Monday, January 15, 2018


While the "Bollywood" practice of integrating songs into practically every genre of film has deep Indian cultural roots, it's not really much different in that respect from the melodramas of the Anglo-American stage. Not too long ago, in the long view, American producers could stick musical numbers in the middle of the grim antislavery drama Uncle Tom's Cabin in a way that would be as jarring to American audiences now as Bollywood melodramas often are at first glance. At some point, the English-language tradition evolved toward unity in tone in any given work, while the melodramatic tradition survived for a time in singing cowboy films. And yet, watching Shakti Shamanta's Singapore, I could imagine it becoming a model for American musical thrillers -- films where, say, Gene Kelly might get involved in international intrigue or noirish crime and still do his expected song and dance routines. Singapore itself looks more like Dean Martin and Lou Costello teaming up to solve a mystery in an exotic land. Shammi Kapoor, its Dean, is Shayam, a playboy businessman who travels to Singapore to investigate the disappearance of the manager of his rubber plantation. Agha, a comic who reportedly modeled himself on Bob Hope but strikes me as a Costello type, albeit without so much infantile whining, is Chachoo, one of Shayam's Singapore office flunkies who becomes the hero's sidekick and guide to the island city-state in its last days of British rule.

On the plane to Singapore Shayam meets cute with Maria Wango (Maria Menado), who has femme fatale written all over her. On the island, he'll be torn between Maria and the Indian dancer Lata (Padmini), but his main concern is tracking down his friend and  manager, whose disappearance seems linked to rumors of a buried treasure on the plantation. Lata's uncle is involved in the shady dealings, as is a mysterious gang boss, a female with a slouch hat, sunglasses and a scarf to cover her nose and mouth. While even the simplest viewer probably will recognize this as Maria Wango at first glance, the film teases us awhile by letting circumstantial evidence appear to incriminate Chachoo's secretary and love interest, Chu Chin Chu. Relying on disguises and sheer bluster, Shayam infiltrates the criminal gang in order to rescue his manager and a growing list of captives, and finally ends up clinging for his life to the side of a helicopter while Maria tries to pry him off.

 Chachoo finds a crucial clue in a gimmicked bottle of Vat 69.

It's always entertaining to see other countries' movie characters play tourist just as Americans did in this era. Singapore, largely shot on location, serves as a charming, albeit monochromatic travelogue of the place at a turning point in its history. Kapoor and his leading ladies, and a gaggle of amateurish chorus girls, perform a number of numbers at various local attractions, usually with crowds of spectators looking on. Our tour of Singapore covers some cultural attractions and a lot of consumer showcases, including some sort of shopping arcade with an array of brand-name products that isn't quite as amazing as Kapoor's rhapsodies make it out to be. What these numbers lack in sharp choreography they make up for in picturesque interest.

In disguise, Shayam is the Mullah of Rock-n-Rullah!

It's also fun to observe other cultures' stereotypes of other cultures. Exhibit A in Singapore is Shayam's lengthy imposture as a Pathan (aka Pashtun) thug who boasts, in order to infiltrate the kidnap gang, that it's his destiny to murder nine people and he still has three to kill. Kapoor's blustery performance would be equivalent, I suppose, to an American character making himself up as a Native American and threatening to scalp-um everybody who crosses him. I don't know if Indian cinema can still get away with that sort of thing, especially at a time when Pashtun bloodthirstiness probably seems far from funny to most people.

Still, whatever stereotyping Singapore is up to should be taken no more seriously than anything else in the picture. It's a shaggy dog of a movie, overlong by U.S. standards as Bollywood films often are, veering wildly from almost noirish moments to a goofy number with Chachoo wearing a bald cap and pretending to be a fakir.In the end, it exists only to entertain, and though it may try an American's patience it most likely will entertain, in some way or other, intentionally or not, anyone willing to give it a try.

No comments: