‘Ehsan’ review: Fie File Fo Fum

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Life is a Cinema Hall rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars (1.5 / 5) (This rating is only a snapshot. The details are in the words.)

[A modified version of this piece first appeared in Pancham Times, a publication from panchammagic.org.]

There’s something to be said for trying hard. It shows sincerity of purpose, if lacking anything else. No one can accuse director Shiv Kumar of this in his 1970 outing, Ehsan (Favour or Benevolence). With writer R.K. Bannerjee, he plots a movie so ludicrous and unbelievably lame, you wonder what the entire team was thinking. But first things first—for, the movie doesn’t start off too badly. An overtly ponderous Bureau of Investigation chief Mohan Lal (Bipin Gupta, gloriously hamming all the way to the climax) arrives in his office late at night to announce to a fairly startled bunch of suited agents that a file in his possession—containing the identities of Indian intelligence agents—has been stolen, and is now fair game in the hands of the country’s enemies. For a moment, you almost fear that you might have to rush to the room to pass smelling salts to the agents in the room. But, our spies are made of sterner stuff, and they control their respective gag reflexes, and look stolid, ready to take on the unknown enemy. After all of them troop out, the chief takes aside one of his agents and tells him that the said file is actually with him, and that the agent ought to take the file for safekeeping. Said agent agrees, and proceeds with the file to wherever agents go after being handed an explosive file. Even as the title credits hit the screen, the action explodes alongside, the agent being pursued by goons, while a thief, who we later learn is Raja (Joy Mukherjee) is busy stealing jewelry from a nearby apartment. The comely inhabitant, emerging from a bath, drops a scream along with the towel, Raja hops, skips, and jumps with a necklace, while simultaneously our brave agent is trying to save himself and the file.

Joy Mukherjee uses windows, Mac.
Joy Mukherjee uses windows, Mac.

So far, so good. It is here that the first wave of unintentional comedy hits you, when the agent is shot, but manages to shake off the goons, the agent and Raja cross paths, and the police is in hot pursuit of the latter. Amidst the confusion, the injured agent calls up Chief Mohan Lal, and informs him groaning, injured grievously, that he’s hit but the file is safe. Believe it or join the Bureau, but Mohan Lal sniggers that he actually had the original file with himself all along, and he’ll now hide it in his safe. (No, he doesn’t share the safe code.) And then, he tells his agent, “Okay, you go home.” Talk about an insensitive boss, really.

Joy Mukherjee serenades Anjana Mumtaz.
Joy Mukherjee serenades Anjana Mumtaz.

You learn pretty soon that the chief has a daughter, Shalini (Anjana Mumtaz) and a rather young son, Boby (credited as Wonder Child Boby, and you wonder how and why, respectively.)  There’s also Raja you have to catch up with, as he’s enlisted by the local don, who remains in the shadows, but you don’t need a torchlight to guess it is actor K.N. Singh. He—the character, not Singh—poses as a respectable night club owner, Vishwanath Prasad, when he’s not up to devious plans, such as getting ahold of the file. Now Prasad wants to recruit Raja into his gang, so the latter can seduce Shalini, and then steal the file. Why would Raja agree? Well, there’s Rita (Helen) in the gang, so he’s assured of some parallel romance, plus the company of Pawan Kumar (Madan Puri), who does a double take when he meets and sees Raja’s locket for the first time. And of course, boss Vishwanath himself, who addresses all of his gang members by numbers, which convinces Raja and you that he’s a much better boss than the Bureau chief. For, you really must know each employee so well that you can easily map them to specific numbers- for example, “Number 7, you kidnap thingummy; number 11, you bump off whatshername, and number 9, get me my favorite Chinese – number 29…”. You get the drift.

K.N. Singh with the original six-pack
K.N. Singh with the original six-pack.

For emotional measure, there’s also a mother-daughter pair – Laxmi (Sulochana Chaterjee) and Naina (Aruna Irani) – the former on her sick bed, the latter dancing in Vishwanath’s night club. For comic relief, there’s Raja’s friend Kapil (Rajendranath), his girlfriend Geeta (Shabana), and her family – opposing Kapil’s advances towards their daughter – consisting of father Chaturmukh (Sunder), mother (Tun Tun), and butler (Johny Whisky). Unfortunately, even the usually sprightly Rajendranath is rather subdued, except for in a super number – more of that in a bit.

