What if James Bond went to Bombay in the late 1970s and wasn’t so much a secret agent as a stylist and interior designer for a particularly aesthetics-oriented villain?
The plot of Shaan has very little to do with any of the Bond films that I can remember. Three brothers live in Bombay: one upstanding police officer and two petty con artists (played by 1970s Bollywood’s favorite hero duo, Shashi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan), so small-time that they seem to be the victims of jobs as often as they pull them off. A smuggler named Shakal runs his criminal empire from an underwater lair conveniently nearby in the Arabian Sea.
Rounding out the major cast are:
- The police officer’s wife, who serves as a sort of mother figure to the other brothers
- Another thief and her uncle
- Another thief, who is too glamorous to have an uncle
- An informant who gets around the city on a small wooden scooter, similar to the kind you may have used in grade school PE.
- A circus sharpshooter
When Shakal attacks the officer for capturing his wares, the officer’s brothers put aside their thieving and seek revenge.
Almost everything about the plot and sets is familiar, whether reminiscent of Bond or North by Northwest or Austin Powers or other Hindi films of the era—and I mean no criticism by that, because these are elements are always welcome, especially in giddy combination. Other elements include an assassination attempt at an amusement park, the contents of a water tower cascading over a high-rise office building, lots of explosions, several double-crosses, imported sportscars, silver boots, a pack of attack dogs, famous dancer Helen appearing out of nowhere, and Amitabh Bachchan, Hindi cinema’s biggest star of all time, fighting a foam crocodile (which, for the record, does not have a freakin’ laser beam strapped to its head, although I certainly see no reason for it not to).
If you’re thinking you know the director’s name, Ramesh Sippy, it’s probably because you’ve seen Sholay, his previous film, a 1975 “curry western” that is generally considered Hindi cinema’s most revered film of all time. (The two films also share screenwriters, the duo Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar.) In Sholay, Sippy copied (most would say creatively and effectively) a lot of elements from Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good The Bad and the Ugly, Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven, etc. Other than visually, the two films share some important elements, ones often seen in Bombay’s something-for-everyone, very successful masala formula beloved in 1970s and 80s (and by yours truly): two or more heroes joining forces to defeat an exaggerated yet menacing villain, often based on a family tie or historical grudge; loyalty and sacrifice for a mother figure; multiple love stories. At almost three hours, Shaan makes full use of all of these ingredients and more. For some viewers, both at its release and subsequently, the film is way too long and too crammed. I count myself as a megafan of this vintage of masala film, and for me it works very well.
Part of the generous serving size comes from its songs. Shaan has no use of a mopey hero singing forlornly in a rainy window here or romantic leads strolling through a forest. Each of its six musical numbers qualifies as a set piece. The opening song playing over the titles is, after Shaakal/Blofeld, the Bond-est of the film’s elements, featuring a mostly faceless woman gyrating in white spandex as scenes from the film are projected on her body. There’s a gargantuan villain lair song in which our heroes disguise themselves as a gypsy musical ensemble to get close to Shakal (if you haven’t taken my guided tour of Bollywood villain hangouts, click here to explore). The ruse of musical entertainment is a common infiltration technique in Bollywood, and this is one of the greatest examples simply due to scale. The spectacular set for Shakal’s HQ contains a huge golden eagle, a throne, a library, and a flaming centerpiece. A dance number is set in a nightclub that looks like an inside-out disco ball. Leading lady Parveen Babi shimmers in a gleaming gown, backing dancers in fringed boots wave pompoms across a light-up floor, and other characters circle while spying on the owner of a valuable diamond necklace.
The catchiest of all the songs is filmed on a moving double-decker city bus. Look out for a ticket punch used as a castanet.
When rewatching Shaan to write this piece, I was struck by how well paced the story is. There are different flavors of emotional peaks spread throughout, and while in overall tone the film becomes more consequential as it progresses, there are deadpan scenes in the lighter first part and gleeful passages in the grittier second part. Shakal’s first appearance is held until the one hour mark, and before we even see him, the concept of him is introduced: as a helicopter flies over a remote island in the ocean, motifs from the title song repeat, punctuated with intense whispers of “Shakal! Shakal!” in the background. Henchmen descend a path perilously close to a cliff, take an elevator to some sunken chamber, walk through empty hallways monitored from a bleep-bloop control room, and finally confront their boss as he faces a window into the ocean watching a shark swim straight towards him. Everything says “This is what we’ve been building to.” Once the brothers decide to go after Shakal, Sippy pulls off several fast changes in tone and surroundings to create some scenes of unadorned tension and emotion. The film’s best action sequences are here, including one for each of the three heroes, tailored to the particular actors’ strong suits: a car chase and stationary interrogation for the urbane Shashi Kapoor, a one-man bar brawl peppered with punchy dialogue for top star Amitabh Bachchan, and a shootout among horses and dusty buildings that could come straight from Sholay for the brash Shatrughan Sinha.
Within its own world, Shaan is by no means only silly. It never topples all the way over into ridiculousness or spazzy, purposeless running amok, which I think it could have done quite easily. Everything is in balance. The characters for whom you are supposed to feel sympathy never get treated too heavily. The romances are breezy and cute rather than sappy or slogging. Villains are thoroughly bad but no more exaggerated than the heroes. If you’ve never seen a 1970s Hindi masala film, this is a great place to start.
Shaan is currently available on Amazon Prime with English subtitles.
(Gifs courtesy of bollypop.in. See others here.)
Beth Watkins writes in a gold villain lair chair just like Shakal’s.