India ,  1962
Directed by Shakti Samanta.
CHINA TOWN opens like any number of "Yellow Peril" Hollywood B-movies from the 30's: The classic "Oriental Riff" kicks off while the opening credits appear like chopsticks. Sometimes I wonder if movies are set in Chinatown just to enable a perverse desire on the part of the director to sink into these tired cliches. But CHINATOWN almost immediately steps ahead, as the opening song transforms into a delightful Ravi song picturized on everyone's favorite item-number dancer, Helen, playing the bar girl Suzie (Wong?). And then: two Shammi Kapoors, one good, one bad, prefiguring the classic DON.
Bad Shammi is a gangster named Mike who has an opium addiction, treats Suzie like trash even though she loves him, and has a number of annoying mannerisms, especially a dismissive whistle and hand gesture that I am greatly relieved never caught on in the real world. He also makes dramatic pronouncements about himself in the third person, like "Time moves along with Mike, not the other way around."
But he gets caught by the police, who then haul in good Shammi, a singer named Shekhar, who was trying to woo Rita (Shakila), the daughter of a rich man who despises idle crooners. When Shekhar takes over for Mike in the gang, his girlfriend thinks he is a criminal after all, but meanwhile Shekhar's mom reveals that he had a twin, and that they were separated at birth. Could the criminal be his long lost brother? Sweet lord, it's a Bollywood film, of course he is!!!
Shammi Kapoor films are usually bright and fun films filled with songs and romance. China Town has its share of both but puts a dark noir on top. The stakes keep rising, until finally Mike's shoemaker -- its hard to explain, but the gang seems to have its own shoemaker -- finally puts it all together, leading to a melodramatic, action filled climax.
Opium dens and Chinese gangsters seem a strange fit in an Indian film, but the picture takes place in Calcutta, which is in fact the only Indian city to have its own Chinatown, one with a long and rich history. The Chinese filled jobs that the locals were unwilling to take (just as they did everywhere), in this case, work in the "unclean, low caste" leather industry, among others. There were also plenty of Chinese gangsters and opium dens.
On top of everything, the movie was released in 1962, the same year as the Sino-Indian war. During this time, many Chinese left India, and those that stayed were suspected of aiding the enemy and some even sent to internment camps. That this film, depicting thuggish, suspicious Chinese, was released in this year was just one more way that the enemy was dehumanized. Comparing how poorly Pakistani soldiers come off in today's Bollywood films, though, the Chinese get an exceedingly fair shake here (and Helen is meant to play the sympathetic Chinese girl Suzie, which mines a whole different stereotype, but nevermind).
But: I love the movie anyway, from the wonderful performances of Shammi Kapoor and Helen, to the Chinese-inspired soundtrack, to the terrible "yellowface" makeup worn by some of the supporting cast. It's got enough Shammi for fans of his usual antics, and enough serious to not turn off viewers unused to Bollywood conventions.
Posted by Peter Nepstad on October 29, 2008.