Many Hindi movies celebrate the powerful bonds of friendship between men. And many explore the plight of poor working folk exploited by the rich. But few movies tackle both these themes at once. Namak haraam ("traitor") does not simply examine both. It pits the two themes against each other; it asks whether the bonds of friendship can survive the strain of one man's awakening to social injustice caused at the hands of the other.
The friendship at the center of Namak haraam is intense, even by filmi standards. Vicky (Amitabh Bachchan) is wealthy and impulsive. Somu (Rajesh Khanna) is the sort of buddy who goes where Vicky goes and does what he does. Early on, the film gives many ways in which Somu is Vicky's "chamcha," as other characters call him - Somu defers to Vicky's preference in nautch-girls at the kotha they visit, and even walks out on his job as a junior lawyer, when the indolent Vicky does the same. In return for this excess of loyalty, Somu and his entire barely middle-class family get the benefit of Vicky's wealth, as Vicky puts both Somu and his sister through school.
So deep runs this connection that Somu is willing to go undercover as a shop worker, to help Vicky settle an irrational score with the shop's labor leader, Bipinlal (A.K. Hangal). Vicky, who has taken over business operations from his ailing father (Om Shivpuri), feels that Bipinlal has humiliated him, and thirsts for revenge. Somu's plan is to gather intelligence and ingratiate himself among the workers, so that he can undermine Bipinlal and become the new labor leader while secretly shilling for Vicky. This scheme - not to mention Vicky and Somu's relationship - is challenged when Somu begins to feel real sympathy for the workers, for the suffering and sacrifice of their hand-to-mouth existence.
Somu is in a unique position to be torn between his loyalty to his friend, and the moving stories of the workers: Somu is from the middle class. Vicky's father believes that the middle class cannot be trusted. They have designs on our wealth, he says, and the desire to be important; yet they are also burdened by a conscience that will inevitably lead them to betray us. In this declaration - the assertion that conscience requires the middle class to betray the interests of the rich - Vicky's father explicitly admits that the conduct of the business elite is inherently amoral. Vicky, at least at this point in the film, is oblivious to that conclusion. But Somu, removed from the insulation of Vicky's great wealth, and living, working, and drinking with people who struggle for survival, sees a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I connection between himself and the beleaguered poor. He is genuinely shocked to meet a worker who his thankful to have lost his hands in an accident on the job, because the modest settlement Vicky pays to the worker allows him to get his daughter married. And Somu begins to question how he and Vicky can so cavalierly drink a month of such a worker's wages in one glass of imported whisky.
Somu's developing conscience is indeed what ultimately drives him. Whether Somu can transfer that conscience to Vicky, via the vector of friendship, is less clear. When Vicky chooses to go to prison for a terrible crime committed by his own father, he does not take the fall out of conscience. Rather, it seems to come from the same overinflated urge for revenge that sent Vicky scheming against Bipinlal earlier in the film. The serene, contemplative Vicky who emerges from prison - his girlfriend (Simi Garewal) calls him a "philosophy professor" - seems finally to have learned how to let the benefit of others inspire his actions, instead of being driven by the desire to destroy. Friendship, it seems, can teach populist values - but it takes a lot of time.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee's movies are often distinguished by a delicacy of performance, a touch that is tender and relatable, gentle and real. Namak haraam delivers this in parts. Surprisingly, the most off-kilter notes are sounded by Amitabh Bachchan. He is usually so compellingly intense in his pre-stardom roles. But the intensity is too manic here, and too weird. His responses to everything - to friendship, to perceived humiliation, to perceived betrayal - seem disproportionate, and is maturation likewise disproportionately beatific.
Rajesh Khanna, in contrast, who can be so offensively beatific at times, is very effective here, registering in pensive expressions the dawning realization of the true hardships his fellow workers and slum neighbors face. The real scene-stealing performances, though, are among those workers and neighbors. Asrani always shines in his supporting roles, and he delivers here as one of the shop workers. Rekha steals Somu's heart in a small but pleasingly earthy part. And standing out above all - even upstaging Rajesh Khanna - is Raza Murad, playing Alam, a depressed and drunk poet and kitemaker whom Somu befriends. His angular, striking face is utterly compelling as he delivers the sad poetry of working-class hopelessness to an awed Somu. Namak haraam is a good enough movie, and Vicky's journey from clueless trust-fund baby to sensitive socialist is not without its appeal. But I would pay twice to see the story told again from Alam's perspective.