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14 March 2021

Chor Bazar (1954)

Directed by PN Arora
Music: Sardar Malik
Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni
Starring: Shammi Kapoor, Om Prakash,
Sumitra Devi, Chitra,
Kammo, Ram Avtar,
Munshi Munakka,
Wazir Mohammed Khan

Watching a film with partner-in-crime Shalini makes even a bad film palatable because we have so much fun discussing how bad it is and how much worse it can get. And watching a 'fun film' just doubles the fun. So, when she suggested we watch Chor Bazaar, one of Shammi Kapoor's early films, I was more than enthusiastic. I needed some light relief, and we had been ignoring Shammi for quite a long time. It was more than time to remedy the neglect.

In a chor bazaar (quite literally, a market of thieves), we are introduced to Yusuf (Om Prakash), more popularly known as ‘Ustaad’.

(Me: Om Prakash was born old, wasn’t he?
Shalini (simultaneously): “It’s so nice to see Om Prakash middle-aged instead of old as usual.”
After pondering a bit, I agreed that he was merely middle-aged.)

Meanwhile, on screen, Ustaad is boasting about his prowess as a thief to a group of acolytes. One of them inadvertently leads the Kotwal and his cohort to Yusuf, who is summarily carted away despite his vociferous protests. He’s taken to a powerful nobleman, Amir Abukaan (Munshi Munakka) who needs Yusuf’s services for a secret mission – so secret and so dangerous, that he offers Yusuf 5,000 dinars in advance, with an equal amount after the job is done.

It turns out that the ‘secret mission’ is for Yusuf to murder Prince Murad, the heir to the throne of Sherqand. (Shalini and I are thrilled to bits – we love made-up lands, but we wonder why a thief should be sent on this mission – theft and murder seem to be completely different occupations.)

As Yusuf awaits nightfall to carry out his orders, the Amir hurries away to meet the regent, Mustafa (WM Khan) to inform him that plans had been set in motion. From the ensuing conversation, we learn that Mustafa’s brother, Arsalan, the ruler of Sherqand had died six months earlier, leaving behind baby Murad. Mustafa was appointed the regent until Murad comes of age. And Mustafa is tired of playing caretaker.

If Murad dies, then his grieving uncle can rule the kingdom forever. And he certainly won’t forget Amir Abukaan – the latter will be appointed Wazir. Also, since it’s dangerous to leave Yusuf alive, he should be dispatched immediately the deed is done.

Alas, for the conspirators. Yusuf, having entered the palace at night, finds that he cannot commit murder after all.

Being smart enough to realise that the Amir will demand proof of the baby’s death, Yusuf cuts himself with his dagger and stains the bedclothes with his blood. Then, he picks up the baby and hurries back home. Abukaan, who has been watching from hiding, sees the bundle in Yusuf’s arms, and then hurries into the palace, where the sight of the blood-stained blanket is proof enough for him to report the success of their plot to the regent. 

(Shalini and I wonder where the queen is amidst all this brouhaha. Wouldn’t she wonder where her child is?)

Meanwhile, Yusuf has reached home but is still disturbed. As he wonders whether he should have killed the baby after all, his elder daughter Shakila remonstrates with him. Just look at him, she says, how can you even think of killing such a beautiful baby!

(My initial reaction to the child is that the baby looked anything but, but eh… beauty being subjective, I’m sure someone somewhere will find him cute.) Moreover, she points out that Murad looks uncannily similar to her younger sister, Jamila. (They look nothing alike, but I suppose we might as well suspend disbelief.
Yusuf is struck by the similarity as well, so he decides to pretend Murad is his son. He renames the baby ‘Salim’, which Shakila promptly shortens to ‘Sheemu’. (Ugh!) But there’s a problem – Murad has a tattoo on his upper arm – the crest of the Sherqand royal family. 

Shakila, who seems to be rather bright suggests that Jamila's armlet can cover up the tattoo. Under cover of darkness, Yusuf, with his daughters and Sheemu in tow, join a caravan and leave Sherqand.

18 years pass. And Yusuf, who seems to have been planning ahead and has been squirrelling money away to ensure that Sheemu can take his rightful place as the ruler of Sherqand, decides the time is ripe for the family to return to the country. The segue into the adult Murad/Sheemu (Shammi Kapoor) is seamless, and b) unlike most Hindi films we have seen, Sheemu is actually aware of his lineage, even though he calls Yusuf ‘abba’.

(Both Shalini and I are struck dumb at the sight of a very young, very handsome Shammi to notice this at first.)

But Sheemu, rightful heir to the throne though he may be, has been brought up to be a very skilful thief. And right now, he’s making his way through an underwater passage into the royal treasury – Yusuf insisting that you need money to build an army, and an army to regain a kingdom. Wise man.

Sheemu swims under the grille that blocks the entrance from the stream, and then, creates a diversion by throwing a few stones at the flock of ducks who act as alarms for the sentries. But the entrance to the treasury is barred and Sheemu turns to leave. Alas, he’s spotted by the guards and chased.

Taking a circuitous route as he strives to throw the guards off, Sheemu finds himself looking into the zenana, the private chambers of Princess Gulnar (Sumitra Devi), who’s preening herself before the mirror. Her maids vie with one another to praise her.

(Shalini: They’re laying it on rather thick, aren’t they? Me: They are probably paid to do that. Shalini (grinning): Paid by the compliment?) But the princess seems to agree with her handmaidens, and so does a besotted Sheemu.

When he returns home, Sheemu informs Yusuf of the problem – the bars are so close that he may be just able to push his head through, but there’s no way he can enter. They will have to think of something else. More importantly, is there any rule that prohibits him from marrying his cousin? Yusuf says no but reminds Sheemu that the princess is the daughter of the man who tried to kill him. 

