IndieQuill's post about Madhubala and Ashok Kumar prompted me to pull out Howrah Bridge, a film I'd been meaning to watch for some time. Madhubala alone is plenty to keep my eyes fixed to the screen, and this marvelous tale of the Calcutta underworld offers even more than that.
The ex-pat businessman Prem Kumar (Ashok Kumar) rushes to Calcutta from his home in Rangoon when he learns that his brother Madan (Chaman Puri) has been found murdered on the city's famous Howrah Bridge. Before his murder Madan stole their family's priceless heirloom, a jeweled dragon mask, and Prem determines both to recover the mask and bring his brother's killers to justice. With the help of his tanga driver Shyamu (Om Prakash), Prem finds his way into a hotel run by Joe (Dhumal) and one run by Chang (Madan Puri), where he encounters a loose federation of smugglers including Chang, Pyarelal (K.N. Singh), and Joe's niece, the singer Edna (Madhubala). Giving a false name, Rakesh, Prem attempts to infiltrate this underworld by romancing Edna. But Shyamu's servant Bhiku (Sunder) witnessed the murder on Howrah Bridge. His snooping raises Pyarelal's suspicion, and Pyarelal - who is also jealous of Edna's attention - attempts to turn the tables on Prem, framing him for Pyarelal's own crimes.
For a film in the mystery-suspense genre, Howrah Bridge's mystery isn't particularly mysterious, its suspense not terribly suspenseful. We know from the first scenes who committed the murder and stole the artifact, and there is little in the way of twist or surprise to cast doubt on the inevitability of justice being done. The love story, too, would have benefited greatly from subtler handling. It's apparent from the story that Prem's initial interest in Edna is a fabrication, a pretense to get closer to the gang and its activities. By failing to show us a clear turning point where Prem struggles against his pretended feelings becoming real, Howrah Bridge squanders an opportunity for satisfying dramatic tension.
Despite these storytelling flaws, though, Howrah Bridge is engaging and entertaining all the way through. Shadowy cinematography sets an appropriately noirish mood (enhanced by the poorly-preserved film that unfortunately comes out even darker than intended in the DVD). Madhubala is delicious as always. And the city of Calcutta, its skyline dominated by the titular bridge, offers an ever-present, ever-shifting and fascinating backdrop. The film careens through its grimy streets, from seedy immigrant districts to ramshackle waterfront shanties to shady nightclubs. The city's better face is also shown, in the jaunty song "Sunoji yeh Calcutta hai," picturized on Om Prakash driving his tanga past Calcutta's bright parks, historic buildings, and scenic riverbanks.
There is a peculiar air of the exotic in all these scenes of Calcutta as well, and in Madan Puri's stereotypical yet weirdly compelling performance as Chang, with his arched brows and high-pitched, Chinese-inflected Hindi. I don't know whether it's proper to apply the "Orientalist" label to Bombay movie that fetishizes still more eastern locales and types, but whatever name one gives it, I have the impression that exoticism is a significant part of the mood that Howrah Bridge aims to set. The wonderful song "Mera naam Chin Chin Chu," which made a star of Helen, is one of the exotic jewels set front-and-center in this dragon-mask of a film. If nothing else it shows what a difference make-up can make, as the part-Burmese, part-English Helen, who often looks so very western in later appearances, looks perfectly east Asian here, clad in a cheongsam and made up like a porcelain doll.
The rest of the film's numerous songs are magnificent too, and really deserve repeat watchings. From Madhubala's teasingly sexy club number "Aaiye meherbaan" to an enchanting Kashmiri dance performed by Mehmood and Minoo Mumtaz, and everything in between, the delightful O.P. Nayyar soundtrack is more than enough to land Howrah Bridge squarely among my favorites.