Manmohan Desai has a knack for satisfying masala. His movies are packed to the gills with his choice wacky elements and overloaded symbols - brothers separated in childhood, medically improbable blindness, gentleman rogues, grudges held for decades by heroes and villains alike. Suhaag ("good fortune," particularly the sort of good fortune supposedly enjoyed by a married woman) is no exception, and if you check your brain at the door you will be rewarded with an amusing and goofy masala escape.
Durga (Nirupa Roy) is ruined when her husband, a gangster called Vikram (Amjad Khan), refuses to recognize their marriage and rejects their twin infant sons. Matters get worse for Durga when a rival gangster Jaggi (Kader Khan) kidnaps one of the babies and sells him to a small-time crook (Jeevan) who makes his living exploiting child beggars. Durga does her best to raise her remaining boy on her own, and he grows into Kishen (Shashi Kapoor), a devoted son and police officer of sparkling integrity. The other boy, raised among petty thieves, becomes Amit (Amitabh Bachchan), a drunk and a con-artist. Coincidence brings Amit together with Kishen and Durga, as he helps engineer a romance between Kishen and Anu (Parveen Babi), a sweet-hearted student who falls for Kishen. For his part, Amit is in love with Basanti (Rekha), a recalcitrant tawaif with a secret connection to Anu. And things become very tangled indeed when Vikram resurfaces - he hires Amit to assassinate the meddling police inspector Kishen, unaware that either young man is his son.
That plot, such as it is, is almost more trouble to describe than it is worth, something Suhaag has in common with other Manmohan Desai films like Amar Akbar Anthony and Parvarish. It's enough to hang on to while it's happening, though. After all, crazy coincidences are the bread and butter of masala - especially coincidences involving long-lost family members, which are particularly numerous here. And for all its adherence to masala formula, Suhaag does offer a few rarer treats. For instance, Rekha's Basanti is one of the most appealing characters I've ever seen her play. I am not a fan of Rekha's ephemeral, will-o-the-wisp persona, and in Basanti she offers a gutsy, earthy, worldly woman in sharp constrast to the aloof tawaif she played in Muqaddar ka sikandar - Basanti could have been a repeat performance of that character, and I was delighted that she was not.
Durga, too, is a departure from Nirupa Roy's typical "Nahin!"-screaming maa roles - at least for the first half of Suhaag. There, she is bold and forceful, taking charge and muttering snarky commentary; the sequence of scenes in which she meets Anu and tries to arrange Anu's marriage to Kishen is particularly wonderful. Unfortunately, Durga's story is bookended by simpering devotion to her singularly undeserving husband Vikram. This is Suhaag's great weakness; the movie lacks Amar Akbar Anthony's charming syncretism and paeans to Indian unity, as well as Parvarish's wry commentary on nature vs. nurture. As a fan of Manmohan Desai's hearty message-masala, I felt baited and switched when the promising Durga was in some ways more Sita than Durga.
Still Suhaag is fun when masala is on the menu - nothing else quite matches the buddy chemistry of Shashi and Amitabh ("Shashitabh," as the jodi is affectionately known in among Bollybloggers), who alone are worth watching for, and they plus the splendid songs ensure a satisfying, if silly, experience. Of these, Parveen Babi's intoxicated turn in " Main to beghar hoon" and the buddy-jodi song "Ae yaar sun" are standouts, along with the hysterical "Tere rab ne bana di jodi," in which Amitabh and Rekha dance bhangra in disguise.