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11 October 2016

Majboor (1974)

Directed by: Ravi Tandon
Music: Laxmikant-Pyarelal
Lyrics: Anand Bakshi
Starring: Amitabh Bachchan, Parveen Babi, 
Iftekhar, Farida Jalal,  
Master Alankar, Satyen Kapoo,  
Madan Puri, MacMohan
Today is Amitabh Bachchan's 74th birthday. The 'Angry Young Man' of the 70s is celebrating yet another success one in which he is playing yet another sort of 'angry'. He's a senior statesman in the industry now, and has successfully reinvented himself (multiple times) to carve out a different kind of space for himself in an increasingly youth-oriented industry. Film-makers who were toddlers when he was at his peak, are itching to work with him. Scripts are written with him in mind, and he seems to be more relaxed now that the fate of the film does not rest on his slightly-stooped shoulders; so relaxed, in fact, that he doesn't care if he's constipated or bipolar. So, on his birthday, a review of one of his 'lesser-known' films.

We had a 'long weekend' in early September. While it was ostensibly to celebrate 'Labour Day', most of us here in the North East celebrate it as one last hurrahtypically, it signifies the end of summer, and the start of school. So while we had earmarked one day to clear our basement, which was in danger of being declared a hazardous zone, we spent two days in Connecticut with friends whom we had not seen for more than a year. Friend 1, who shares my love for all things Amitabh Bachchan, as well as masala, decided to entertain us with Bappi Lahiri hits. (His wife refers to that playlist as 'Songs to irritate my wife.') How and why Majboor came up, I don't quite recall, but we decided we would watch it after we got back home. So, after a day spent clearing out all the accumulated trash of the last 12 years from our basement, we crashed on the sofa, late evening, with a glass of wine in hand, we put it on.   

Majboor is one of those films that wasn't a 'super hit' when it was released. Therefore, it is not usually mentioned when Amitabh 'classics' are spoken of; however, it was not a flop either, and is quite an intriguing thriller.  I was pleasantly surprised to see how taut the script was, and how well the film had aged. (Even if you couldn't but smile at the bell bottoms and the psychedelic fashions that were poor Parveen Babi's lot.)

Ravi Khanna (Amitabh Bachchan) is the sole earning member of a family that comprises his widowed mother (Sulochana), his wheelchair-bound sister, Renu (Farida Jalal), and his younger brother, Billoo (Master Alankar). 
Neela (Parveen Babi), Ravi's girlfriend, is the only daughter of a wealthy businessman (Murad), and she's quite annoyed by the fact that he hadn't come to her house as promised. 'I hate him', she tells her father, who seems quite amused by the lovers' squabbles. Not so Neela, and Ravi has his work cut out to pacify her.  
The next morning, Ravi has a couple of unexpected visitors  – a CID inspector, Khurana (Iftekhar), and a policeman, Kulkarni (Jagdish Raj). It appears they have a few more questions to ask him regarding the disappearance of a man, Surinder Sinha (Rehman), who was last seen visiting the agency. Ravi is quite bewildered. He had given pretty much the same evidence six months ago. Why are they asking him now? But he answers as best he can the man had come in late one rainy night, just before closing; he had wanted to pick up the tickets that had been reserved for him; Ravi had noticed a large emerald ring on his finger as the latter had impatiently tapped the counter while Ravi looked for the ticket. 
Sinha had left immediately after, and Ravi, having put the place in order, had asked the office boy to lock up, had left the premises himself. It had been raining heavily, and there as not a single taxi to be seen. That was when Sinha, who was still outside in his car, had offered had him a lift till the cross-roads near his house. Ravi had later learnt from the police that Sinha had been kidnapped that night. That's all Ravi knows.  

Khurana has already read this evidence in the police files, but he needs to know something more. Something that no one had asked Ravi earlier that night, after Sinha left him at the crossroads, where did Ravi go? Sinha's corpse has just been recovered from the gutter. It's evident that he had been murdered the same night he was kidnapped. Which is why, after the initial ransom demand, no one had come forward to claim the ransom. Ravi is taken aback.
Oh, no, no, not at all, Khurana assures him, but Ravi must see why it's imperative that he recollect what he did that night? He must be having an alibi. Ravi tries hard to remember  he had gone to a friend's house to return a loan; then, to the medical store to buy his mother's medicines, then straight home. 

