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23 August 2014

Alibaba aur 40 Chor (1980)

Directed by: Umesh Mehra, Latif Faiziyev
Music: RD Burman
Starring: Dharmendra, Hema Malini, Zeenat Aman, 
Prem Chopra, Madan Puri, Sofiko Chiaureli, Rolan Bykov
Now, I love the Arabian Nights tales. I have often wondered what Princess Scheherazade thought of when she had to make up stories for 1001 nights. I mean, was King Shahryar really worth it? (Frankly, if you ask me, nope!) But the stories she is said to have narrated are definitely worth reading. Full of virtuous damsels and handsome heroes, evil villains, genies and djinns and houris - (hey, many a wondrous hour has passed reading these tales). With all this and more, it is no wonder that Hindi films fell on the tales with great eagerness. Of course, they gave it the Hindi film treatment. Because what is a Hindi film if we cannot add in a few songs? And change the script to include whatever they felt was missing? (Of course there was! Princess Scheherazade didn't know half the things that are important to audiences here. )

And so, one day, when I couldn't sleep, and was flipping through YouTube for some films that were legal to watch, I came across Alibaba aur 40 Chor (which story is actually not a part of the original tales). For some inexplicable reason, I missed this film when it was released. I cannot think why. That was the time that I watched every film I could, being rather indiscriminate in my tastes. The only reason I can think of is that, being 1980, an Amitabh Bachchan film must have released on the same Friday. Never mind. Three decades later, here I am, watching - and enjoying - a film that is totally paisa vasool. I had so much fun watching it that, even though I do not usually review films from the 80s (the thought makes me shudder), I had to make an exception. Perhaps the fact that my nine-year-old watched it with me, and had some pithy remarks to make also added to the tone of general hilarity.

First of all, you have to keep in mind, that this tale bears only a faint resemblance to that of poor Princess Scheherazade. I mean, the skeleton is the same, but the makers padded it with all that they found missing - the long suffering maa,  the missing baap, etc. Secondly, there are a whole lot of secondary characters who put in an appearance for no particular reason. Thirdly, since this is an Indo-Russian co-production ('the first', I remember the posters proudly proclaiming - I do not not whether that is true or not), there are a whole host of Russian actors, so one cannot even predict who is bad and who is good the way we can with our own homegrown variety of actors. But I must say one thing - whoever wrote the script would win Princess Scheherazade's heart - he's put in enough twists to make a contortion artist groan in pain. Just think, with this sort of imagination, she wouldn't have needed to think up 1001 stories to last her. This one tale would have kept her going for atleast a month. 

So if you are all up to the ride through a fantastical (pun intended) journey, then join me on the magic carpet.

The story, such as it is, is set somewhere in the fictional city of Gulabad (City of flowers), in the kingdom of Bahaaristan (Land of Spring). The area is being terrorised by a dacoit named Abu Hassan (Rolan Bykov), and his gang of thieves (the titular 40 chor). Caravans, on their way to the city, find their goods looted and the men killed. One day, another caravan is on its way to Gulabad. Travelling along with the caravan, for safety's sake, is the beautiful Fatima (Zeenat Aman) and her doting father (Madan Puri). 
 It turns out that the father has a new and dangerous invention - barood. [A (indignantly): But they can't have had gunpowder at the time this story was written! I shush him.] Well, they did, and he's soon called on to prove it. 

The caravan is attacked by Abu Hassan and his gang, and Madan Puri gets his young apprentice to set off the charge. The thieves, who had never seen anything like it in their lives [A (in an I-told-you-so voice): Well, they couldn't have seen it because it wasn't there!], run helter-skelter. We can't fight against the devil fire (shaitaani aag), they tell their leader. The leader regroups them at a safe distance, and takes a quick look at the scene below. He spots the young lad who's setting off the gunpowder, and decides that taking him out of the game would alter the stakes. So he pulls out his secret weapon - a boomerang! [Many 'what the-', 'why the-' escape my lips. A comes along to see what is happening. Eyes grow round, voice grows shrill with excitement. Why does he have a boomerang? He's not in Australia! Never you mind, I tell him, as I try to focus on the screen. A is hopping up and down beside me.

