Shaan is an over-the-top Bollywood masala film that plays in very much the same vein as Don or The Great Gambler — which makes sense, since all three of them star Amitabh Bachchan. For me, they work as sort of a trilogy, even though none of the films is technically connected to the other in any official capacity. But they share so much, both in terms of pacing and overall atmosphere (and the fact that Amitabh’s character is named Vijay in all three films), that I like to think of them as some great, flared slack-clad, bow-tie sporting, kungfu-packed epic saga. Shaan is actually the least of the three films, but that by no means implies that it is anything less than absolutely sublime. Heck, as soon as the credits start rolling, projected as they are on the swaying rump of a sexy lass, you know you’re in for a real treat.
Sunil Dutt stars as DSP Shiv Kumar, the top cop of Bombay and an all-around man of action despite his advancing age and tendency to wear pristine white short-sleeve suits with ultra-tight flared slacks. Sometimes, his mere entrance onto a scene is enough to wash out the color. Maintaining proper exposure and white balance must have been a real chore. Kumar is the typical man of honor, happily married and with a lovely young daughter. His brothers, however, are what you might call a couple of rascals. Ravi (Shashi Kapoor) and Vijay (the Big B) spend most of their time hatching elaborate cons and other get-rich-quick schemes. When first we meet them, Vijay is posing as a diamond merchant who has just robbed his employer, an act that requires Vijay to bite down endlessly on the collar of his black trenchcoat, for some reason I can’t fully fathom. Suffice it to say that the schemes these two dream up are far more complex and convoluted than the crimes call for — which will sort of become a reoccurring theme in Shaan. Despite being criminals, both Vijay and Ravi are fundamentally good-hearted guys, and it seems their life of crime is less about being criminals and more about just having some fun.
After successfully snookering a crooked hotel manager out of a huge stack of cash, Vijay and Ravi are themselves snookered out of the very same cash by two more con artists, Renu (Bindiya Goswami) and Chacha (comedian and scotch brand Johnny Walker). The two sets of con artists spend some time trying to out-con one another before deciding to team up and steam a valuable necklace off the neck of a princess — a scheme that goes awry when yet another thief shows up out of nowhere to sing, dance, and show off a lot of cleavage. That would be Sunita (Parveen Babi). She and Vijay hit things off immediately, and before too long, this chance meeting of con artists and ne’r-do-wells results in the formation of a happy little gang that performs only the most delightful and jauntiest of robberies. It’s a good set-up until they attempt their most ridiculously lavish con, which apparently involves renting out the community center pool and posing as holy men to bilk suckers out of cash. I can’t imagine that they made any more money than they must have spent on costumes, building an ornate stage, and renting out the swimming pool, but whatever. All in good fun, I suppose.
Well, fun until Ravi and Vijay get busted for the ploy, and by their own brother no less! But Shiv has bigger problems to contend with than just his screwy brothers. It seems his effectiveness as a cop has but the serious hurt on a crime boss named Shakal (Kulbhushan Kharbanda). But this is no ordinary crime boss. This is a crime boss who, despite being involved in what sounds like fairly mundane rackets such as gun running, has a secret space-age underground lair on his own private island. He also wakes up every morning and models himself as much as possible after Telly Savalas as Blofeld from the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. When Shakal isn’t orchestrating criminal enterprises, he sits in his throne room equipped with a rotating platform of death chairs that can dump victims into a tank containing a giant crocodile! He also has a window looking out onto his vast undersea view, which is realized via rear projection of completely improperly scaled underwater life footage, which results in things like hand-sized fish appearing to be larger than a man.
So basically, what you have for the first hour of the film is a pretty straight-forward crime flick. And then all of a sudden, here we are in a space-age secret lair, looking at a bald guy in his Blofeld jacket, employing a uniformed private army, and trusting the successful execution of his schemes to a quartet of managers that includes that wolfman guy (Mac Mohan) that seems to be the evil henchman in every 70s Bollywood action film and Dalip Tahil, last seen here as the villainous sweater-wearing manager from Commando. Shakal, being a man of impeccable mad villain fashion sense, also insists that his four lieutenants dress equally as swanky, so they all get to wear slick white suits. So at least Dalip gets something better than the holiday sweaters and mock turtlenecks he wore in Commando.
Annoyed that Shiv is cutting into the profits of evil, Shakal forces circus performer crack shot Rakesh (Shatrughan Sinha) to assassinate the inspector. I’d like to think that Rakesh works at the same circus as JJ from Don. Considering that Shakal has a space-age underground lair, a crocodile pit, four lieutenants in flared white suits, and an army of henchmen, you would think that he could recruit an ace assassin from the criminal underworld instead of kidnapping a circus guy’s wife in order to make him turn to a life of crime. But much like Vijay and Ravi, Shakal is absolutely committed to doing things in the most lavishly complex and overblown fashion imaginable. So why hire a seasoned underworld hit man with no moral qualms about killing a cop when you could devise an elaborate scheme involving a circus sharpshooter instead? Ravi and Vijay get out of jail and swear to go straight, but it’s not too long before the crosshairs in which Shiv finds himself pull the younger brothers and their crew of con artists into the struggle against Shakal.
