Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Gumnaam

My notes on Gumnaam (1965)

This Bollywood mystery-musical has a bit of a profile outside India thanks to the use of a terrific dance number – which isn’t typical of the mood of the film – in Ghost World.  Like most two and a half hour Indian films, it’s packed with musical digressions, aggressively annoying comedy, romantic interludes, lengthy plot explanations, and deviations from sane cinema logic – which means there are longeurs, but also that it has a kind of infectious and unpredictable charm, even as it’s riffing on very familiar material.  It’s an unauthorised adaptation of And Then There Were None – presumably inspired by the Rene Clair film, though Harry Allan Towers got the first of his three versions out that year – with only eight actual Indians in the isolated villa, a much more complicated (but less pleasing) rationale for the murdering, and a few pulled punches Christie would have tutted over. Gumnaam means ‘unknown’, perhaps a nod to Christie’s mystery host U.N. Owen.

A prologue has an EastmanColor noir/giallo feel, as a couple of murders take place in a city (the key image is blood dripping on a white telephone), then we cut to a night club celebrating its Silver Jubilee and Teddy Lion and His Cubs performing while rows of Lone Ranger-masked dancers do a very vigorous twist routine.  After that, seven people win a foreign holiday and get together on a plane, only to be stranded on an island with a pilot (Manoj).  An eerie title song (that’s a virtual plagiarism of Henry Mancini’s Charade theme) lures them to a palace where they are greeted by comedy butler (Mehmood) who has a Hitler moustache, an Ish Kabibble hairdo and a weirdly camp ass-wiggle.  The butler is frankly annoying, but you just know he won’t be contribute to the body count – later, he even gets a big fantasy dance number, cued by a spat with a lighter-toned girl about his dark skin, with giant gloweyed idol heads and many chorines – and will keep interrupting the plot with clumsy routines.

Heroine type Asha (Nanda), whose uncle got run over in the prologue, warms up to the pilot (spoiler – he turns out to be a detective), while the lively Miss Kitty (Helen) – often seen in an abbreviated swimming dress – is wooed by a drunk lawyer (Pran).  The least-characterised guests (Dhumal, Manmohan) die early, and when the doctor (Madan Puri) declares bearded Sharma (Tarun Bose) axed to death we can spot the exact plot lift from Christie and see where it’s all going.  There are some horror-ish scenes set in a ruined Christian church, with disturbing Christ/Saint sculptures (a nice reverse of the way Western horror films demonise non-Christian religions), and director Raja Nawathe throws in stalking-with-a-noose, Russian roulette, several scrappy fights, and a lot of ranting.  Rather surprisingly, the culprit is meekly led off at the end rather than getting a big death scene – and it’s not quite explained how he arranged all this in a couple of weeks with no apparent resources.

An odd effect of the leisurely pace and extended running time is that the potential victims take an oddly fatalistic approach – getting on with their romances (or their drinking) rather than trying to find a way to escape, and only intermittently remembering that one among them is a murderer and tossing accusations about.  And that cop hero is pretty negligent – after the first death or two, he could have made his bust but he lets all the corpses drop just to keep the plot wheels spinning.


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: