For many young Bollywood film-makers, Vijay “Goldie" Anand is Boss. They speak with awe of his storytelling skills and his mastery in shooting song sequences. Some make their infatuation quite clear: Sriram Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddaar is dedicated to him and peppered with hat tips to Goldie—in one scene, a hotel receptionist is watching Johny Mera Naam; in Rimi Sen’s opening scene, she is shown reading R.K. Narayan’s novel Guide, which we know Vijay directed.

This is serious respect from a film-maker trained at Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), one who would be expected to admire Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray. But while Raghavan and his peers would have watched the international giants, it is Vijay’s songs that they saw again and again, to learn the language and idiom of the commercial Hindi film. After all, it was in the Mumbai film industry—Bollywood, if you will—that they would be working. And observing the late Vijay Anand’s work closely would help.

The late Vijay Anand. Photo: Girish Srivastava/Hindustan Times
The late Vijay Anand. Photo: Girish Srivastava/Hindustan Times

In short, Vijay has fallen through the cracks, despite excellent films to his name.

Though he directed 16 movies—and acted in a few too—it was in a six-year stretch that he made four extraordinary films that really consolidated the Goldie cult among his fans. While Nau Do Gyarah and Kala Bazar are full of entertaining moments and terrific songs, they are too distant to evoke any memories in those who came of age in the 1970s. But those four films—Guide, Teesri Manzil, Jewel Thief and Johny Mera Naam—remain in the collective memory of an entire generation of fans and film-makers.

All these films were successful when they were first released and all of them have travelled well over the decades. An entire book can be written just on these four films; for the moment, let us look at one of them that has reached its golden jubilee this year: Teesri Manzil, which was released in 1966. A Wikipedia entry calls it a “musical thriller" and that is as good a description as any—but the film is much more than a clever whodunnit interspersed with memorable songs.

Crime stories were often viewed with a bit of suspicion in the Hindi film world. For the first four-odd decades of Hindi cinema, virtually no crime films were produced; the emphasis was on reformist or mythological themes. Whether it was the Prabhat Film Company or Sagar Movietone or Imperial Films Company, or indeed Bombay Talkies, the big studios largely stayed away from crime.

Even after Kismet (1943)—in which Ashok Kumar played a pickpocket—became a super hit, running for over three years at a single theatre in Calcutta, as the city was then known, film-makers avoided stories involving theft, murder, smuggling and the like. For one thing, there is no repeat value—audiences don’t come back to see crime films, thus decreasing their commercial viability. Nor did the top stars want to play negative roles. Crime dramas—as separate from the smuggler-cop films of the 1970s and the gangland stories of the 1990s—were for long perceived as “B" grade, fit for the third rung of actors.

Stills from Dev Anand-starrers ‘C.I.D.’ and ‘Baazi’ (below)
Stills from Dev Anand-starrers ‘C.I.D.’ and ‘Baazi’ (below)

Things changed a bit in the 1950s with films such as Baazi, which was directed by a young new director, Guru Dutt, for Navketan Films, C.I.D. and Aar-Paar. Dev Anand emerged as a popular anti-hero, playing a succession of petty criminals or policemen. The films were set in an urban context and borrowed heavily—thematically and stylistically—from the noir dramas of Hollywood, which were already a decade old by then. The underbelly of the city provided the perfect setting for stories about shadowy criminal bosses, innocents caught in criminal enterprises and molls with golden hearts who took a bullet in the end. In newly independent India, the metropolis, coping with migrants from across the border and from the villages, was the battleground between the exploitative rich and the hapless poor who were trying their best to find a small corner for themselves. Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 delineates the conflict between the profiteering upper crust and the honest slum dwellers in what was then called Bombay, bursting at the seams with newly arrived poor from the villages.

Teesri Manzil was Vijay’s first film outside Navketan, the family banner, and therein lies a story as intriguing as the film itself. As the younger brother of Dev, Vijay had slipped easily into Navketan and after cutting his teeth as an apprentice with eldest brother Chetan, began making films for the family firm. But, after directing four films, he was getting restless and wanted to try his hand outside Navketan.

The opportunity came when Nasir Hussain, known for his frothy romances, invited Dev and Vijay to work with him. It all looked promising but Dev and Hussain fell out bitterly, with the star walking out of a party saying he would not act in the film. Shammi Kapoor was roped in and Vijay decided to stay on; in his biography of Shammi Kapoor, Rauf Ahmed says the actor insisted on getting the go-ahead from Dev before accepting the role.

These serendipitous developments brought together a diverse group of talented people who created a film that remains fresh to this day. Though it is very much a 1960s’ film in terms of styling and storytelling, it is not just a quaint cultural artefact but also a remarkably contemporary entertainer.

The basic plot line of Teesri Manzil is quite simple: The body of a young girl is found outside a hotel; it appears she jumped from the third floor of the building. The girl’s sister sets out to find out who was responsible for the death and discovers soon enough that it was the drummer—Rocky—who played in the hotel’s nightclub. The sister wants revenge—she plans to get him beaten up by members of her hockey team. This sounds a bit absurd and may also seem familiar—something similar happened in Hussain’s second film, Dil Deke Dekho, in which Shammi also played a drummer.

The first hour of Teesri Manzil treads this well-known path and barring the occasional glimpse of a cigar-smoking man in a trench coat and fedora—Iftekhar—there is not a whiff of any crime angle. But this is where Vijay comes into his own; the second half is gripping, full of twists and turns. New characters are introduced at a bewildering pace and while the whodunnit purist will frown at the lack of clues for the viewer, the film is a ripping yarn.

An obvious problem with murder mysteries is that once the secret is known, there is not much point in seeing the film again. But Teesri Manzil has plenty of “repeat value"—audiences came back again and again to see it, enjoying the songs and the club dances.

The noirs of the 1950s were set mainly in Bombay and drew upon urban culture, including the Westernized lifestyles of the protagonists—the clothes, the clubs, the cabarets. Though Teesri Manzil is nominally set in Dehradun and Mussoorie, it is, at heart, a Bombay film.

The nightclub, where Rocky sings and Ruby (Helen) dances, is the kind of plush venue that was popular in 1950s’ and 1960s’ films. But while many film-makers shot one, or at best two songs, in a club, here the story revolves around it. Rocky is a drummer, an unusual profession for a Hindi film hero of the time; but Shammi was no ordinary—or typical—hero of his times. Like Dev, he exuded an urbane and sophisticated air; for them, the nightclub was a habitat, not a hobby or a diversion.

Nightclub scenes from the films ‘Howrah Bridge’ and ‘China Town’ (below)
Nightclub scenes from the films ‘Howrah Bridge’ and ‘China Town’ (below)

This was the first time Vijay was directing someone else’s script. But though the story and script are by Hussain, this is a Vijay Anand film.

The reviewers did not particularly care for Teesri Manzil when it was released. “Instead of the lurid murder mystery suggested by the critics, the film proves a racy comedy most of the way, the murders making only a guest appearance at the end," said Filmfare, acknowledging that the “switch-over from comedy to crime" was smooth. The magazine also found the denouement less than satisfying.

But the audiences loved it—Teesri Manzil went on to become one of the biggest hits of the year. It further consolidated Vijay’s reputation as one of the best directors of Hindi cinema. He followed this success with Jewel Thief—one of the best caper films made in India—and then Johny Mera Naam, Dev’s biggest-ever hit. And it launched the young Burman into the big league.

A poster of ‘Johnny Gaddaar’
A poster of ‘Johnny Gaddaar’

Sidharth Bhatia is a journalist and author and a founding editor of Thewire.in. He is currently writing a book on Bombay noir crime films.

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