There is very little about Shaan that isn’t totally absurd. Shakal is a cartoon James Bond/spy caper villain who somehow wandered into a gritty 70s-style action film. One minute, it’s all guys in dungarees and open-neck shirts kicking each other on the streets of Bombay, and then all of a sudden Ravi and Rakesh are fighting gas-mask clad super villains in a pristine white secret lair throne room while Amitabh wrestles a rubber crocodile. Anyone who watches masala from the 70s and 80s has to be prepared for dramatic shifts in tone, but while the tone of Shaan remains fairly consistent, the setting seems to switch for the final hour to an entirely different movie. Not that I’m complaining. I think pretty much every type of movie could be improved by the inclusion of a bald criminal genius with a space-age secret lair and crocodile pit and female assistants clad in mini-skirts and silver go-go boots.
But the fact that Shaan is very, very silly doesn’t mean that it’s not also very, very fun. It’s tremendously enjoyable, even if we do spend a little much time with the legless dude on his rolling platform zipping about Bombay at speeds exceeding those of the cars around him. Shaan is basically a Don style Amitabh action film with a James Bond film grafted onto the end, which is really the best of both worlds. You get to watch Amitabh kungfu the crap out of people, then you get to watch him run around in futuristic passageways and battle dudes with machine guns. Plus, yeah, he wrestles a crocodile and kicks down a door. If they’d let him jump a car through the open door of a moving box car, it would have been perfect. By 1980, Amitabh’s “angry young man” trend,which he’d started with films like Zanjeer and Deewar, had just about run its course. What had once been something daring and fresh was becoming routine. Everyone knew what to expect, and Amitabh could play these types of roles with his eyes closed. But that doesn’t stop him from putting a lot of charm and effort into the film. Vijay is a well realized character, equal parts lovable rascal, suave playboy, and steely-eyed instrument of destruction. He looks great in the action scenes, and though there are fewer kungfu fights than in Don, the choreography in Shaan is much better orchestrated.
Playing second banana to Amitabh is Shashi Kapoor in a harmless role that simply gets lost in the over-the-top glory of Amitabh and Shakal. Ravi gives off a definite “yeah, me too!” vibe as he follows Vijay around. But he fares better than the women in the film. After Zeenat Aman in Don and Great Gambler, Parveen Babi and Bindiya Goswami are a major step down. The movie doesn’t really offer them very much to do other than be present and occasionally show some cleavage. They get to throw some chops and kicks and flip some dudes over during the finale, but that’s really not enough to make them in any way memorable. I’m not sure what Zeenat was doing. Maybe if she’d been on hand, we would have a better showing on behalf of the ladies.
Surprisingly, comedian Johnny Walker is not the least bit irritating as Renu’s con artist uncle. I always have major reservations about “famous comedians” in any role, be they slapstick comedy relief or otherwise. This is usually because famous comedians are almost never funny to me. Franco and Cicci, Jerry Lewis — I’m looking in your direction. But Walker plays it pretty straight for the most part, and only really has a couple scenes. In fact, most of the cast that isn’t Amitabh, Shashi, or Shatrughan Sinha tends to disappear for long stretches of film. It wouldn’t be hard to forget that Renu, Chacha, and Sunita are even in the film.
As forgettable but harmless as those three may be, with Shashi being only marginally more memorable, Shatrughan Sinha makes up for it as the circus hitman blackmailed into trying to kill Shiv Kumar.He’s the only character with any back story (as simple as that back story may be) that explains his motivations. And for being in what is ultimately a silly overblown action movie, Shatrughan brings a surprising level of depth and dignity to his role, even when wearing a billowing black silk circus shirt which I think might have also been worn by JJ in Don. In fact, I’m just going to pretend that not only were Rakesh and JJ in the same circus, but Rakesh was JJ’s son (though Rakesh himself does not know this). And it was on his deathbed that JJ bequeathed the flowing black silk Renaissance shirt to Rakesh, his final words being, “Wear it…with pride.”
But none of this matters. Because no matter how good Amitabh Bachchan and Shatrughan Sinha may be, this movie belongs to Kulbhushan Kharbanda. As the devious and dastardly Shakal, Kharbanda hams his way through a ridiculously over-the-top performance complete with weird twitching, copious amounts of booming evil laughter, and a scene where he inexplicably has his evil villain jacket unbuttoned to reveal his hairy, shirtless chest even though he’s in his throne/control room and never takes his jacket off at any other point in the movie. I guess he figured that if everyone else got to wear those big-collared polyester disco shirts unbuttoned to the navel, he should get to show off a little chest as well, despite being clad for the entire movie in a jacket with a high Mandarin style collar. Shakal is not the greatest onscreen Bollywood villain of all time — it’s only right that that honor would go to a character played by Amrish Puri (and that the character be named Mogambo — but that is another story) — but he’s pretty damn good. I think if he hadn’t been quite so serious with it, he would have reached those rarefied airs where only the best and most scenery-hungry villains exist. But while he may fail to attain a state of cartoonish villain manna, that doesn’t mean Shakal isn’t a bundle of fiendish giggling and ominous flashing button pressing.
