There is a certain amount of sexism and regressiveness that one has to tolerate as a lover of old movies. One can't be too critical of a forty-year-old film for failing to precisely match one's personal, post-modern sensibilities.
That said, I can't claim to be entirely consistent about the amount of misogynist bullshit I am prepared to tolerate for the sake of a good story or a few cute songs. For whatever reason, my threshold varies from film to film (or even perhaps for a single film, watched in different states of mind). Some days I find myself willing to overlook sexist remarks or themes with a mere eyeroll. But there are some sins that are beyond the pale, some ideas so egregious, themes so creepy, that no amount of charm and achime can redeem them, no matter how delightful the film in other respects.
Shashi Kapoor, at the peak of his career, played a vast number of upstanding characters whose ma-and-bhagwan moralism was so over the top that only his curls and snaggletoothed smile could make them bearable. Two movies I've watched recently, though, test the limits of how far Shashi's charm can go in overcoming reprehensibly creepy behavior. And the results are mixed. In Manmohan Desai's Aa gale lag jaa ("come embrace me"), the pleasure of Shashi on rollerskates - and of Sharmila Tagore doing just about anything - redeems a bizarre and unwarranted "concern rape." In Chor machaye shor ("A thief cries out"), though, even Danny Denzongpa and a range of better-than-average masala inventions cannot redeem some truly horrible behavior by Shashi's character.
Aa gale lag jaa has so much going for it - all of which is discussed in delightful detail in Beth and Amrita's podcast episode on the movie. There is little more I can add about a movie that opens with a song staged at a roller-skate fancy dress party; a movie whose hero, Prem (Shashi Kapoor) is a roller-skating master by profession; a movie whose climactic fight scene even occurs on wheels. These are the kinds of utterly fantastic, pure-entertainment details that only the mind of Manmohan Desai could cook up, presented with remarkable consistency across the film. As it riffs on its themes of familial bonds (few Desai movies, no matter how wackadoodle, are without some substantial theme on which to hang their masala tinsel), Aa gale lag jaa offers some genuinely touching sequences. The single-dad Prem frolicking on the beach with his little boy; Heera Chand (Om Prakash) softening to his illegitimate grandchild over a game of marbles; Preeti (Sharmila Tagore) coming to dinner at Prem's humble home and finding a place set there for the woman he loved and lost: Preeti herself. And this is not masala-by-numbers; there are some unusual themes as well. Preeti is a physician (though we don't see her do much doctoring) who survives, with much poise and grace, a terrible heartbreak as well as the birth and death (she believes) of an illegitimate son. She is no shrinking ruined woman, nor a Mother-India type bearing everyone else's burdens as penitence for her youthful errors. Even the perennial villain Shatrugan Sinha is ambiguous here; his character Amar is a romantic foil, and his medical methods are unconventional at best, but he is not a bad guy.
And yet, despite all this satisfaction, the spectre of that "concern rape" looms over the whole film, as it is the sine qua non of all the movie's touching family moments. Early in the movie, Preeti takes a tumble in the mountains, sliding into an icy pond. Prem rescues her, but in a mountainside cabin she trembles with hypothermia. Reluctantly, Prem strips her and himself, and joins her in bed to warm her. This treatment, taught to Prem by Preeti's medical-school instructor, presumably doesn't have to end in pregnancy. Penetration is not part of the prescription. But perhaps Prem can't resist the allure of a semi-conscious naked woman. Whatever the explanation, each view must decide for herself whether the ugh!-value of this rape casts a shadow that the otherwise rich Desai feast of Aa gale lag jaa cannot outshine.
Chor machaye shor offers Shashi sins that may be even worse, for being recurring and more malicious. Here, it is not just a one-time bad decision that sets up the rest of the story. Instead, this Shashi character, Vijay, is persistently violent and abusive toward his heroine, and suffers no lasting consequences for it. Vijay wants to marry Rakha (Mumtaz). Rekha's father (Kamal Kapoor) opposes the match, and schemes with his buddy, a corrupt politician (Madan Puri)to have Vijay tossed in prison on a trumped-up rape charge.
Vijay's first affront comes when Rekha visits him in prison. Believing her involved in the set-up, Vijay is justifiably angry. But it is a quite shock to see Vijay, the hero, reach between his cell's bars and throttle the heroine. This is the kind of behavior one expects of a masala villain - indeed, there's plenty of it from Danny Denzongpa elsewhere in the movie. It is jarring, to say the least, to see it from Shashi.
Later in the movie, the shock compounds as Vijay, having escaped from prison, contronts Rekha for her supposed betrayal. Since you falsely accuse me of rape either way, he says, I may as well rape you for real. And with that Vijay tosses Rekha on the bed and reaches for the fastener on his stylish sansabelts.
Of course righteousness prevails; Rekha shows a moment of fire, Vijay relents, and the two are immediately bound as trusting, united lovers. This instant absolution for Vijay is most frustrating. Heroes can make mistakes; indeed, a hero who does is far more interesting than a flawless one. But Vijay perpetrates attempted murder and attempted revenge-rape on his heroine, and gets away scot-free. Rekha's trust in him never wavers. Worse, he maintains his air of moral superiority throughout the movie, as only a Shashi character can, sanctimoniously mounting the high horse when Raju (Danny Denzongpa) gets frisky with a village girl who captures his fancy.
And it's a shame, because Chor machaye shor is otherwise very satisfying masala fare. Danny Denzongpa offers all the tasty moral angst that Shashi does not, as Raju grapples with his violent nature and strives to overcome his more animalistic desires. There is a terrific jailbreak sequence, where Vijay and Raju work together to create a distraction with a plan that includes tempting a goat with a bit of roti. There is some funny sidekick-work from Asrani and Tarun Ghosh. There are some memorable songs, too - notably the defiant "Dilwale dulhaniya le jayenge," far more fun and delightful than the Shah Rukh Khan regression-fest that borrowed its name. But the echo of Shashi Gone Bad resounds throughout the film, souring the masala sweetness.