With its enigmatic plot and stellar performances, Jewel Thief, which was released 50 years ago this day (27 October), remains one of the finest suspense thrillers in Hindi cinema.
Jewel Thief golden jubilee: Masterful whodunit with intricately woven web of deceit
New Delhi - 27 Oct 2017 10:00 IST
With a star-studded cast featuring Dev Anand, Vyjayanthimala, Tanuja, Helen and the veteran Ashok Kumar in his first role as outright villain in over three decades as an actor, Jewel Thief is the quintessential suspense thriller. Celebrating 50 years of the film's release today (27 October), we revisit some of its most enduring elements and contemplate what makes the film a classic.
The opening sequence of the film directed by Vijay Anand offers a montage of newspaper headlines that tell of daring daylight robberies, heists where jewellery worth lakhs (a massive sum in those distant days) is stolen, and thefts across various states, setting the tone for the search for the slippery 'jewel thief'.
Vinay (Dev Anand) is a gemologist who finds employment with a jeweller (DK Sapru). He is also the son of the police chief who has sworn to catch the jewel thief by 26 January.
Oddly, random strangers accost Vinay, mistaking him for someone called Amar. When Shalini (Vyjayanthimala) and her brother (Ashok Kumar) meet Vinay at a party, they also think he is Amar. After a robbery takes place, it is revealed that Amar is the jewel thief and Vinay gets sucked deeper into a well-knit plot as he tries to track down his doppelganger, the real jewel thief.
This film was one of several nail-biting thrillers directed by Vijay Anand, two of which — Jewel Thief and Johny Mera Naam (1970) — starred Dev Anand. Though Dev Anand was the first choice for the third one, Teesri Manzil (1966), as well, owing to some differences with producer Nasir Hussain, the film went to Shammi Kapoor instead.
Brothers Vijay and Dev Anand created magic on the big screen with Kala Bazar (1960), Tere Ghar Ke Samne (1963) and Guide (1965), and after the phenomenal success of Jewel Thief, they collaborated on Johny Mera Naam and Tere Mere Sapne (1971) as well.
Vijay Anand’s noir Jewel Thief keeps the audience captivated with its clever story, taut editing and well-placed songs with exceptional music, a hallmark of his films. The editing creates heightened suspense which adds to our bewilderment at Amar’s elusive nature, while the background score is a perfect foil to the puzzling events. With music by the great SD Burman, songs like 'Aasman Ke Neeche', 'Yeh Dil Na Hota Bechara', 'Dil Pukare Aa Re Aa Re Aa Re' and the seductive 'Raat Akeli Hai' are all classic numbers fondly hummed even today.
But the number that stands out is the climactic 'Honthon Pe Aisi Baat' with lyrics by Majrooh Sultanpuri. The choreography, the play of camera movements, and angles such as the perspective of the hall from behind a mask heighten the tension in the song. Vyjayanthimala’s lithe dance movements remain unsurpassed as contemporary heroines struggle to imitate her effortless grace. The song apparently also started the trend of placing a song just before a film's climax, though not always with the same impact.
Interestingly, Saira Banu, the quintessential beauty queen, was the first choice to play the leading lady in the film. The script was even rewritten for her twice. However, after her marriage to Dilip Kumar in 1966, she gave up a number of projects, including Jewel Thief. Saira Banu later confessed that had she accepted the film, she would not have been able to dance to 'Honthon Pe Aisi Baat' the way Vyjayanthimala did.
Ashok Kumar, a leading Hindi film star of the 1940s and 1950s, was known by the mid-1960s for his avuncular and genial roles, and was initially hesitant to take up the role offered to him in Jewel Thief as he felt audiences would not accept him in an out-and-out negative role. But Dev Anand persuaded him, saying the surprise element in the film would work only if he played the role. This casting coup remains one of the highlights of the film and was loved by audiences, belying Ashok Kumar's initial reservations.
Jewel Thief weaves the web of an alternate reality in such an artful and intricate manner that despite knowing today who the villain is, one is still sucked into the elaborately constructed drama of deceit.
The psychological play is fascinating as the characters and the audience alike fumble to figure out Amar’s identity. Instead of investing solely in the big revelation, Vijay Anand places emphasis on the way in which the deception is created and the manipulation is executed.
The influence of the James Bond series that had started with Dr No (1962) is evident in the architecture of the villain’s lair, sliding secret doors, cavernous spaces, underground tunnels, electric shocks and slinky femme fatales played by Helen, Anju Mahendru, and Faryal, and makes for a splendid thriller!
The film also has the distinction of being the first Hindi film to be shot in Sikkim, then an independent country, with several scenes filmed in and around Gangtok. (Sikkim became a part of the Indian Union in 1976.)
Aside from the plot, the attention to detail and styling in the film is evident in Vyjayanthimala’s sarees and Dev Anand’s cravats and patterned shirts that were quite the fashion statement, along with the chequered cap that is seen in Amar’s portrait. Interestingly, when the film was released, said cap sparked a rumour that Dev Anand, who was compared in his heyday with the Hollywood star Gregory Peck, had imitated the headgear from a cap he had seen Peck wearing. Apparently, this didn’t go down well with Dev saheb, who didn’t relish the comparison and had, in any case, found the cap elsewhere!