Long story short, the boomerang kills the lad setting off the gun powder. (Madan Puri only knew how to make it, he doesn't seem to know how to use it.) So the thieves have the upper hand again, and they massacre everyone they find. Except for the inventor. The king of thieves has use for him. He has discovered, via the beautiful and desperate daughter that her father is the only man on earth who knows the secret of the destructive powder. 
So off they go, inventor and daughter in tow, while the head of the caravan, who is the only one who escaped the massacre by the simple expedient of sticking a bloody arrow into the crook of his arm and pretending to be dead, hurries to the Qazi to demand restitution. The ruler of the city, Qazi Nooruddin, is helpless, as the thieves seem to disappear into thin air once they have looted the hapless caravanners. Nobody knows that the reason no one can find the thieves is because their hideout is hidden by a magic rock wall behind a waterfall. Only someone who knows the magic words can open the wall. 

Around this time, we are introduced to Ali (Dharmendra), a feckless youth [Well, okay, suspend disbelief!] He is the bane of his hardworking, avaricious brother, Qasim, and the apple of his mother's (Sofia Chiraueli) eye. 
His mother, though she contrives to protect him from his elder brother's wrath, admonishes him - why doesn't he obey his brother? He takes the place of their father, after all. Ali is silent. He has never seen his father. It turns out that their father, Yousef, had gone to faroff lands to trade goods. It's been 14 long years, and he hasn't come back. [A (eyes wide in surprise): Alibaba doesn't look that young to me! I give him a quick lesson in Hindi film years.] But unbeknownst to them, Yousef is on his way back. The head of the caravan that was massacred earlier has put together another caravan and is coming back to trade.
Meanwhile, back in the hideout, Fatima has been forced by her captors to go to the souk and buy the necessary ingredients so her father can make gunpowder for them. Both father and daughter are threatened with harm to the other, if they do not obey. Unwillingly, Fatima makes her way into the bazaars of Gulabad. She chances upon Qasim's shop, and buys a leather bag from him. While she is there, Ali comes there to meet his brother - he is overjoyed. Their father is finally coming home. There is a letter from him. Fatima, having learnt all that she needed, returns to the hideout. 
With gunpowder in his possession, Abu Hassan and his gang hold all the aces. Their attack on the next caravan that is resting on the outskirts of the city is merciless. [A (excitedly): I know, I know, this must be the caravan that Alibaba's father is coming with; does he die? Does he die? I must say the kid is perspicacious. And has a violent streak.] They also blow up the dam, annihilating the caravan in the resultant flood; the river that runs through Gulabad dries up. Once again, everyone is killed, except Yousef, who is merely left for dead. But a robber removes his signet ring, an heirloom that is partner to the pendant around Ali's neck. [You can see where this is going, can't you?]
Let's leave the hapless Yousef there for a moment [He's only floating away down the river on a raft, people!] and see what is happening to Fatima. The thieves are celebrating their success, and the loot they have carried away. Liquor is flowing in lavish quantities, and of course, Fatima is forced to dance, succumbing to their threats against her father. As they surround her lasciviously, they also tear her robes away.
Their merriment and catcalls, as well as Fatima's song, wakes the resident djinn of the cave. She hastens to find out who is making the racket, I suppose, and is aghast to see Fatima dancing amongst the gang of thieves. [A (taking a peek when he hears the music): Disco floor? "How on earth did they have that when electricity hadn't even been invented?" Good question. It is rather hilarious, and if I ever meet Umesh Mehra, I shall know what to ask him. But A has turned his attention to the song, and to my chagrin, will search for that song on YouTube and play it continuously the next four days.]
Hurrying back to the leader, the djinn admonishes Abu Hassan - hasn't she warned him that bringing a woman into the cave would lead to his destruction? (She also talks in a voice that is suspiciously like that of Priya Rajvansh, with about the same emotions - or lack thereof.) Abu Hassan promptly proceeds to threaten Fatima with death if she tries to 'seduce' his gang ever again. She is thrown back into the underground cave, where her father, aghast at her plight, gives her a note [written in blood, forsooth] and asks her to read it only when she is away from the cave the next time. 
Meanwhile, the flood waters have carried Yousef to Baharistan, the capital city. He is spotted by the king of the realm (Pinchoo Kapoor) and his commander-in-chief, Shamsher (Prem Chopra). The kindly king gets his men to carry the nearly-dead man back to the palace, much against Shamsher's wishes. (A: Amma, he is a bad man. I told you he was perspicacious. Or well-versed in Hindi films. Or both.) He also sends a message through Yousef's homing pigeons that Yousef is alive and well.  (Considering Yousef has been away for more than 14 years, and domestic pigeons usually only live for 15 years, I wonder how the pigeons know the way home. Well, never mind.) But he is weak, and the king commands a family member to come take him home. Ali and his mother receive the news with great elation. They had been mourning Yousef's death in the caravan attack. The mother asks Qasim to escort his father back, but the latter demurs. Who will look after the shop? [A (looking up from his reading): What a rude answer, amma. Why can't he bring his poor father back? And where would the story be then, I query rhetorically.]
And so, of course, Ali offers to go. But how will he know his father? He doesn't remember him. Oh, well, that's easy, says ma. You will recognise him by the ring on his finger. It is the same as the ring you wear around your neck as a pendant. [Ah-ha!] And so Ali sets off post-haste.  

