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21 August 2011

China Town (1962)

Directed by: Shakti Samanta
Music: Ravi
Starring: Shammi Kapoor, Shakila, Helen, 
Kanu Roy, Madan Puri, Shetty
Idle question No.1: What is better than one Shammi Kapoor? Ans: Two Shammi Kapoors, of course. 

And that is only part of what makes China Town so addictive. Take a very sharply edited thriller, two beautiful heroines Shakila and Helen (that the latter does not die despite being a nightclub dancer is a bonus!), mix it up with a bunch of melodious songs, add some intelligent villains and not-so-inept cops, and you have the quintessential entertainer (or usual Shammi Kapoor film) on your hands.
We are introduced to Suzie (Helen), who is seen shimmying to the film's title song,
and when the song finishes, to Shammi Kapoor #1 (in a bathtub! Life can't get any better!) - Mike, the handsome, opium-addicted gangster.
He is as arrogant as he is dapper, but he is the love of Suzie's life, though he seems to take her love for granted.  Mike is employed by Wong (Madan Puri), the gangster who runs the China Town (Calcutta) underworld. (Idle comment No.1: I like the 'Chinese' make-up for Wong and Suzie; it's done well; not too exaggerated.) That night, Mike is on a routine assignment, but the police have had their suspicions and are tailing him. (Did I mention that the police are not-so-inept?) In the ensuing car chase, Mike's car crashes and he is arrested.

And that brings us to Shammi Kapoor #2 - curly-haired Shekhar with a pencil-thin moustache, a singer who plays at a hotel in Darjeeling while waiting for his big break as a musician.
(And if anyone had told me that a man who is as masculine as Shammi could look and act so effeminate, I would have snorted in disbelief!)

He is in love with Rita (Shakila), and she loves him too, though she does get quite irritated with him. Her father Rai Bahadur Digambar Prasad Rai (S Bannerjee) is also irritated with Shekhar, and so-o-oo NOT in love with him. Rita sneaks out to meet Shekhar, much to her father's chagrin. Infuriated by Shekhar mandrao-ing around his daughter, Rai Bahadur carts her off to Calcutta, promising to marry her off to a Mr Choudhary immediately they get there. Shekhar, who has sneaked into the house in the meantime, overhears this and is bent on having it out with his father-in-law-to-be. He may be a sissy and a 'cartoon' but he is persistent.
After all, 'ishq, mushq, khansi aur khushi' (love, moustache, cough and happiness) do not stay hidden, even if you wish it. But his Dutch courage oozes away the minute he hears Rai Bahadur's raised voice outside the bedroom door.

Shekhar reaches home and tells his mother that he is leaving for Calcutta the next day. She is unusually distressed, but he tells her he will have better chances in the city.
Rita and her father take the night train to Calcutta. Shekhar follows, dressed in one of his patent disguises.
And while Rai Bahadur may have enjoyed his daughter's beau's song, it doesn't take him long to see through the disguise. Shekhar manages to escape from the train, and sneaks into Rita's house at night. (He does that a lot!) Rai Bahadur catches him hanging (literally) and hands him over to the police (a very young and handsome Sujit Kumar).
However, senior Inspector Dutt (Kanu Roy), who is present at the station,notices Shekhar's remarkable resemblance to Mike, who is presently in jail. Even Shekhar is taken aback. He offers Shekhar a way out of his troubles - join the force. Mike has persistently refused to turn witness for the prosecution. The plan is to let Shekhar take Mike's place in China Town. Shekhar is agreeable; but it is not as easy as it looks. Shekhar is as different from Mike as chalk from cheese.
Mike's mannerisms, behaviour - everything needs to be learnt before Shekhar can hope to make the switch successfully. Time passes and the training continues. Shekhar has already lost his curls and his moustache. Soon, it is time for him to test the waters.
But not before he cons Rita's father into letting Rita go out with him. Luckily for us, Rita recognises Shekhar-sans-mouche and the couple set off on a ghoda-ghadi.
Shekhar goes back home in the evening and is thrilled to find his mother there. She is surprised to see his changed appearance. Shekhar explains how and why he joined the police force. His mother is distressed.
And a story that had been consigned to the ash heap of her memories is rekindled: Shekhar's father Shyamlal used to be a musician in China Town. Smugglers used his violin to smuggle opium, and when he found that out, Wong kidnapped Shekhar's twin Shankar to ensure Shyamlal's co-operation. But the honest man had already gone to the police, and when he goes in search of his missing son, he is killed by Wong.
Shekhar is convinced that Mike is his missing twin brother; it gives him further impetus to bring Wong and his gang to justice. His mother begs him to take her to Mike; despite her telling him the truth, Mike thinks this is another of the inspector's tricks to turn him, and brushes her off. She returns dejected.
Shekhar begs for clemency for his brother when they finally catch the gang. The Inspector promises he will try his best. News soon spreads that Mike has turned informer. Wong sends his henchman to the hospital where 'Mike' is supposedly recuperating to kill Mike; 'Mike' stages an escape with them and soon enough, he is back with Wong and Susie.
He also meets the other members of his gang - Philip, Usman, Ching Hwa, and Ching Lee (Shetty), the shoemaker. Shekhar falters, but pulls off the charade. Ching Lee is surprised but not suspicious. (Not yet.)

