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The Unexpected Guest, Indian Style

The works of Agatha Christie, like many other best-sellers in the English language, have been successfully translated into mainstream Indian cinema.* Gumnaam (1965) moves the stage version of And Then There Were None on a jungle- and ruin-covered island somewhere off the coast of India (and if you’ve seen Ghost World or the right Heineken commercial, you’ve had a taste of its delights). Shubho Mahurat (2003) transports The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side into Bengali cinema beautifully, casting classic star Rakhee against type as a salty Miss Marple. Calcutta also made the earliest Christie adaptation I have found, putting the wildly popular The Mousetrap in contemporary rural Bengal in Chupi Chupi Ashey (1960), swapping snow for rising floodwaters.

Dhund (Fog, 1972) is very recognizable as The Unexpected Guest, with the major characters successfully making the move from Wales to misty mountains outside Bombay. What I particularly like about Dhund is that it tweaks the ethical motives and problems for the characters—and not just by adding the kind of morals generally espoused by films of its day. The film feels like a genuine remaking, keeping the skeleton of the original while fleshing it out in ways completely appropriate to its new context and audiences.

The film opens with a man crashing his car on a foggy winding road at night. Chandrashekhar, played by Navin Nischol as likable but mild despite the drama around him, enters the unlocked window of a local house, looking for a phone. He finds instead a corpse and quickly after notices the dead man’s young wife Rani (Zeenat Aman) holding a gun. As they talk, he learns that the Ranjeet (villain actor extraordinaire Danny Denzongpa in one of his earliest roles) was not just an abusive husband but also a generally nasty individual with no respect for animal or human life. Taking pity on Rani, Chandrashekhar comes up with a scheme to make her look innocent.

Re-staging the murder wakes the other members of the household and brings the police, and conversations among all of them unsurprisingly reveal many motives and opportunities to get rid of a man everyone hated. In addition to Rani, we hear from Ranjeet’s widowed stepmother, his stepbrother Sunil, two servants, and most notably Suresh, a lawyer with whom Rani is having a surprisingly blatant emotional affair. With the interwoven allegiances among the half dozen players, it’s more than possible that someone is covering for someone else. 

Suresh is the only characterization in Dhund that doesn’t quite work for me. Suresh is the romantic lead, at least to the extent this film deals with romance, but Sanjay Khan plays him as smug and detached. Christie’s original Julian Farrar also behaves coldly at times, but it is in response to information revealed in conversations he has with other characters, all after the murder. In Dhund, Suresh is lackluster in flashbacks that establish his relationship with Rani before the murder—and are significantly narrated by Rani, who might be expected to present him rosily. Mainstream Hindi films often convey physically chaste love stories that are nevertheless full of passion in voice, expression, and symbolism, so I’m happy to blame this uninspiring hero on Khan, whose acting has never impressed me.

As a politician, Suresh does have a reputation to worry about, but he’s so chilly that I can’t accept him as someone Rani would be inspired to take a murder rap for. If she tried to pin the murder on a third person, I’d buy it, because then she and Suresh could potentially marry, but as the plot goes is, she’d end up in jail for someone who doesn’t seem to care much about her. But maybe that mismatch of emotional expression is on purpose: maybe we’re supposed to think Rani is so miserable in her life with Ranjeet that any scrap of kindness or even sensible, almost fatherly advice of the type Suresh offers is enough to ignite a skewed passion in her. 

The rest of the household is also reimagined. In Christie’s play, the victim’s valet turns out to be a very suspicious character; in Dhund, this figure is recast as comic relief in the hands of beloved character actor Deven Verma, who charms the police sufficiently that we never really consider him a contender as a murder, which is perhaps a missed opportunity. The original play’s sharp and no-nonsense housekeeper is given different loyalties and almost seems like a representative of the viewer, buffeted back and forth in the confusion of events of that foggy night. 

Ranjeet’s stepmother (Urmila Bhatt) gets to be refreshingly honest about the misdeeds of her stepson, a relationship we see on screen far less often than the more stereotypical widowed mother who bemoans the immoral path taken by a wayward but beloved son. It’s rare that a Hindi film mother can be fully realistic about the flaws of her offspring, so making this character a stepmother instead opens up new possibilities for her as an informant instead of a protector—and of course a suspect too, as she is in the original. Interestingly, a speech given by the mother in the original reminds me very much of one of Hindi cinema’s most famous films, Mother India, in which a mother claims the right to take a life she gave when a son commits unconscionable deeds. Dhund does not go this far, but its choice of tweaking their relationship allows for important emotional remove between her and the victim. In both versions, the victim’s younger half brother is mentally unstable and very fond of the guns the victim collected and used in the house.** I am struck by this depiction of a teeanger in a mainstream Hindi film; I can’t think of another film that shows a child as being dangerous at all, let alone a potential murderer. 

The biggest divergence from the source material is a choice completely appropriate to the new  context: replacing the original showdown involving the housekeeper and sergeant with a lengthy courtroom scene featuring superstar Ashok Kumar in a role created from scratch. The court  is is much more robust locus for the kind of moral judgment mainstream Hindi films usually like to portray: portraits of India’s president and prime minister, testimony sworn on the Bhagavad Gita, and imagery of the scales of justice.

Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that the judge’s final ruling certainly requires the kind of formal position he holds as well as the authorities invoked in the scene—it would have felt unfinished and unsatisfying in the hands of mere law enforcement. And besides,the courtroom is a chance for Ashok Kumar to showboat, something he has done to huge effect in other films (including this director’s earlier film Kanoon, in what is probably my favorite Hindi courtroom scene) and I absolutely understand why the filmmakers would want to bring this particular flavor to their creation. 

The police in Dhund are basically a joke, but not of the same kind that Christie created in the likeable, poetry-spouting Sergeant Cadwallader. Here, the police leave the impression of genial competence at best, but they’re not very interesting. It’s worth noting that when they initially investigate the murder scene, they touch multuiple pieces of evidence with bare hands and move the corpse after taking just one official photograph.

This sets the ground for the impact of some of what happens in the courtroom (from which they are absent). I don’t know what the general feeling about police was in India at the time Dhund was made, but I can believe some sort of statement is being made here, and if so it stands in contrast to some of the brave, morally upright figures seen in other films of this decade. 

Director/producer B. R. Chopra was one of the biggest names in the Hindi film industry at the time he made Dhund, and his experience and resources are evident. The locations are beautiful, the handful of songs create mood effectively, and the interiors feel fully occupied, creating genuine lives for the people caught up in the murder on the fateful foggy night. If you already know Christie’s play, watch this for culturally relevant adjustments. If you don’t, watch it for a well-paced few hours of clues, twists, and a villain really getting what he deserves. 

Dhund is available with English subtitles on Amazon Prime and Einthusan.tv (with ads). There is a later adaptation of The Unexpected Guest in Kannada (Tarka, 1988), which was then remade in Tamil and Hindi. Read more about Indian remakes of Christie here and specifically Gumnaam here by scholar and friend of The Gutter Ian Robert Smith.

* I’d put forward an argument that Bollywood really ought to take on Poirot, but frankly Kenneth Branagh is absolutely masala enough for me in all the right ways.
** Can any of the Hindi film experts out there tell me who this actor is? A very young Sunil Dhawan (his first role, according to imdb)?

~~~

Beth Watkins appreciates a salty Miss Marple.

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