Back at the hideout, Fatima is being sent out to buy supplies again. If she doesn't return in six days, she is warned, her father will be blown up with his own gunpowder. (Ouch! Talk about being hoist with his own petard!) The hapless Fatima leaves and as soon as she is out of sight of her captors, reads her father's note. 
Meanwhile, back in headquarters (a.k.a. Bahaaristan), Yousef has become very friendly with the king. But he is restless. There has been no news from Gulabad. He would like to return home. The king stops him - stay for a few days. If no one comes, he will personally escort Yousef home. Yousef agrees, and they continue their game of chess when a soldier totters in with an arrow stuck picturesquely into his chest. 'Revolt', he manages to shout before keeling over and falling dead. Everyone present is thrown into a frenzy, and the king calls for his commander-in-chief. Only to rather belatedly realise that the revolt is being headed by the very same man. (My son is feeling rather vindicated if the satisfied smile on his face is any indication.)
In the ensuing battle, Yousef manages to escape unscathed, but the king is dispatched rather summarily. Shamsher's eyes are not only on the kingdom and the throne, but also on the young and nubile (erm, please suspend disbelief) princess, Marjina (Hema Malini). She, however, detests him, and one of the reasons the poor king was killed was because he refused to betroth his daughter to Shamsher against her wishes. 

Marjina makes a run for the ramparts, and in trying to avoide the pursuing rebel soldiers, ends up falling over the walls. Right into the strong arms of, well, who else? (Talk about 'falling' in love - this movie takes that rather literally!)
Ali, for all his shiftless ways, is rather quick to realise that they need to get away. But they are pursued by the rebels, and he quickly sends the princess on her way (probably knowing that having her there will only hinder his movements). After he manages to rout the cohort (What? you thought he wouldn't?), he looks for her, only to realise that she is missing. Unlike most heroes, he just brushes off her absence, and proceeds to the palace to meet the king, and bring back his father. 
It is only after he meets Shamsher does he realise that the king who sent the letter is not the same as the king in front of him. To add to his woes, Shamsher, writhing under the loss of Marjina, informs him that Yousef is dead.

Meanwhile, Yousef, very much alive, has saved Marjina. [A (appreciatively): That's very sensible of him!] So when a grieving Ali makes his way through the bazaar, he runs into Marjina again. Though burqa-clad, he recognises her by her footwear, and the missing payal. (One paayal had fallen into his hands when she slipped down the ramparts. And of course, he probably thought, even if that dialogue wasn't written yet - Tere paanv dekhe. Bahut haseen hai.) He quickly follows her to Yousef's hideout where Yousef's apprehensions about him are allayed by Marjina. But when Ali leaves to get horses for the three of them to escape, Shamsher's soldiers attack them, and leaving Yousef wounded, take Marjina to Shamsher. 
Shamsher's intentions are good, however. He lays his heart at her feet, only to be rebuffed. So he decides that if she doesn't want to be his queen, then she can darn well be the court's nautch girl. But Ali is there, to gallop to the rescue like all good knights. (Not before the only halfway decent song in the film - Jaadugar jaadu kar jaayega.)
At the end of the song, Ali leaves with Marjina, and poor Shamsher is left with a cobra. Of course, the poor devil (Shamsher, not the cobra) comes to a bad end. Along with Yousef, Ali and Marjina make their way out of the city. (Of course, Ali and Yousef haven't introduced themselves to each other all this while. In fact, even Marjina doesn't know Ali's name yet.) They hide away in another caravan on its way to Gulabad.

