Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Raja Nawathe's Gumnaam (1965) is now showing in the series A Journey into Indian Cinema.
In front of a quaint hotel in an undisclosed location, a man gets run over. The mastermind behind the murder hides in shadows and smokes a cigarette before paying off the assassin. Cryptic phone conversations about a will follow before this man, too, is killed. He is shot by a man in a trench coat and a hat. We only see his shadow while a hanging telephone handset gets soaked in blood.
Raja Nawathe started out his career in the Hindi film industry by assisting superstar-filmmaker Raj Kapoor and in 1965, he decided to make an unauthorized adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, but with his usual romance melodrama tropes intact. The result was Gumnaam (meaning “anonymous”), produced by Kapoor’s Prithvi Pictures. Christie, of course, wasn’t Nawathe’s only Western influence. From the film’s first scene, he unabashedly displays the deep inspiration he draws from film noir conventions. From there on, he displays how to merge that with the usual tropes of Hindi film melodrama.
Gumnaam’s first song “Jaan Pehchaan Ho,” which Western audiences might recognize as the opening track for Ghost World and the song from the Heineken “The Date” commercial, and poses as a dramatic interjection after the first two murders in the film. Its filming illustrates the ubiquitous party scene that was a staple of 1960s Hindi cinema; this is the alternate social bubble where Indians hung out, smoked, drank, and gambled—all things that would’ve been shunned in the outside, “real” society. Performed by the band Ted Lyons and his Cubs, headed by the Anglo-Indian musician Terence Lyons (a fixture in the 1960s party scene songs) “Jaan Pehchaan Ho”’s rock and roll influences are obvious, thereby driving home the point that this alternate, debauched universe was definitely an effect of “Western” influences on traditional Indian society. Add to that a ballroom setting and a dancing woman (the electric Laxmi Chhaya, in this case), and you have the stereotypical picture of the era’s Hindi film hedonism. Morally, the audience knows that nothing good can come out of this. Sure enough, it is at the end of this party that the plot begins to unravel.
The film’s heroine Asha (Nanda), also the niece of the man who is run over in the first scene, wins an unexplained but all-expenses-paid trip to an undisclosed foreign country, along with four other people at the party: the criminal lawyer Rakesh (Pran), the doctor Acharya (Madan Puri), the dancer Kitty (Helen), and the religious and god-fearing Dharamdas (Dhumal). Unlike Christie, screenwriter Dhruva Chatterjee wastes no time in giving us a background of who these people are and how they’re connected to the murders. On the way to this foreign country, their airplane mysteriously breaks down and then flies off, leaving its passengers in yet another nameless place. It is here that they chance upon an old mansion and seek refuge in it. Inside, they meet a butler (Mehmood) who, bizarrely enough, was expecting this uninvited party of guests. In a film that is not tight enough to need a relief, Mehmood plays the delightful, albeit a little hammy, comic presence with a seemingly sinister secret.
Film professor Linda Williams defines melodramas by their quest to uncover the “hidden moral legibility” of the hero. Gumnaam and the way its hero, Anand (Manoj Kumar), reveals himself to be a “good guy” after confusing the audiences of his intentions throughout the whole film, is melodramatic in an obvious way. He is introduced as a flight attendant but, as we later find out, has a far more moralistic role to play in solving the whodunit, but only after all the travelers (except Asha) are killed. The film ends after six murders that are so drawn out that by the end of it, even the culprit’s lack of a concrete motive seems plausible.
Nawathe is an absolute genius in the ways in which he takes Christie’s 1939 British universe and makes it into a potboiler, complete with eight songs, including one customary “heroine in a wet sari” one. He takes noir elements and transposes them into a Mario Bava-esque garishly colored aesthetic, as he makes generous use of Dutch tilts, multi-colored lighting, and long shadows. Although a thriller and murder mystery to begin with, Gumnaam also incorporates elements of gothic horror films. It is set in a cobweb-covered old crumbling mansion whose insides are, surprisingly, majestic and obviously set-like in appearance. Though the plot keeps losing itself through the film, Nawathe uses everything else in his artillery to keep his audience latched on. K.H. Kapadia’s camera is dramatic and plays a large role in promising the audience an exciting and thrilling road ahead, especially when the plot gives up. And when everything else fails, there are the songs.
Helen, who is usually relegated to roles of a seductive dancer, is given a relatively sizable part in the ensemble cast but Nawathe struggles to escape the stock character of the loose, Westernized woman that she played throughout her career. An actor of Anglo-Indian and Burmese heritage, Helen is fair-skinned and, therefore, the obvious choice for the wayward Western women roles. Kitty wears dresses, ponchos, and swimsuits while Asha wears saris and salwar kameezes. Nawathe sticks to these visual codes with such a vengeance that even within an ensemble cast where Asha barely does anything beyond being pursued by Anand, the audience knows who the lead female actor is. She, till the end of the film, remains unharmed and “untainted.” Apart from the moralistic depictions of women that continue in Hindi films even today, Gumnaam also reveals the Hindi film industry’s extreme racism. Not only does Mehmood appear in blackface but Helen’s character mistreats him for being a dark-skinned person. While Nawathe tries his best to give Mehmood ample screen time (an almost six-minute-long song) to prove to the audience that he, in spite of his dark skin, is a loving man, it goes on to show just how normalized blackface was, and continues to be, within the film industry.
With all its shortcomings, Gumnaam was a box office hit. Its title track became so popular that it has now become a clichéd soundtrack for every time anyone stages a spooky scene in a play or a film. Nawathe is not a name that gets thrown up when discussing the history of Hindi cinema. Outside the realm of festival-touring “art” films, overshadowed by the giant shadow of Raj Kapoor in mainstream films, he made seven films that were all box office successes with superhit soundtracks. Like the best of filmmakers, he knew the pulse of the audience and delivered films that satisfied them and made them hum, often without the backing of a sizable plot.