Masala patriotism is not my favourite genre, but where there are rules, there are exceptions to rules. And this film is firmly in the exception-to-rules category as far as my no-unsubtle-patriotic-films rule goes. I picked this up because it stars Ajit and Helen, and have no reason to regret my choice.
Emperor Shahbaz (Samson?) has been conquering new territories right left and centre, leaving death and destruction in his wake. His latest conquest is Yakistan, whose king has surrendered, but a loyal patriot – Kabli Khan (Ajit) – refuses to admit defeat. Kabli Khan is held prisoner by Shahbaz’s army, but manages to escape with like-minded prisoners and stolen arms. He gets home to his village, just in time to save the village from being looted by Shahbaz’s soldiers. A further batch of the conquering soldiers are driven out, soon after. They return to Shahbaaz, to get the dressing down of their lives. (If only Sholay were out - Shahbaaz would’ve known how to treat his defeated soldiers!)
While Shahbaaz is wondering what to do about Kabli Khan and his own hapless soldiers, his son Halaaku (Salim) arrives, in a pink tunic (he doesn’t get another costume until the last scene!). Halaaku promises to capture Kabli alive-or-dead. So off they go to Kabli’s rural hang-out, with a whole army in tow. Kabli has no trouble in evading the Pink Prince and his entourage. On the principle that it is better to “live to fight another day”, Kabli leaves his comrades and makes his way to the neighbouring kingdom of Kohistan. He petitions the Sardar of Kohistan to help fight Shahbaaz since the latter’s growing power is a danger for Kohistan, too. The Sardar suggests that it would be best for the Yakistani patriots to join his army. Kabli thinks it’s a good idea, but his fellow patriots refuse to even consider working for a Sardar of Kohistan.
So Kabli joins the Kohistan army on his ownsome. He makes his way to Yaarganj, a cantonment on Kohistan’s vulnerable border. There he is shocked to find the place in complete disarray. In the middle of the day, the soldiers are busy pleasure-seeking and the commander of the town’s garrison – Jabar Khan (Jayant) - is busy drinking in a tea-shop. Then he finds that “tea-shop” is a euphemism since tea is the last thing served there! In the tea-shop Kabli almost blunders into a secret meeting between Jabar and Shahbaaz’s emissary Rakib Khan (Ulhas). Only the tea-shop owner Mirza Ershaad (Mukri) has secretly witnessed the meeting and realised that Jabar is accepting a huge sum to betray Kohistan.
Unaware of the betrayal in the offing, Kabli is only worried about strengthening Yaarganj against a potential attack by Shahbaaz. He suggests that the army chief, Jung Bahadur, tour the border areas with a view to tightening security. On one of their tours, Jung Bahadur is kidnapped by Halaaku. Shahbaaz barely has time to rejoice in his son’s enterprise when Kabli engineers Jung Bahadur’s escape. He then has the effrontery to carry away Halaaku - right in front of his doting father! Shahbaaz is like a wounded tiger trying to find a way to get his cub back. Rakib assures him that he will “fix” Kabli Khan to everybody’s satisfaction.
Then follows my favourite part of the film. Kabli returns to Yaarganj with his royal prisoner, and proceeds to whip the soldiery of Yaarganj back in shape. But in this, he runs into a road-block - the aptly named Haseena (Helen!). (haseena = a beauty) She’s come to Yaarganj with two men, one of whom is Rakib. Her avowed intention is to entertain the troops with her dances, but she displays undue interest in Kabli! She woos him in the true Bolly-hero tradition – she declares her love for him, often makes him look foolish, rouses his anger and then tells him that his anger only increases her love! Kabli dislikes her intensely, tells her off for being a lowly dancing girl, but ultimately cannot resist her charms. (Well… a Helen-ly onslaught is very hard to resist!)
Moved by his intense passion for Haseena, Kabli decides that only marriage will do. But the path of true love never does run smoothly... Kabli discovers that Haseena is a spy for Shahbaaz and her job was to entrap him – which she’s done very efficiently. A furious Kabli then boldly does what no other Bolly-hero has done before – he confronts Haseena and demands an explanation!!! That certainly made me sit up and take notice. Isn’t that illegal? Shouldn’t he be taking the passive-aggressive route, singing reproachful poetry at her, while she wonders if his ulcers are acting-up again? Well… explanations are demanded and, hold your breath, given! No, I won’t say what explanation Haseena offers. That would be telling! Suffice it to say that the drama does not end there. There is still a tyrant to be defeated, an enslaved nation to be freed, several sword-fights to be fought, and one Pink Prince to be accounted for.
Shahbaaz and his tyrannies are clearly proxies for the British rule in India and Kabli Khan is the quintessential freedom fighter who overthrew the Raj. The patriotism is of the usual Bollywood masala variety, i.e., subtlety is conspicuous by it's absence. Plus, the acting leaves a lot to be desired. To say that almost everybody (except Helen) chews up the scenery is a gross understatement! The film is set in the confused-costume period so beloved of vintage Bollywood. Naturally, no historical context is given or sought. So why did I find it such a pleasant watch?
Reason #1: HELEN! It’s so nice to see her get a decent part and lots of screen-time. She is gorgeous as usual and so good as she dances, flirts and brings on the emotional attyachar. I wish she’d done lead roles more often.
Reason #2: AJIT! Yes, he is old and over-made-up here, he chews the scenery something terrible, but I still have a fondness for him. He umm… scenery chews so… well!
Reason #3: The songs! They are lovely. My favourite was the foot-tapping patriotic number Chalo jhoomte sar se baandhe kafan, but the others were great too – particularly the Rafi-Lata duet Yah-allah ya-habibi mere dil ke kareebi. It’s definitely one of music director Chitragupta’s and lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri’s underrated tracks.
Reason #4: The movie is pretty fast-paced with lots of action and twists-n-turns. An imdb commenter dubs it a “Hindi action operetta” which describes it perfectly!
It’s only when I began writing this review that it struck me that Halaku aka The Pink Prince looked like Salim Khan of Salim-Javed fame. If this really is Salim Khan, I can see where Salman Khan gets his "acting" genes from!