Jamila (Kammo), Yusuf’s younger daughter, is also bothered by Sheenu’s love for Gulnar. Because she’s attracted to him, even though they have been brought up together. And Sheenu flirts outrageously with her, even though he’s smitten by Gulnar. (Shalini and I are struck by the fact that there’s no brother-sister sentiment.)

But Gulnar is already betrothed to Shahzada Haider (Wasti) of Marrakesh. The prince has come to meet his betrothed, bearing with him a family heirloom – a pearl as large as a robin’s egg, that has traditionally been given to the brides of Marrakesh rulers. The queens, in turn, pass it on to their first-born sons. 

(Me: Which prince would walk into a zenana without being announced? Which princess would meet a strange man, even if he's her betrothed, without her veil? Shalini is too busy remarking that Gulnar looks like a cow to answer my questions.) Gulnar is busy simpering at the Shahzaada, and when he leaves, retires to her apartments for the night – leaving the pearl in its box by her bedside.

Which is a perfect invitation for Cheeku (Chitra), who squeezes her way through the grill and makes off with the pearl. The princess, waking up, raises the alarm and the kotwal (Ram Avatar) and his men are sent racing through the night after the thief. Hearing the news, Shahzada Haider flies into a rage. It’s a family heirloom, it’s matchless… if, by the new moon, the pearl hasn’t been found, he will return with his army and destroy Sherqand. 

A worried King Mustafa summons Yusuf (Me: Didn't he want Yusuf to be killed at one point?) and offers a reward of 5000 dinars for the pearl, and an equal amount for the thief. But if Yusuf does not find the pearl before the new moon, he will forfeit his life. 

A worried Yusuf hurries home. Sheemu seems more interested in whether his father had seen Princess Gulnar or not, but he does has a great idea to catch the thief (seems rather silly, but eh). They suspend a bag over a stream and announce that anyone who wants to steal a ‘valuable diamond’ can have a try. Sure enough, Cheeku makes an attempt, and is promptly pushed into the water by Sheemu – but he has to call Shakila and Jamila to help him subdue the wildcat in his arms.

Yusuf retrieves the pearl from Cheeku, who’s aghast that Sheemu is going to return it to Gulnar. Meanwhile, Sheemu has an idea – Cheeku is slim and lithe; she may be able to squeeze through the grills and break into the treasury. Perhaps she could assist them?

Cheeku, wild and impetuous (I found her quite annoying myself), has taken quite a shine to Sheemu. (Shalini: That’s perfectly understandable. I concur.)But when she returns having changed out of her wet clothes into some old ones of Jamila’s, she informs Yusuf that  Jamila had initially given her good clothes to wear but had taken them back when Cheeku refused to take a bath. Why, I took a bath six months ago, she tells Yusuf, proudly.

She agrees to help Sheemu break into the treasury, but street smart that she is, demands her pound of flesh – clothes, jewellery, make up – practically the entire marketplace. She also wants Sheemu – she’s quite open about her liking for him (and quite caustic about Gulnar).

Meanwhile, Gulnar, having met Sheemu when he comes to return the pearl and is refused the reward by the Wazir, has decided that he’s a far better match than her bad-tempered, middle-aged fiancé. (We agree. There’s no contest at all.)

So… there’s Sheemu with Jamila, Cheeku and Gulnar, all in love with him. Who will he choose? How will he reclaim his throne? What will happen to the evil uncle?

An 'adaptation' of The Prince Who Was a Thief (1951) starring Tony Curtis, Chor Bazaar took the main plot element and added the usual soupçon of Hindi film masala. But it was unusual in the way it treated its characters as adults capable of handling truths. There’s no keeping secrets in that silly way many films of the time did. It also tied up loose ends quite satisfactorily – for instance, when a soldier points out that a tattoo can be replicated and need not prove that Sheemu is Shahzada Murad, there’s another ‘proof’ that is offered – and accepted. There are no unnecessary characters or side plots to muddle up the narrative. Nor, strangely enough, any romantic duets – not even a dream sequence. 

The relationship between Yusuf and Sheemu was also very well-etched. When Yusuf knows that Sheemu is on his way to reclaiming his throne, he is both happy and sad – Sheemu will now be the ruler. Sheemu gently points out that whoever he becomes or wherever he goes, he will always remain his abba’s ‘Sheemu’. 

Then, Cheeku – it was a very unusual character, feisty and strong-willed. She knows what she wants and goes after it. When she makes choices, she does so being fully aware of what it will mean for her. We wish it had been played by a better actress who could have portrayed the nuances of this character instead of being merely annoying. Shalini suggested Madhubala or Meena Kumari as options; I agreed, though Madhubala may not have fit the physical requirements for the role, but Meena Kumari could have. It would been outstanding to have a young Meena paired with Shammi.

Princess Gulnar's character was a mess  – initially, she seemed quite happy to be marrying Shehzada Haider. Later, she tells Sheemu that she is only marrying him for the sake of the kingdom. Where she has the time to fall in love with Sheemu, not having seen him until that conversation also seems besides the point. It didn't help that Sumitra Devi seemed rather disinterested in the proceedings.

Finally, Shammi! As Shalini pointed out – so young, so thin, so handsome! And his role as Sheemu – the kind of swashbuckling role that Shammi was so good at; here, he gets to swim (and we approved each time Shammi took off his shirt), scale walls, fight, romance…

Chor Bazaar suffers from issues at the script level, but is definitely an enjoyable film from Shammi Kapoor's earlier oeuvre, and the print on Amazon Prime (which is where we watched it) was a very good one indeed. But Tom Daniels has worked his magic on this film as well, and there's a clear, crisp copy available on his channel on YouTube. 

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