought to his choreography, like a Bollywood precursor to Bob Fosse, complete with all those crazy jazz (or go-go) hands. Still for those willing to move pass the carnival joy of the films first ten minutes, there’s a lot of old fashioned “whodunit” charm to be found (provided you don’t actually concern yourself that much with whodunit) amid the admittedly sparse and lazily thought-out plot. The finale may make almost no real sense or possess any narrative cohesion, but it still results in a pretty exciting showdown in a crypt-like basement full of shadows and inexplicable jets of mist. And whatever missteps it might take, whatever padding could be pruned from it, the music, the cinematography, and the chemistry between Helen and Pran makes it well worth following the siren song of “Gumnaam Hai Koi” toward that ominous old, dark house.