While all this happening in the capital, what about Qasim? He has run into Fatima in the bazaar, on her way to buy the gunpowder supplies. An angry Qasim accosts her - Ali and he had seen the bag he sold her on her first visit at the site of the ill-fated caravan in which their father had travelled. She tells him her sad story, and that her father had died so she could escape. Qasim, on the other hand, has his avaricious tendencies coming to the fore - Fatima knows the thieves' hideout. He has heard that there is immense wealth stored away. He will not hand her to the Qazi if she will take him to the cave.
Fatima agrees. All she wants is revenge. 

Meanwhile, back where the caravan is resting, Marjina becomes the target of the lecherous caravan leader. She rebuffs him then, but he captures her, and ties Ali up. Marjina is quite resourceful, and manages to free herself and Ali with Yousef's help. But this caravan is also ill-fated - Abu Hassan and his gang attack again, and in the mêlée, Yousef is fatally wounded. And the caravan head manages to flee with Marjina. 

Barely minutes before the attack, Yousef had recognised his younger son by the ring around his neck. Now, Ali has the sad task of taking his father home for one last reunion before he dies. 
Yousef's dying words are a command to his son to extract revenge for his death from Abu Hassan, and to rebuild the dam so no one has to buy water anymore. He also requests Ali to save Marjina. (He doesn't demand a lot, does he?)

Days pass and Ali is no closer to finding out where Marjina is. But one day, luck turns. Marjina's captor, the lecherous head of the caravan, is auctioning her off as a slave. A hapless Marjina cries out to a distant Ali for help (in song, of course). 
Ali, wandering around with Hamid, his friend, hears her voice, and offers to buy her off the merchant for more than the amount that the merchant is offering. He then comes back to his house to get the money, only to find Qasim has other ideas - he will give Ali the money  provided the latter forfeits all claim to his inheritance. Much to his mother's displeasure, Ali signs the agreement. 

Now that Ali has freed Marjina, it is time for him to avenge his father and build the dam. But where is he going to get the money? One day, while out cutting wood, he spies the bandits' entering their hideout. He overhears the secret phrase that opens the cave, enters it, and discovers a veritable treasure trove - huge jars of gold coins, expensive vases, urns and furnishings, jewellery and precious stones, even a djinn who exhorts him to take everything. But Ali, good and noble that he is, only takes as much as he needs to build the dam.
That night, a veiled Marjina arrives at Qasim's house to return the money that Ali borrowed from him. Qasim is curious - where did the feckless Ali earn so much money so quickly? When Marjina mentions needing to buy a weighing scale, the canny Qasim lends her his own - only he makes sure to rub some melted tar under the scales. When the scales are returned, his curiosity rises to fever pitch.

Soon, he is tearing up the agreement that Ali signed, and promising lifelong fealty to his brother, if only Ali would tell him where he got the money to build the dam. Armed with the knowledge of the phrase to open and close the cave, and unheeding of Ali's warnings, Qasim makes his way to the hideout. 

What happens next? Does Qasim achieve his quest for wealth? Does Marjina avenge her father? Does Ali avenge his father? Or even realise who Abu Hassan, whom he is hunting, really is? Several indigenous twists and turns (and coincidences) follow the traditional story of Alibaba and the forty thieves. So we have Marjina and Fatima saving each other, the cross on Ali's door being replicated across the village, the pesky missing ring turning up in the most expected of places, the forty thieves hiding in the jars, Ali discovering their presence and killing them one by one - not quietly, as in the original (Besides, Ali had nothing to do with that in the original story, either. It was clever Fatima who saves Ali's hide every now and again.) and the great denouement. 

It does entertain, and if you do not like Arabic costumes, don't worry. The costume designers for the film seem to have run amuck, so the costumes range from Indian (from an unspecified period), to Arab, to Mongol, to lord-knows-what. It has tacky, filmi-luxurious caves with disco lights, and will-o'-the-wisp djinns who die when their master is wounded, a beautiful Hema Malini who has nothing much to do but look beautiful and helpless and wait to be rescued, a lovely kick-ass Zeenat Aman who gets to do something, even if they took her character's brains and wit and handed it over to Ali in the end, and Dharmendra, for all that he is pushing his 40s still managed to hold interest. Since the main villain was Abu Hassan, it left Prem Chopra's Shamsher to be the comic villain, and he did do a good job. One felt quite sorry for the chap at the end.

