It was Old Man Hitchcock who quipped, "Man does not live by murder alone. He needs heroes, heroines and occasionally, a Bollywood song." Or maybe I made up that last line. What the heck. Bollywood has been criticized for its obsession with formula (as if Hollywood doesn't have its men in tights or what we cynics call 'Oscar Porn'--biopics and civil rights stories and Bildungsromans), but I'm here to tell you it tries its hand at everything. And that includes a fair share of murder mysteries and thrillers. Here, I will list some whodunits and 'detective films' that you probably had no clue existed. So, shall we begin, with an evil grin and glint in the eye?
1. Mahal (1949)
Okay, so I cheated. Big deal. You must have heard of Mahal and the once-ubiquitous track "Aayega aanewala". But have you really seen the film? Gotcha! Mahal is an atmospheric thriller with some very effective chills and thrills. Trust me, even if you are a vintage film buff (and especially if you grew up watching him as the do-gooder Dadaji in a plethora of Hrishikesh Mukherjee films), you have NEVER seen Ashok Kumar like this. Never. Even as the unwitting protagonist, he drives a chill down your spine. Mahal is the story of Harishankar who lands up in a palatial mansion one dark, stormy night (aren't they all?), and there's a 'caretaker' that'll give you the creeps. I'll say no more.
You have NEVER seen Ashok Kumar like this [in Mahal]. Never.
2. Apradhi Kaun? (1957)
From one spooky mansion to another. In Jeetpur's haveli live feuding brothers, who are fighting over their father's will. Soon, blood is spilt. Meanwhile, private investigator Rajesh (Abhi Bhattacharya, the bhole-bhale masterji in so many 60s films including Jagriti, doling out deshbhakti ka sandesh to his students) entertains a petite client named Shobha (Mala Sinha), who wants his help in stealing something. Yeah, I know. Rajesh is shocked too. She wants him to travel to Jeetpur and help her. As Rajesh turns her down, he gets a telegram calling him to, again, Jeetpur, to investigate a murder. The plot thickens. If you are in the mood for an old-school Byomkesh Bakshy/ Holmes/ Poirot-style detective story, look no further.
3. 12 O'clock (1958)
Squeezed between Pyaasa (1957) and Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman starred in this nifty little thriller. What often gets buried under Guru's obsession with melancholy, poetry and self-destructive themes is that he was very passionate about thrillers and films noir too. Anyhow, this film is about Bani (Waheeda), who is in the railway station to receive her cousin sister Maya. Maya ends up getting killed and Bani is charged with murdering her sister. Now, Bani's boyfriend-cum-boss Ajay happens to be a lawyer and it's up to him to clear her name. But is Bani really innocent? Watch!
What often gets buried under Guru's obsession with melancholy, poetry and self-destructive themes is that he was very passionate about thrillers and films noir too
4. Kohraa (1964)
Back in the day, if you were to talk about Bollywood thrillers, you just couldn't avoid mansions--those dark, long hallways and chandeliers and secret passages, that white facade enveloped in mist. Kohraa starred Biswajeet and Waheeda Rehman, and was a follow-up to their earlier Bees Saal Baad (1962), but was not as successful. Stinking rich Amit Kumar Singh falls in love and then marries the winsome Rajeshwari (Waheeda). But on moving into the mansion, she hears stuff about Amit's first wife Poonam, who is dead but not quite. She has her presence lingering in every little nook and corner of the enormous haveli. Sounds familiar? Yeah, it was very similar of Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), but there are some very significant changes. Check it out to know.
5. Ittefaq (1969)
A very young, stubbly Rajesh Khanna sitting with Nanda who looks ravishing in a blue sari. There is tension in the air. Unbeknownst to Rajesh, a dead body lay sprawled in the bathroom upstairs. Unlike other movies, the two 'protagonists' don't trust each other. And the film was directed by King of Romance--Yash Chopra. Intrigued?
6. Buddha Mil Gaya (1971)
Two good-for-nothing weirdoes (Navin Nischol and Deven Varma) bump into a rich old man who had gone missing. Greed rears its ugly head and the duo take him in, hoping to cash in on the situation. But oldie (Om Prakash) is not as naive and harmless as he looks. He supposedly ventures out every night and kills his enemies one by one. As the body count rises, the two boys are implicated for the crimes. A surprisingly taut thriller from the patron saint of feel-good cinema, Hrishikesh Mukherjee.
Buddha Mil Gaya is a surprisingly taut thriller from the patron saint of feel-good cinema, Hrishikesh Mukherjee.
Meena (Shabana Azmi) and Vinod (Vinod Khanna) are living the middle-class dream--a posh flat in suburban Bombay and an annoying little kid (somehow back in the 70s-80s kid's voices were dubbed over by insufferably irritating voices that made you cringe). Their cute little nest is rattled when Meena receives a letter that Vinod had murdered his colleague at the bank and made off with all the money, and it was the stolen money that they owed their lavish lifestyle to. Meena's mind rushes back to the day when Vinod came back from office all drenched in blood--his colleague had been murdered, and Vinod was the one who supposedly discovered the body and called the cops. Is Vinod really the killer? Would he stoop so low for money?
8. Plot No. 5 (1981)
Uttam Kumar is to Bengali cinema what Rajesh Khanna was to Bollywood--only his reign prevailed not for three years or a decade but right from the 1950s till his demise in 1980. But his stint in Bollywood was forgettable with just one hit called Amanush (1975), some Shakti Samanta and Gulzar movies, and a plethora of obscure films that sank without a trace. Plot No. 5 was one of them, forgotten despite its stellar cast--besides Uttam, it had Amol Palekar, Pradeep Kumar and Amjad Khan. Shot in the late 70s, the film released in 1981, a year after Uttam's death. A film with no songs, it's about a genius wheelchair-bound paraplegic (Uttam Kumar), and a series of murders in the city that are somehow connected with him.
Plot No. 5 is about a genius wheelchair-bound paraplegic (Uttam Kumar), and a series of murders in the city that are somehow connected with him.
9. Qatl (1986)
Rakesh (Sanjeev Kumar) directs plays, and comes across the nubile young actress Rohini (Sarika). As fate (read 'Bollywood') would have it, they fall in love and get married. Rakesh loses his eyesight in a freak accident, but his world comes crashing down on him when he gets to know that Rohini was having an affair on the sly with Ranjeet (Marc Zuber). Consumed with rage, he slaughters his wife, plotting to frame Ranjeet for the murder. The case is assigned to the quirky, eccentric Inspector Shatru (Shatrughan Sinha). All the evidence points to Ranjeet--but Shatru has his doubts.
10. Shart (1986)
A serial killer is on the rampage, killing young women, mostly prostitutes. Inspector Arjun (Kanwaljit) investigates the case and concludes that Vikram aka Devendra (Naseeruddin) is behind the killing spree, but cannot back it up with evidence. It turns out that Arjun and Vikram were classmates in college, and they fought for the affection of one woman. Does Arjun really believe Vikram is the killer or is the old rivalry colouring his suspicion?
Achanak (1998): Remember that poster with Govinda in The Mask getup? 'Nuff said.
Blue Oranges (2009): Murder most foul has been carried out. A well-to-do socialite is killed, and detective Nilesh (Rajit Kapur) has to get to the bottom of it. Yes, Rajit-Byomkesh-Bakshy-Kapur.
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