चलती का नाम गाड़ी
The masala film was not an invention of the 1970s. Chalti ka naam gaadi is delightful proof of that, a raucous blend of farce, romance, and intrigue with a flavor reminiscent of the Marx Brothers. Top it off with a lead pair who sparkles together on screen and a catchy, toe-tapping SD Burman soundtrack and Chalti ka naam gaadi ("the moving thing is called a car") is the perfect entertainer that stands up brilliantly nearly 50 years after its birth.
Brijmohan, Jagmohan, and Manmohan are a trio of brothers (real-life brothers Ashok Kumar, Anup Kumar, and Kishore Kumar, respectively) who run an auto garage. They seem competent enough as mechanics, but in relationships they are poorly socialized and hapless. The eldest, Brijmohan, a retired prizefighter, having been once bitten by love, is far more than twice shy, harboring superstitions about women so extreme that he won't allow them in his garage even if they are paying customers. His phobia is affirmed late one rainy night when beautiful young Renu (Madhubala) turns up with a flooded engine. The youngest brother Manmohan fixes her car, but she leaves without paying, and as Manmohan tries to track her down to collect his "paanch rupaiyya barah anna" (Rs.5.75, a total immortalized in of the film's most delightful songs), his adventures really begin. He and Renu find themselves rather sweet on each other, but Renu is about to become engaged to a Prince. Meanwhile, we learn more about Brijmohan's sad romantic past; Renu's friend sets her sights on the middle brother Jagmohan, and Manmohan witnesses a murder. Eventually all these threads come together in grand masala style in the film's silly and satisfying climax.
My friend Sanni said about Chalti ka naam gaadi that she loved it so much that she despaired of finding enough positive adjectives to praise it. I know what she means. I smiled from the opening scene straight through to the end. The most delightful aspect of the film is the effervescent romantic and comic chemistry between Madhubala and Kishore Kumar. Madhubala teases him mercilessly throughout the film and her adorable giggles are a pure delight. The gorgeous Madhubala knocked my socks off the first time I saw her, depressed and defiant in the epic Mughal-e-azam; here, she plays a very different character in a very different kind of film, but she is every bit as stunning. Kishore, for his part, is a masterful comic performer. He has long been my favorite playback singer; here, in addition to singing his own playback, he dances with seemingly limitless energy. As the romantic hero of the film, he alternates between suave confidence and flustered sputtering, and is equally engaging in both modes.
Finally, Chalti ka naam gaadi sports one of the finest upbeat, silly soundtracks I have encountered, distinguished by the playful style of Kishore and the very young Asha Bhosle. Their musical dialogue in "Haal kaisa hai janab ka" is a delicious confection, picturized with adorable winking sweetness on Kishore and Madhubala. Kishore is teasing and sensuous in "Ek ladki bheegi-bhaagi si," and "Main sitaaron ka tarana," the song I mentioned above, highlights to perfection both Kishore's boundless comic energy and Madhubala's gift for teasing mischief. Chalti ka naam gaadi includes a wonderful musical surprise as well, a very early performance by Helen, Bollywood's top dancing girl for several decades. Here she delivers a mesmerizing mujra together with her mentor, a dancer called Cuckoo, whom she thoroughly outshines. I had no idea Helen could dance kathak!
Below: gorgeous Madhubala and proto-Helen. Thanks to Sanni for all the screenies.