The script doesn't give you much time to think, which is a good thing since trying to find logic in the story is bound to give you a headache. The Soviet actors were obviously talking in Russian, and it made for some disconcerting moments because the lip-sync was completely off, but I have a sense that Russian viewers of this epic film must have had the same complaint about the Indian cast, and it must have been worse for them because all the main parts were headlined by the Indian cast.

But hey, I had a fine time; my son enjoyed the film despite all his objections, and was quite upset that all the fathers in the film seem to be killed off. So if you have a couple of hours to  kill, and you are in a mood where you do not want to think - at all - give this a try. A glass (or two) of wine might also help.


  1. I think I will watch this movie the next time I have to spend a night or two in the hospital! Of course, I will leave my disbelieving self at home, and watch. Thanks to you and A, i can expect a wild, wacky movie, with lurid costumes and tons of characters and myriad twists. Of course, I will have your review at hand and if any of the nurses find me guffawing at intervals, they will think I am releasing my stress and tension, or worse, that the hospital odors have made me lose my mind. Thanks, for a great review and hilarious comments!

  2. By the way, just for your info, I watched Janwar on Wednesday night at the hospital, and it made sleeping on the hard couch a little bearable, thanks to Shammi and some decent songs.

  3. Oh my gosh, I love this one :) And I'm amused by your Amitabh same-weekend release theory...
    I think I liked the songs more than you, but I concede that they are, indeed trashy. [Trashy, but kinda fun if you're in the mood for knife dances, murder dances, magic dances, disco cave dances, and women dancing on tables in seedy taverns with* cringe* hanging meat everywhere...fake arguments about who the most beautiful women in the shehr is, etc.]

    Dharmendra and Hema are a nice draw for this film, since they're really best in action/deception plots with a bit of glamour involved. But Zeenat is probably my favorite part of the film--she just looks the most badass and has the most interesting (if a little unfair) arc.

    The nice thing about the Soviet influence is really inclusion of horse stuntwork, explosives, and some of the special effects (like the open sesame cave). The latter was far more in the Soviet's oeuvre ... but Bollywood really knew how to do song sequences. Pretty sweet deal, if you can live with the dubbing. Btw: This isn't the only Indo-Soviet production [silly poster makers...]--there was also Pardesi/Journey Beyond Three Seas with Padmini in 1957.

  4. No, seriously, this film would have been right up my alley when I was a pre-teen. :) But an Amitabh film trumped all others, so I must have gone off to see one.

    Good to know that publicity stills believed in Mark Twain's dictum of never letting facts get in the way of a good story. I suppose they felt that no one who knew about the 1957 film would really care to watch this one, so they could rely on being rather safe in that pronouncement.

    Yes, the cave opening and closing were rather jazzy, I thought. The rest of it was Hindi film kitsch. But they did get that djinn to look rather opaque. It was a fun ride. So I have no complaints.

  5. I guess there is no chance of listening to poetry of any kind in Alibaba aur 40 chor!

  6. Ha! Fat chance. :) Ali is definitely not the poetry-quoting sensitive new-age kind of hero. He is testesterone-driven, all-male. One doesn't even see him as having very many brain cells.

  7. Thanks for your review, Anu! I was watching this movie recently, and I had one question - how did they find palm trees in Kashmir for the tennis match? I know, I know, I am a nit picky person! But it was lovely to watch Shammi in action and listen to the songs!

  8. Well, if they can put Shammi in college, I don't see why they can't put palm trees in Kashmir. Silly Lalitha. :)

  9. Hehe! I loved your review, Anu, especially all those brilliant asides. :-D I remember watching this film years ago (not when it was released, but sometime in the 90s, I think, when it was shown on Doordarshan). All I remember was that I was pretty disappointed that Zeenat Aman's gorgeous and feisty character didn't end up with a love interest. Back then, I'd thought that was a real waste of her. But still, total paisa vasool movie, even if it defies all logic.