Rajendranath comes alive with Shabana in a sparkling Kishore-R.D. Burman song
Rajendranath comes alive with Shabana in a sparkling Kishore-Asha-R.D. Burman song.

If all this has your head in a spin, worry not. It’s not as complicated as it sounds. But director Shiv Kumar does manage to keep the plot very airy, thanks to the humongous holes in it. And the comedy, when it hits you, is all purely unintentional. Note the scene where Raja’s true identity as a thief is revealed in an engagement ceremony—you’re not sure if it’d be polite to let out a quick chortle. Or the equally bland climactic scene, that, even as it swiftly peddles patriotism and justifies the movie’s title, makes you control your titter with some hysteria-nocal acting chops by K.N. Singh and Joy Mukherjee. (The latter is sincere and strains to be an all-rounder, but just can’t keep the flag of interest flying.)

Madan Puri gives Joy Mukherjee a tortuous time.
Madan Puri gives Joy Mukherjee a tortuous time…

Amidst this panoply of mediocrity, armada of listlessness, and all the fie fo fum about the file, you give up all hope. But hang in there, for there’s marvelous silver lining to Ehsan. And that is composer Rahul Dev Burman (Pancham), who keeps at it with a sharp musical focal point, spinning out numbers that, despite yourself and the proceedings, wow and amaze you.  There’s the Asha Bhosle number, Ye Jhalak Ye Jhalak, set to up-tempo jazz by Rahul Dev, he employing an unusual rhythm pattern, while using rock and roll guitars that crash into his brass section to create what must have been a new sound effect then. (But why is the female chorus being lip-synced by an all-male ensemble? P.L. ke Raj mein ye kya ho gaya? {What’s happening in choreographer PL Raj‘s kingdom?}) Then there’s Tauba Ye Adaayen, which finds Pancham and Mohammed Rafi shivering-me-a-timbre in a musically ravishing pool-side romp. Also revel in the very untraditional cabaret number, Aayi Hoon Main, which makes you think how Rahul Dev set out a very different song template for Asha Bhosle—an unorthodox pair who’d create their own fiery path in the coming decade. For the more romantically inclined, Pancham delivers Aaj Tere Naina, that finds Rafi and Asha Bhosle in fine form. Pancham keeps the number at a lovely, youthful trot, while also ensconcing a beautifully unexpected melody in the antara. Thanks to Rahul Dev, the unusually listless Rajendranath shakes a superb leg in the energetic Aaja Tujhe Pyar Kar Loon, where Asha Bhosle has the sparkling Kishore Kumar for company—the composer employing a bouncing bass to slide the zesty mukhda and antara, while punctuating the lyrics with some interesting keyboard pieces. And finally, in a very unusual playback choice, Rahul Dev employs Lata Mangeshkar for only one number in the soundtrack – Pyaasa Mera Dil – and that’s for Helen onscreen. But it’s a simmering, semi-sizzle number, where he stuns you with some smart piano pieces, a haunting mukhda, an angsty and pleading antara, punctuated by beautifully placed flute pieces.

Helen seduces Joy Mukherjee to a simmering Lata-RD Burman number.
…while Helen seduces him to a simmering Lata-R.D. Burman number.

And if you’re so inclined, Rahul Dev also sets up some smart background score – a semi-jog of guitars for the agent with the file and smart jazz for the thieving Raja in the title music. In fact, Pancham’s background score for all of Joy Mukherjee’s purloining scenes are a joy to listen – warning drums here, a shivering tinkle of piano there, and the moog and accordions teasing each other. So much fun here. And you realize in a moment of epiphany the true meaning of the movie’s title. It is Rahul Dev Burman’s ehsan to his listeners, that he emerges with an offering that’s as amazing as this movie isn’t.

Life is a Cinema Hall ratings chart
1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5): Don’t bother
2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5): Not too great
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5): Worth a watch
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5): Very good
5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5): Drop everything else NOW

Ehsan (1970) on IMDb

Movie data powered by IMDb

Ehsan is rated U (Unrestricted Public Exhibition)

Director Shiv Kumar Running Time 2h
Writer R.K. Bannerjee
Stars Joy Mukherjee, Anjana Mumtaz, Rajendranath, Helen, Boby
Genres  Action, Drama, Family, Romance

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