Saturday 3 April 2021

On demand: "Dhund"

1973's Dhund immediately pricks the interest by being one of the few Bollywood titles to offer a credit to Agatha Christie, no less. Director B.R. Chopra sets about restaging the author's 1958 play The Uninvited Guest with a style one feels obliged to describe as high wobbliness: nothing about it convinces exactly, but the results remain fascinating to behold, teetering as they do on the very precipice of early Seventies camp. Consider the opening half-hour. After a great song about the mists that form the edge and beginning of the universe (the dhund of the title), we witness a drifter (Navin Nischol) crashing his car on the outskirts of a country estate; while seeking assistance, he walks in on a wife (Zeenat Aman) standing over the body of her dead husband, smoking gun in hand. Pretty quickly, things get wobbly. Our white-knight hero's plan to cover up the crime, so as to spare Aman's damsel-in-distress jail time, is set out to the strains of the instrumental part of "Theme from Shaft", which could only have seemed like a good idea in 1973. Then that mist starts to creep inside the house, only it's not mist as you or I might recognise it, rather the kind of dry ice they used to pump out on Top of the Pops whenever A Flock of Seagulls were on. Factor in Aman's insistently blank line readings, and the presence of her "mentally retarded" brother-in-law, who stomps around the house in what looks like P.E. kit blowing a whistle, and you can rest safe in the knowledge you've settled down to no ordinary night's viewing.

Thereafter, the screenplay - by Akhtar-Ul-Iman, Akhtar Mirza and C.J. Pavri - keeps shooting off at curious tangents. For a long while, the Nischol character is completely forgotten about, and the film instead reconfigures itself into an unusually wonky police procedural, with assured veteran Madan Puri as Inspector Joshi, sifting through suspects the audience pre-emptively rule out (the deceased's mother, a suave politico, a womanising servant) and attempting to clear that mist anew. There's never much narrative tension, seeing as we know whodunnit from the get-go. In its place, the eccentricity of any other trip up the garden path; as it zigzags around, we're left with really no clue as to where it's going. A query as to how a person might be two places at once cues a full-colour song-and-dance sequence (with guest hoofers) on that very theme; Aman, dressed in a vivid lilac ensemble, threatens to throw herself off a cliff, ironically the only time this performance comes to life; while, in a flashback to happier times, her husband (Danny Denzongpa, giving good, John Huston-like tyranny as a rake in a wheelchair) attempts clay pigeon shooting with actual pigeons. It all climaxes in a courtroom showdown that proves as loopy as high-profile murder cases often seem to be. One of those films that works in spite of itself, exerting the same curious pull as there might be in watching a bunch of people playing Cluedo while drunk.

Dhund is now streaming via Prime Video.

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