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The tropes of Raj Khosla's noir — birth anniversary special

His creation of female characters and iconic heroines remains his most memorable contribution, but Khosla's tackling of the noir in Indian cinema is unparalleled. On his 92nd birth anniversary (he was born 31 May 1925), we take a look at the man who reshaped Indian noir through his films.

Shriram Iyengar

For a man who spent 38 years associated with Indian cinema, and working 28 of it as a director, Raj Khosla deserves better treatment by critics and cinephiles alike. While he is known for having created iconic female characters, the director is also the first among equals when it comes to genre of noir.

Film noir, by definition, refers to films that deal with hard-boiled crime fiction. These films were highly stylized, theatrical, and carried expressionist imagery that defined them. Some of the early names who rank as noir filmmakers include Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger among others.

In his autobiography, Romancing With Life, Dev Anand mentions meeting a wannabe singer, Raj Khosla at a coffee joint around Mumbai's Flora Fountain. At this point, Anand was still an upcoming actor. He offered the young Khosla a job as assistant under Guru Dutt in Baazi (1951). It was to be the beginning of a very productive film career. Khosla would reminisce about his singing career in a later interview saying, "Luckily for all of you, that did not happen, though Dev took me to Guru Dutt, I joined him as assistant and later became a director!"

It is no surprise that Khosla's later films would reflect some of the lessons he learnt from Dutt's Baazi. Guru Dutt's debut as director had a morally ambiguous hero, a questionable heroine and some fascinating shadow lighting (a style Guru Dutt would make his own).

Raj Khosla worked as assistant to director Guru Dutt in Baazi (1951)

Khosla would soon make his debut with Milap (1955). Contrary to his training, his first film was a story about a country bumpkin (Dev Anand, naturally) who comes into a fortune and does not know what to do with it. While the film was a flop, it had glimpses of Khosla's craftsmanship and fine ear for music. One he would put to great use over his next films.

The flop of Milap was followed by four other classic hits with Dev Anand — C.I.D. (1956), Kala Pani (1958), Solva Saal (1958), Bombai Ka Babu (1960). Of these, C.I.D. is the perfect example of the template that would become Khosla's signature style.

Revolving around the murder of an editor of the Times Of India newspaper in 1950s Bombay, Khosla's film had elements of noir like an unscrupulous hero, newspapers, shots of rainy Bombay streets and a good hearted moll (Waheeda Rehman) capable of twisting truths to her own benefits. It also had some stylish dialogues — Ek jisne chaaku chalaya aur ek woh jisne chaaku chalwaaya (There are two murderers. One who wields the knife, and the other who forced him to).

Kala Pani is another wonderful dark film that is a cinematographic treat for the way Khosla wraps his hero in dark clothing throughout the film. A reminder of the darkness that is inherent in the character.

Throughout his career, Khosla pushed the boundaries in terms of stories. He made crime thrillers, suspense dramas, social dramas, and even the romantic musicals. Solva Saal (1958) was a grittier take on the Frank Capra comedy, It Happened One Night (1934). Kala Pani (1958) was a hard boiled noir that dealt with the black market. In Bombai Ka Babu (1960), Khosla almost touched incest in his narrative. A key plot element revolved around the intrigue when Dev Anand, who plays an imposter in the film, finds out that the woman he loves is the sister of the man he is pretending to be.

The mysterious noir woman is another trope that continued to be a part of Khosla's template through his next foray into horror mysteries like Woh Kaun Thi? (1964) and Mera Saaya (1966). The forgotten part of the trilogy was Anita (1967), which flopped. Sadhana played it to great effect in both the films, accompanied by the eerie voice of Lata Mangeshkar singing some iconic tracks.

Despite his traditionality in sticking to the formulaic tropes of the noir genre, Khosla added a uniquely Indian touch to it through music. A director with a fantastic ear for music, his films are remembered for their memorable musical scores. SD Burman, OP Nayyar, even RD Burman (who played the harmonica in 'Hai Apna Dil Toh Awara' in Solva Saal) benefitted with the nuanced picturisation of their songs by Khosla.

Whether it was 'Ae Dil Hai Mushkil' from C.I.D. or 'Nainon Mein Badra Chaaye' from Mera Saaya, Khosla's films delivered some stunning numbers. Even his more forgettable ventures like Chirag (1969) would deliver a fantastic soundtrack. Sample this song from the Sunil Dutt, Asha Parekh film.

In his later career, Khosla went on to make more commercial mainstream cinema. In fact, his first, and only Filmfare award for Best Film is for Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki (1978), a sappy household drama. His other nomination for Best Director was for the film Do Raaste (1969), a film about the struggles of a dutiful son played melodramatically by Rajesh Khanna

Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki (1978)

Despite the change, the talent of Khosla was unquestionable. One of his last memorable films in the 1970s was the Vinod Khanna-Dharmendra starrer, Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) which served as a template for the groundbreaking, Sholay (1975).

Sadly, like some of the noir heroes he admired, Khosla's life too followed a similar template. Discouraged by the spate of flops in the late 1970s, and early 1980s, the director sought refuge in alcohol. His last film was Sunny (1984) with Sunny Deol and Amrita Singh. It failed to make the same impact. He never made another film.