Aside from a solid cast, Shaan boasts much that is worth celebrating. The set design, when it kicks into high gear, is really something. Most of the movie takes place on fairly standard locations — the streets, a garage, a bar, Shiv’s living room, so on and so forth. But in two instances, Shaan gives in to its flashier, more decadent art design tendencies. When Amitabh and his crew mount the theft of a diamond necklace, it occurs at a dance club that must be seen to b believed. Beth Loves Bollywood described it as a universe within an inside-out disco ball, and I can think of no better description. And sure, the plunging neckline and swinging hips of Suria’s dress are supposed to be the star attractions of the number, but that’s not to say one can’t become easily distracted by Amitabh’s pimp outfit, complete with giant roger Moore sized bowtie and a crystal-tipped walking stick. And I haven’t even mentioned the cheerleader go-go girls with the silver pom-poms.
Even that pales into comparison the instant we’re transported from the familiar sights and sounds of the Bombay streets to Shakal’s pop-art lair. There’s no excuse for a villain of his caliber to have such a lavish lair. You should only get lairs like this when you are blackmailing the entire world or stealing nuclear power plants or teleporting the entirety of Washington DC onto the moon. Shakal seems to be running guns and hassling a dude from the circus. But whatever. Since Shaan was made in 1980, I assume that the market for opulent 60s-style villain lairs had really bottomed out, so he probably got the whole package off Craigslist for super-cheap. Shakal’s lair is a dream — very Ken Adams on a Bollywood budget, or even more accurate — it looks like they somehow got access to the same sets Toho Studio used for the Planet X space base in Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. One — should one be like me — half expects Amitabh to run into Akira Takarada and Nick Adams while they’re all prowling the same halls. Now that would have been one hell of a team.
As far as musical numbers go, you have two spectacular ones, and other acceptable ones. The dance club/necklace heist scene has a great number, and the finale is a spectacular blow-out that reminds me of the finale of Jewel Thief. Vijay, Ravi, Rakesh, and the gals somehow employ a entire gypsy dance and acrobat troupe and use it to infiltrate Shakal’s fortress — because as much as bald megalomaniac super villains love the privacy of a private island space-age lair, they love a sumptuous floor show even more. The whole number turns into a wild, action-packed free-for-all that includes kungfu, shoot-outs, Rakesh and Ravi fighting supermen in gas masks in a chamber filling with poison gas — in which Shakal himself is sitting without a gas mask! — and, of course, Amitabh wrestling a crocodile. The other musical numbers are all right. The number with the legless Abdul (Mazhar Khan) zipping about town is pointless and overlong, but the awful blue screen projection should help you get through. The other numbers are the usual “wooing the chick” and “conning the masses” type of numbers, and while they’re perfectly acceptable, they just can’t compare to that dance club number or the big show at Shakal’s place.
This was director Ramesh Sippy’s first film after the spectacular career-making Sholay, and despite the all-star cast, Shaan didn’t do that well. It was sort of on the tail-end of the trend that allowed for this sort of 60s-inspired mod-meets-psychedelic pop art fantasy. A couple years later, Sonny Deol would be running around in ugly, padded jackets and parachute pants, blowing up warehouses that lacked any of the panache of Shakal’s lair. So perhaps Shaan is just a 70s movie at the dawn of the 80s. Whatever the case, Sippy’s direction isn’t as crisp and expertly paced as it was in Sholay. If there is a flaw anywhere in Shaan, it’s the usual problem of certain scenes that wouldn’t be that good in short form being drawn out much longer than they need to be.
I already mentioned Abdul’s overly lengthy roll about town, but there’s also the midway assassination attempt on Shiv that consists of nauseating scenes of Ferris wheels and rides spinning around. Later, after Shiv is kidnapped by Shakal and escapes from the secret lair, he is mercilessly pursued down the beach by Shakal’s dogs and armed gunmen in a helicopter. Now that in and of itself is a fine scene. It just goes on way too long. Plus, umm, the dogs are beagle puppies. Not Dobermans. Not German Shepards. Beagles. And little beagles at that. It just proves my point that Shakal was a cut-rate chump villain who just lucked out at some supervillain’s estate sale.
Some of the comedy drags on, too, but I find that to be the case in almost all films, especially comedies.
But those are nitpicks, at best. For the most part, Shaan is nothing but one big rollicking ball of ridiculous action, energetic songs, kungfu, guns, car chases, crocodile wrestling, disco shirts, laughing villains, secret lairs, and stuff getting’ blowed up.