    P.S. Gunpowder could have been invented by then - it dates back to the 9th century (and Islam to the 7th), so not totally impossible. Only, I don't see Fatima's dad as Chinese, so that's a hitch.

    P.P.S. So you and Bollyviewer decided to do an Arabian Nights double bill? You should've given me a shout-out too: would've reviewed the Shakila-Mahipal Ali Baba Chaalees Chor. :-D

  10. All I remember was that I was pretty disappointed that Zeenat Aman's
    gorgeous and feisty character didn't end up with a love interest.

    I know! Thank heavens they didn't have her falling in love with Ali. (Of course, they did have her dying to save him, but as you say, what a waste!)

    A's point was that the Arabs didn't have gunpowder then. He knows his geography. (It will be interesting to trace the history of gunpowder and see just when it travelled outside China. I should give it to him as a research project.)

    So you and Bollyviewer decided to do an Arabian Nights double bill?

    We didn't actually! I was re-reading my final draft when her post update popped up on my sidebar. You could have knocked me over with a feather. We actually posted within two hours of each other. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. We were the original masala sisters. :)

    You should've given me a shout-out too
    Now you have given me an idea. Perhaps some time we three should think about doing a linked feature - same genre, or different films of the same director, or a common theme or something like that.

  11. Ah, according to Wikipedia, gunpowder landed in the Arab world sometime between the mid and late 13th century. No worries, only a century later. *grin* What is time, after all, in a Hindi fillum?

  12. So in summary from the review I gather

    Ali is a tubelight but a fighter and damn good builder
    Shamsher is a tubelight and a true lover who appreciates cabaret.
    The cobra is a tubelight but a good biter
    Fatima is a tubelight and also a hairy quadruped with long ears who can kick
    Youssef is a tubelight and needed a good GPS .
    Abu Hassan is a tubelight and does not heed a gin's tonic for good living.
    Marjina is a tubelight in search of a good choke.
    The King is a tubelight and playing chess is injurious to health.

    The homing pigeon is not a tubelight as it returned home in its 15th year. Assuming it was born and left home at six months was away for 14 years and had 6 months more to live , it got home. This is A BIRD. No wonder the French gave Cher Ami the Croix de guerre.

    Did I miss anybody?

  13. All of this is to tell A that electricity was there in those days with all these tubelights floating around.

  14. I love this film - confused costumes, twisted tales and all. And hey, what is a fillum that does not exercise your suspension-of-disbelief muscles? Just went back to check on my review of this film and it is amazing how A, you, and I noted so many of the same things. We do share the same DNA - there isn't even any need for a DNA analysis to prove it! :-)

  15. Yes please! Lets do a common themed post. How about re-unions-of-long-lost-sibings masala?

  16. Oh, yes! That would be fun! And appropriate, too, considering how the three of us connect. ;-) Let me know when you'd like to publish your posts - I need at least 10 days to find a movie to watch, watch it, and review, so...

  17. I see. And yes, what is time in Hindi films? Or the difference between an Arab and a Chinese?

  18. And so it be writ. :) Two questions - is reunion of lost siblings the theme? We're all agreed on that? But I think we have to stick to the really masala plots of that theme to make it really worthwhile. Half the fun for me is in the asides. :) What say you all?

    Once we agree on the basic conditions, shall we pick sometime in September to give us enough time? Dustedoff, since it was your comment that spared off this brainwave, why don't you pick a date for us to unveil our posts?

  19. Yup. Same difference, as S likes to say. :)

  20. I disagree , I have never seen an Arab wok in Hindi films. They either stand still or get into plush cars or ride. On the other hand our kitchens always have Chinese.....
    We are very observant of these differences, if you please moddom.

  21. You enjoyed it? Oh well, I saw it a long time back on television, as far as I can remember i did not like it but then it could be because I am not much of a Zeenat Aman and Hema Malini fan. But then seeing that your son enjoyed it too, maybe I should give it a second look.

  22. Great idea. I need tons of time, too. And yes, re-union should be our theme. Only movie reviews or anything re-union themed?

  23. . Same difference, as S likes to say. :)

  24. Movie reviews, I think. Ones that give us enough meat for our asides. :) Sent you an email about the time.

  25. Yes, I did, Shilpi. It was great fun, and it was just what the doctor ordered to destress. You can't help laughing through this film.


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