While Khurana is reassuring that it's all a routine matter, Ravi is not quite easy in his mind. He decides to seek legal advice from Rane (Shiv Kumar, according to IMDB), a friend. Rane is inclined to brush the matter off, but Ravi is not quite as sanguine. He's been so stressed all day, he nearly fainted on the way. 
He's just a simple man, with a family to take care of; he wants nothing to with the police and courts. If he had known that sitting in Sinha's car for two minutes would get him into so much trouble, he would have refused the lift! 

The next evening, Ravi is on his way back from work when he decides to buy a little aquarium for Renu.  Waiting for a taxi, he begins to experience the same intense pain that he had experienced the previous day. 
This time, he takes it seriously enough to go to a doctor. 

At Dr Shah's (Sajjan), Ravi explains that he had had minor headaches earlier, which he had ignored. But the pain has intensified these past few days, and the episodes last a couple of  minutes each time. The doctor sends him for an X-Ray, and asks him to come the next day. 

The news is not as good as Ravi would have liked: Dr Shah suggests an operation. Ravi is taken aback; an operation for a headache? Isn't that an overkill?
Dr Shah explains that Ravi has a tumour in his brain, one that will slowly grow and, if not removed, cause his death. When finally Ravi accepts the reality of his disease, he's aghast he has a mother, a crippled sister, responsibilities... he has no right to die! 

He's willing to do anything to live, even have himself operated upon, but the doctor has a few caveats: the operation could cure him completely, or it may not; but there's no guarantee that even if he survives the operation, he will not be blind, or even a paraplegic. Yet, the operation is his only hope, and he has to take a decision soon. Ravi is distraught; what sort of a choice is that? How can he make a decision when the choices are death, and a life worse than death? 

Ravi returns home, deep in thought. His family's affection and their implicit trust in his ability to take care of them only serve to increase his conflict.
The next morning, at work, his colleague gives him some very interesting news: Surinder Sinha's brother has offered a handsome reward for any information about his brother's murderer: Rs5 lakh. What a shame that Ravi hadn't seen anything that fateful night: why, Ravi could have been a rich  man. 

Ravi smiles at the thought of him having spotted the murderer, but soon, he begins to think: what if? What if he told the police that he was the murderer? He has nothing to lose he's going to die in six months anyway; but, his family will be provided for! It's a measure of Ravi's desperation that he can't think straight, that he doesn't think beyond the immediate present. 

Inspector Khurana talks to the murdered man's brother about the strange caller. Narender Sinha (Satyen Kapoo) is ready to pay out the reward; his brother's murderer has to be brought to justice. It's not that easy, warns Khurana. The money has to be paid to a lawyer whom the caller suggests; a sealed envelope will also be deposited with the same lawyer. Once the money is  paid, the caller will inform the police who the killer is, and provide the evidence as well. Narender is willing to go through with the proposal. 

Now that his proposal has been accepted, Ravi meticulously sets the stage, even leaving sealed instructions and a cover letter with Rane, who is rather bewildered at all the cloak-and-dagger stuff until Khurana calls to confirm that the money mentioned in the covering letter will be entrusted to him.
Acting upon the received information, the police recover the evidence, and it's sent to the lab for testing. Soon, very soon, Ravi is arrested for the murder of Surinder Sinha, and sentenced to death for the crime, much to the consternation of his family, and that of Neela and her father

While Neela and Ravi's mother try to make some sense of Ravi's confession, Ravi is in prison awaiting his execution. Another headache-episode lands him in the government hospital, where, serendipitously, it is Dr Shah who examines him. Knowing Ravi's medical history, Dr Shah wastes no time in getting him into the operation theatre. 
The operation is successful, but Dr Shah is shattered to learn that he had saved his patient on the operating table only to see him hang for murder. 

