India 1954
Directed by Guru Dutt.

Kalu Birju (Guru Dutt) is a former prisoner, in jail for reckless driving but out early for good behavior, trying to make a fresh start. On the one hand, there is his job at a garage and his romance with the owner's daughter Nicky (Shyama). It is all he could wish for, but Nicky's father throws him out for presuming to start a relationship with his daughter. On the other hand, there is the crime boss a convict friend told him to visit who grants him his own taxi, provided he will use it to take the boss somewhere when he asks it of him. Unfortunately, it turns out he wants Kalu to take him away from a bank heist he is planning. Which way will he turn? A decent job or a crooked one? It all hangs on a single moment when he could go this way or that, heads or tails, AAR-PAAR.

Guru Dutt is widely regarded as one of the best directors of Bollywood cinema. This is not however a deeply profound film, rather it is a crisp thriller, a highly successful entertainer.

The best moments of the film come early, on his first visit to the crime boss' nightclub, he sees the floor show, a seductive cabaret song and dance by a woman never named in the film but played by Shakila (and sung by Geeta Dutt).

Her beauty is intoxicating, and after Kala saves her from some creeps at the bar she falls for the plain spoken taxi driver, though her love is not reciprocated, leading her to ever more desperate measures. Their dialogue is full of pauses, as she throws out lines but can't reel him in. She wants him to work with the boss and be with her, for his part, he can't see much point in it.

Shakila: You make so little?

Kalu: I blow whatever I earn and I'm happy.

Shakila: Are you?

Kalu: Absolutely.

Shakila: Be happy then. [She leaves.]

The character actor Johnny Walker, a regular of Guru Dutt films, plays another of the gang. It is perhaps a sign of watching too many Bollywood films when you find the comedic sidekick actually amusing, but such is the case here. He also has a romance, and a song, at the zoo where he had hoped to go on a quiet date that ended up being attended by his girl's five screaming younger brothers.

There are several suspenseful moments, including the moment of AAR-PAAR, when Kala Birju makes Nicky decide whether to elope with him or not in the face of her father's angry refusal to consider their marriage, and of course the planning of the bank robbery. Guru Dutt's direction is extremely competent and stylistic, as would be expected from his statue in Bollywood cinema. And while Dev Anand would perhaps have been a better choice for the lead role than himself, Guru Dutt is acceptable, though he certainly improves in later films.

[The Yash Raj Films DVD has an acceptable picture quality and subtitles even for the songs. However, the subtitle timing is slightly off for the middle portion of the film, occassionally making it difficult to follow conversations properly. Making up a little for this flaw, the DVD also contains a 90 minute documentary about Guru Dutt that includes many clips from his films, and interviews with his surviving family and film companions, including Johnny Walker, Raj Khosla, and Waheeda Rehman.]

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on December 03, 2005.

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