When he smokes opium for the first time (Wong offers it to him to compensate for the three weeks without), his opium-induced haze leads him to shake a leg with Suzie who is out there warbling. He joins in much to the surprise of Wong and others.
Shekhar is quick to take advantage of his position of trust - he enters Wong's office in the dead of the night - only to caught redhanded with the list of Wong's agents by Philip. 
Mike turns the tables by knocking Philip out and handing him over to Wong as a police informer. Ching Lee is not satisfied. Something is fishy, and it is not his dinner.
Shekhar persuades Wong to let him deal with Philip, and hands him and the list to Inspector Dutt. Pleased with his success, he phones Rita and sets up an assignment for the next day. But he has to meet John from Singapore - at the same time. Shekhar is insouciant. Having informed the police, he cons the gang into using Rita's car as a getaway car; then, having set the gang members off at a traffic light, continues to let Rita believe he is a smuggler.

They end up in a hotel run by a Tamilian-Bengali couple (Tun Tun / Rashid Khan), and Shekhar pretends they are married. 
Tun Tun is a delight (as usual); she quizzes Rita on how long they have been married; what her husband's name is; how many kids they have; why Rita doesn't wear sindoor in her maang... By the time Shekhar comes back, Rita is livid.  
The arrival of Inspector Dutt changes the circumstances somewhat and Rita is suitably apologetic. And it is time for Rang na chootega.

'Mike' is back in China Town and it is time for a new assignment. As usual, the opium is hidden in Mike's shoes, but...
Mike tries to laugh it off and limps away, but Ching Lee is not as stolid as he looks. Mike keeps the customer musically occupied while waiting for the police.
And the police, so unlike the usual filmi lot, come in time to catch Seth Dukhiram Deendayal Daulatiya redhanded. Mike and Usman escape and they make their way back to China Town. Ching Lee is now more than suspicious. The police has been more than persistently on their case since 'Mike' came back.
Shekhar's cover is blown, and he has no option but to silence Ching Lee. But he is still not safe.
What will Shekhar do now? Can he trust Suzie? Will she believe his story? And what about Wong? And neither Shekhar nor the police know who the kingpin is yet. And what will happen when the real Mike returns to China Town?
Deftly directed, China Town was like breath of fresh air. As a noir film, it did falter, but not so badly that one felt cheated. Ravi's songs were a delight: from the foot-tapping Baar baar dekho to the vigorous Yamma Yamma to the soft Humse na poocho hum kahan chale... 

And Shammi Kapoor was a revelation, investing both his roles with more than enough differences - voice modulation, dialogue delivery, mannerisms, behaviour. The loutish behaviour of Mike versus the cheery, lovable Shekhar; one's arrogance that set off the other's diffidence. Shakila had nothing much to do but look pretty and sing some songs, but Helen, beautiful, glorious Helen! more than made up for it. 

Idle question No.2: What is better than having Helen as the second lead in a film? Ans: Watching Helen have a happy ending for once. 

*Just in case anyone missed it the first time around:
Sigh. What more can one ask of a movie?


  1. I agree whole-heartedly! This may not be the best Hindi noir film from the 50s and 60s, but it's a must-watch anyway. One of my favourite Shammi Kapoor films. (Though I must admit I was very sceptical about watching it the first time around, because the only glimpses I'd had were of Baar-baar dekho, and I didn't think I'd be able to abide watching an entire film that had Shammi Kapoor going about in curls and moochh!) But he's gorgeous here, and so are Helen and Shakila - and the music. I must watch this again. :-)

  2. You are so right about Baar baar dekho - the first time I saw the song on Chitrahaar, my instinctive reaction was 'Ewwww!' LOL But Shammi soon redeemed himself! And then we had two of them! Sigh! And Helen... and the songs... And I really liked how the mother didn't hide the truth from her son when he asked about it. I feared she would, and the movie would stretch out another two reels. And the criminal did have to go to jail - so that was there too!

  3. Meant to leave a comment before, but went off to Dustedoff's blog - are both of you twins or something? You've reviewed China Town, she's reviewed Tumsa Nahin Dekha, she reviewed Rajkumar and you reviewed Junglee.... Anyway, you have given me my list of Shammi Kapoor movies to watch.

    This sounds like fun! I love suspense thrillers, and as you said, *two* Shammi Kapoors!

  4. :) It does seem like that, doesn't it? We have had this conversation before, Madhu and I, because it seems more than serendipitous that we end up reviewing the same films or think of the same ideas for posts. But then, we tend to like similar things, so maybe that is why.

    I 'm glad we are giving you ideas of what to watch. Shammi is really good in the movies you mentioned, even though Rajkumar is not one of my favourite Shammi Kapoor films. But the songs are wonderful, though. My favourite from that one is Is rang badalti duniya mein .

    I hope you enjoy your Shammi love-fest. :)

  5. I loved China Town; actually, a lot more than I liked Tumsa Nahin Dekha, for instance. The plot made more sense in the latter. And add Helen as a second lead who not only does not die, but also gets her man in the end, and you had me hooked. :)

  6. Yeah, two Shammi Kapoors, a beautiful Helen, and a slew of lovely songs - it more than made up for the horror of seeing Shammi Kapoor with curly hair and a moustache for part of the movie!


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