Months pass. As Ravi gets better, he begins to appreciate the trap he's dug for himself. Neela is upset why did he do something so suicidal?
Ravi is well aware that he has condemned himself to be hung for a murder he didn't commit. Couldn't he appeal, he asks Rane; he can tell the truth in court. After all, the sealed envelope he left anonymously in Rane's care will confirm his story? Rane's response tells Ravi that when he dug the hole he's in now, he dug it deep, and well. Rane is his friend as well as his  lawyer. Why would the court believe anything Rane says? The only way for Ravi to escape the consequences of his ill-advised actions is to find the real murderer. But who is the real murderer? Is there anyone who knows the truth of what happened that fateful night? What can Ravi do to find out? He is a prisoner, and soon, he will be shifted back to jail. Does this mean Ravi will go to the gallows? 

Reworked from Zigzag, Salim-Javed's script doesn't waste time on padding up the story with romance or comedy; what little is there, arises from the interactions between the characters, and serves to establish the relationships. 
The little family is very real the mother is affectionate, without being cloying; the sister and brother bicker like real siblings, but the tone is amicable. They tease each other, and comfort each other, much like a real-life family would do. 

I liked the director's attention to the little details: Ravi has had a brain tumour operated upon; why does he still have a full head of hair? Well, months have passed. (And perhaps AB's hair grows exceptionally fast.) Don't Rane and Neela need the permission of the court to visit a prisoner, even if he's in hospital? Yes, a throwaway scene explains that Neela has applied for the permission.  

It's the same with extraneous details: the way Billu hurries outside with his new cricket bat – he's seen playing outside in the garden while Ravi talks to his  mother; or the way Neela's father seems to take her relationship with Ravi in his stride: there's no huge exposition of the difference in their economic class; their surroundings explain that Ravi is squarely middle-class, while Neela is very wealthy. However, that's not important and so, it is not dwelled upon. How refreshing indeed to see Murad console his daughter by admitting that he doesn't quite know what to say: Ravi has confessed to the crime. There's no high melodrama, no declamation of izzat and society. Just a kind hand on his grieving daughter's shoulder. 
Similarly, when the mother goes to Narender to beg for clemency, she isn't asking that Ravi be left to get away scot-free. 'Mere bete ko phaansi lag jaane se aapko apne bhai nahin mil jaayenge', she pleads. (Hanging my son will not return your brother to you.) Couldn't Narender agree to life-imprisonment instead? Earlier, Neela makes a case against capital punishment, even while admitting that Ravi was wrong: Ravi ke jurm ko main theek nahin kehti; lekin phaansi ke saza dekar, hum insaaf nahin karte, badla lete hain. (I’m not condoning Ravi’s crime, but by sentencing him to the gallows, we’re not doling out justice; we’re taking revenge.) 

The police are not quite as idiotic as they usually are in Hindi films. There's some attempt to show police procedure the way Khurana gets Ravi's fingerprints [and Ravi knows], for instance; the pain-staking gathering of evidence and its testing and Iftekhar and Jagdish Raj play their parts very well. (They could probably play these parts in their sleep, but still...)  Neither is Ravi expected to be an expert on guns, unlike our usual heroes; he's never picked one up before, after all. One line explains the situation: Maine revolver pehli baar uthaaya hain. Lekin itna pata hain ki trigger dabaane se goli chalti hain. (I've picked a revolver up for the first time in my life, but this much I do know: press the trigger and a bullet will fly. 

Once the race against time is on, the  plot quickens until you are sitting at the edge of your seat. The 'action' is mercifully short,  the emphasis being on increasing the tension until you wonder what twists and turns the plot will take. Each twist seems to lead you into a bewildering maze until you're not quite sure just who the villain is, and who, the red herring. (There are quite a few.)
Veteran actor Pran, who appears well into the second half of the film, has an important role to play, and could rightfully boast of his Michael on his resume. He gets some of the best lines in the script, and gets to sing the delightful Daaru ki botal mein. The long climax, alternating between a wounded Michael holding the murderer at gunpoint while Ravi drives desperately to get a doctor back in time was one of the longest pre-climax shots in Hindi films. (Never mind that Charles Bronson takes over for Bachchan in a couple of crucial shots.) 

All in all, like Saudagar and The Great Gambler, Majboor is another one of Amitabh Bachchan’s films that deserve to be much better known than it is.

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