When you watch enough masala movies, they start to blend together in a sort of meta-masala of fun pranks, wacky costumes, and sociopathic villains. Only a few standout films rise above this masala miasma, distinguished as truly great movies and not just paisa vasool masala. Shaan ("grandeur") is not one of them. But even if it's not the richest masala dish ever offered, Shaan serves up a tasty enough meal for a rainy afternoon.
Shiv Kumar (Sunil Dutt) is a fine, principled police officer. He risks his life to chase bad guys, and puts law and order first in his life, as he repeatedly explains to his wife Sheetal (Rakhee). To his chagrin, though, Shiv's younger brothers Ravi (Shashi Kapoor) and Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) are little more than layabouts and con artists. When Shiv Kumar runs afoul of a smuggling gang headed by the megalomaniacal sadist Shakal (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), the villain forces sharpshooter Rakesh (Shatrugan Sinha) to attempt to assassinate the officer. Rakesh betrays Shakal, who completes the job himself and offs Rakesh's wife for good measure. Devastated, Rakesh joins forces with Ravi and Vijay to extract their revenge from Shakal.
Shaan fully provides what Beth calls the "Recommended Masala Allowance" of comedy turns, caricatured villains in elaborately unlikely lairs, and cute stars pursuing cute romance. It's asking a lot of a masala movie to deliver more than that. And yet, director Sippy and writers Salim-Javed set such a high bar with so many superb masala films - dishing substance with the dishoom-dishoom - that Shaan can't help but come out unsatisfying in comparison. In Shaan, there is little more than personal revenge at stake; unlike Salim-Javed's Mr. India - a later film with a similar ending - there's no greater message about the common man giving his life to protect the republic. Indeed, there is little of anything in the way of grand theme; the value of law and order gets some lip service but the film doesn't seem to mean it. There is no message of redemption or friendship or unity, or any of the principles that lend gravitas to the best masala movies.
Still, when one doesn't hold it to the gold standard movies of its era, Shaan is a heck of a lot of fun. Most of its best moments come in the first hour, in a brilliantly constructed series of escalating cons. After duping a hotel operator out of 15,000 rupees, Ravi and Vijay find the tables turned as the uncle-niece team of Chacha (Johnny Walker) and Renu (Bindiya Goswami) con them out of twice the sum. Then the four of them join forces, only to be one-upped again by the night-club singer Sunita (Parveen Babi). These sequences are as good as any cleverly turned by Salim-Javed and are a joy to watch. They reach their culmination as Sunita joins the gang for an elaborate religious and musical hoax, the hysterical song "Dariya mein jahaz".
There are other surprising touches as well, including some remarkably good cinematography. The film is full of interesting shots through doorways, from overhead angles, and other unusual vantage points. A friend of Ravi and Vijay, the paraplegic Abdul (Mazhar Khan), propels himself through Bombay on a wheeled board, and his excellent song ("Aate jaate hue main") and chase scene are full of dizzying views of the whirling bustle of Bombay whizzing by at knee-level. And of course, in addition to the photography, the "Shashitabh" combo always delivers some good old-fashioned musical double-romance ("Jaanu meri jaan"). And for the connoisseur of masala villains with elaborate underground lairs, the bald-pated Shakal's tribute to the classic Bond villain Blofeld (almost two decades before Mike Myers gave us Dr. Evil) is not to be missed - complete with remotely-operated exploding chairs, shark tanks, and an alligator moat.