My favorite Manmohan Desai movies, like Amar Akbar Anthony and Parvarish, cloak grand allegorical themes in glorious wackadoodle masala trappings. Continuing the unorthodox Rajesh Khanna retrospective that I began with Haathi mere saathi, I went into Desai's Sachaa jhutha ("truth and lies") hoping for more of the same. What I got doesn't quite measure up in substance - but it is nevertheless a satisfying masala meal.
Bhola (Rajesh Khanna) is a simple village guy, a musician who wants nothing more than to see his beloved sister Belu (Kumari Naaz) happily married. Suitors demand a hefty dowry, though, because Belu is lame, dependent upon crutches for mobility. So Bhola heads to Mumbai in hopes of making enough money to get Belu settled. Once there, Bhola is mistaken for an eccentric millionaire, Ranjit (also Rajesh Khanna), for whom he happens to be a dead ringer. Ranjit happens to moonlight as a serial jewel thief, and he sees an opportunity - he hires Bhola to impersonate him, duping the innocent fellow with a sob story about his mother, so that he can pull off big heists with Bhola supplying his alibi. Meanwhile, police inspector Pradhan (Vinod Khanna) suspects Ranjit for the larcenies, and sets his colleague Leela (Mumtaz) to go undercover and get close to Ranjit. But it's Bhola, not Ranjit, that Leela gets to know - and naturally, sparks fly.
Where Haathi mere saathi was all about the elephants, Sachaa jhutha is mostly about Rajesh Khanna and his double role. And I have to get this out of the way: I still don't much like Rajesh Khanna. If I have to watch him, though, Sachaa jhutha is the best way I can think of to do it. As Ranjit, Khanna's role demands that he be smarmy and repulsive - so my usual response to him suits quite nicely. And the double role, requiring him to distinguish Bhola from Ranjit, gives him more opportunity for range, for projecting a state other than droopy, froggy, and supercilious. Bhola is, on the whole, more wide-eyed, ingenuous, and energetic than most Rajesh Khanna characters. Which is not to say Bhola is entirely consistent - he may be a bit too smooth in his wooing of Leela than his character, otherwise a guileless bumpkin, really should be. But these are minor critiques of a pair of performances that are fun and more than adequately appealing even to this decided non-fan.
As to the film as a whole, one does have certain expectations of Manmohan Desai masala, and in that I can't fairly say that Sachaa jhutha disappoints. The movie may lack the grand philosophical scope of some of Desai's more expansive films, but it nevertheless does have - as the title promises - a minor point to make about the triumph of truth and guilelessness over deceite and subterfuge. The two adorable and hilarious sequences in which love is confessed and blossoms under the influence of a truth serum (really!) underscore this point.
And substance aside, Sachaa jhutha is crammed full of juicy masala morsels. There are unexplained, inexplicable dopplegangers and ensuing mistaken identities; a hilariously stylish costume party (see this song); a villain's teched-up, tricked-out underground lair. There is a cute gender-reversed Pygmalion sequence, reminiscent of one in Jab jab phool khile, in which Ranjit's moll Ruby (Faryal) teaches Bhola to behave like a gentleman. And the climax relies on the mass administration of a stupefaction drug - in a movie that already contains a truth serum. (Soul-baring and stupefaction? That sounds like the effect certain women have on me...)
Desai's masala Bombay is a city of magnified coincidence, one in which the same half-dozen people run into one another again and again - or nearly miss doing so, as the story demands. And that doesn't even reach the village side of the story, which features Belu's smart and loyal dog, as well as Belu and Bhola's cruel, wretched stepmother (Praveen Paul) who gets her just deserts in a magnificent filmi flood. She goes out in grand, symbolically-charged Desai style, with nothing left as she sinks beneath the surge but a few floating Rupee notes, notes she earlier snatched from Belu's hand and stuffed into her greedy choli.
Yet with all that going on, Sachaa jhutha is surprisingly taut for 150 minutes of masala. Rounding out the fun is a terrific appearance by a young, dashing Vinod Khanna as the serious Inspector Pradhan. This is first class Action Vinod stuff - he provides most of the movie's dishum-dishum, while putting nary a crease in his expensively-tailored suits. And then there is the delectable Mumtaz, adorable as a cupcake. She, of course, is at her best in the movie's many fabulous songs. From her groovy moves in "Pyar karle pyar" to her superfab outfit in "O tum jo kehdo," Mumtaz makes sure there is no shortage of eye-candy. But the hottest song of all is "Yunhi tum mujhse baat karti ho," in which, under the influence of the truth serum, Bhola and Leela confess their love on the deck of a boat in the harbor.
Sachaa jhutha is simply great fun to watch, as any masala movie should be. And, as many good movies do, it just gets better and better in memory - writing this review has made me itch to return to it and revisit the all grooviest, funniest, wackiest, sexiest scenes. Thanks to Memsaab (from whom I cribbed the screen-grab at the top of this post) I may do just that ...