When I read about how Hindi movies were made in the 1970s, I can't help but be impressed by the alacrity with which the Bombay studios churned out product. Actors shuttling between three shootings a day and dubbing sessions in the evening; dialogue writers cranking out lines on set; stories resketched on the fly as actors' schedules conflicted or productions ran out of money - it's miraculous that movies of any quality were produced at all. Many a masala movie with an exciting cast and a promising first hour falls casualty to the risks of that kind of improvisational, shoestring filmmaking. The "curse of the second half" bumps more such movies than I can count right off the rails.
Chor sipahee ("thief and officer") is a textbook case of this, stylish fun masala with a lot going for it before it disintegrates into incoherence. You can feel the production becoming more rushed and careless as the film wears on. Twists in the story become more ad hoc and less clearly rendered; characters recede into the background or disappear altogether. And yet there is enough of both style and substance to redeem these sins of sloppy production, yielding sufficient reward for the masala connoisseur.
On the side of substance, Chor sipahee - like all the best masala films - hangs its wacky trappings on a profound social theme. In this case, the theme is the nature of criminality and redemption, and whether punishment or rehabilitation is the better philosophy for stopping and deterring criminal behavior. Shankar (Shashi Kapoor), a maverick but effective police inspector, believes so firmly in the principle of rehabilitation that he actually undermines attempts to punish criminals. When he encounters Raja (Vinod Khanna), an unrepentant gang leader, Shankar sees the ultimate opportunity to put his views into practice, and vows to reform Raja. Shankar is willing to go to great lengths to secure Raja's turnaround - he joins Raja's gang, renounces family ties, and apparently becomes a vicious evildoer himself. This is a subterfuge intended to show Raja the error of his ways.
Naturally, the plan is effective, and by out-badding the bad guys (including Ranjit as a gang leader who is either an Arab or peculiarly Arabophilic), Shankar convinces Raja that a life of crime is no life worth living. I would be lying if I said I understood the logic here, either of Shankar or of the script. For an alternate view, though, do see the excellent exegesis by Post-Punk Cinema Club, which finds remarkable depth and coherence in what seems to me slapdash filmmaking at its most joyously ad hoc.
On the side of style, Chor sipahee is 70s masala at its full-bore best. From Vinod Khanna's superb high-heeled boots, to Shashi Kapoor's badass leather jacket (he is decked throughout in fantastic costumes designed by his wife, Jennifer Kendall), there's no shortage of awesome to feast your eyes on. It's almost a waste to write a review of a movie such as this when I don't have a DVD to take screencaptures from. Fortunately Post-Punk and Memsaab are both on the case; see their posts for the full complement of visual goodness.
No masala movie worth its salt is complete without an outlandishly-costumed qawwali, and Chor sipahee delivers with "Duniya hai aati jaati," in which Shashi Kapoor and Vinod Khanna, in identical qawwal outfits, repeatedly exchange places via cleverly executed backflips. This song, only about 45 minutes into the movie, also marks the last interesting thing my beloved Shabana Azmi gets to do in it.
As often happens in her masala turns, Shabana Azmi is woefully underused in Chor sipahee. She has a terrific scene very early in the movie, in which she outwits Raja while he tries to rob her father's safe. (At this point in the film it must be admitted that Raja doesn't seem terribly smart for a successful recidivist crook.) Parveen Babi gets a bit more substance to her role, as Raja's righteous sister Bharti. In a delightful bit of masala melodrama, Bharti, disgusted by Raja's criminal pursuits, refuses his angry demand that she demonstrate her love by tying a rakhi on his wrist. Durga Khote gets a marvelously filmi turn as well,as Raja and Bharti's mother. In one terrific scene, she demonstrates her loving forgiveness for Raja by fixing him a bowl of kheer, and he demonstrates his unrepentant viciousness by refusing to eat it. Fortunately for everyone, Shankar turns up and eats the sweet with relish, to mother's wide-eyed delight.
On reflection, especially after reading the other reviews I've mentioned, I feel I should have found Chor sipahee more satisfying than I did. As Memsaab enumerates, it hits all the required masala elements and then some. 70s masala is a little bit like pizza - even when it's mediocre, it's still pretty good while it's happening. Chor sipahee is a good time, even if there's not much to remember the next day. And Shashi Kapoor does look mighty groovy when he dons appropriate threads for joining a smuggling ring:
(Thanks to Memsaab for the shamelessly purloined screencaptures.)