A keen-eyed aunt of mine recently informed me that she had spotted some older Hindi movies listed on Netflix. Having commandeered said aunt’s password, I discovered—among other entries—a trio of Shammi pictures. Prince I had never seen. Professor is an old favorite. I therefore sprang for the middling option, a film I had seen once before and of which I had only one clear recollection. It proves to be a middling movie, too—although my experience was complicated by the fact that the print now on Netflix is simultaneously more and less mangled than the one I saw on VCD twelve or fourteen years back.
Singapore was produced by F. C. Mehra for Eagle Films and directed by Shakti Samanta with Surinder, Qamar Jalalabadi, and Vrajendra Gaur in the story department. It concerns the disappearance of Ramesh (Gautam Mukherjee), whose choice of mustache makes him look distractingly like a House of Wax-era Vincent Price. Ramesh manages a rubber plantation and, for reasons he is reluctant to publicly state, has urgent advice for absentee owner Shyam (Shammi Kapoor) not to offer the property for sale as planned. Each memo to this effect having gone unanswered, Ramesh finally manages to schedule a phone call with Shyam—partway through which he vanishes. Uncertain whether the long-distance line is misbehaving or Ramesh has come to real harm, Shyam hops a flight from Bombay to Singapore. He begins making acquaintance with the group of Indian expats and halfheartedly yellowfaced character actors who formed Ramesh’s social and professional circles: Ramesh’s squeeze Shobha (Shashikala), to whom he imparted enough sensitive information to make her nervous without comprising actionable detail; Shobha’s conveniently unattached cousin Lata (Padimini); their father/uncle Shivdas (K. N. Singh), who has a rubber estate of his own along with owning the dinner club where the aforementioned ladies dance; inevitably named typist Chin Chin Chu (Lillian); and office peon Cha Chu (Agha). Then there’s Maria (Maria Menado—yes, a real live East Asian), the strangely solicitous woman who sat next to Shyam on the plane and whom he cannot seem to stop bumping into. These people offer inconsistent estimations of Ramesh’s reliability and sobriety, in addition to perpetrating their own eavesdropping, getting mistaken one for another, and hiding ineffectively in the back seats of beautiful cars.
This summary may offer the impression that Singapore is a suspense thriller—which it sort of is, in the Netflix version, for the opening hour or so. Had it been clear from the outset that the film was not meant as a mystery, but as a series of things happening to the stylishly dressed denizens of a stylishly presented city, I think I would have liked it much better. The initial impression of seriousness renders later laxness of execution more offensive than it would otherwise be. In a suspense thriller in which two main characters own two different rubber plantations, for example, one might expect a degree of clarity regarding the geographical relationship of said plantations. One might feel a thrill of suspicion at Madan Puri’s character being called different names by different people, rather than assuming that his identity simply doesn’t matter.1 Three major sequences in the first half of this film occur at Shivdas’s New India Club, none of which appear to have been filmed in the same space. (In one, Lata is dancing plein air for the benefit of an audience who are clearly seated in an indoor auditorium, while Shyam is off on his lonesome in a box in a second, architecturally distinct auditorium.) I am ordinarily inclined to be forgiving of this kind of sloppiness when I notice it at all. In the last mentioned case, Singapore proudly names itself an Indo-Malay coproduction; managing shooting in four studios in two countries was surely a higher logistical hurdle than those cleared by the average Bollywood release of 1960. The problem is that the expectation of mystery cues the viewer to keep careful track of details that the filmmakers never considered worthy of managerial effort. It’s a romp! Don’t worry about it!
Happily, that expectation of mystery seems itself to have been unintentional. After some puzzling,2 I am reasonably confident that the print I saw on VCD was the 135-minute version. The Netflix one is longer overall at 158 minutes, but the opening reel seems significantly incomplete. The picture quality is so poor at the outset that I didn’t even bother trying to take notes from the titles. (White-on-black Chinese-restaurant font does not aid their legibility.) This persists through about 9:04, when Shyam suddenly pops into focus midway through that fateful phone call with Ramesh. One can therefore infer that roughly two minutes are missing from the reel—at least one small chunk in the New India Club scene and a big one in the phone call scene. According to Madhu’s nicely detailed summary, the full or at least fuller version of these scenes depicts Ramesh’s disappearance, includes his initial explanation to Shyam of why the rubber plantation ought not to be sold, and makes overt the ill intentions of a major character. In other words: if somewhere there exists a truly un-Swiss-cheesed version of Singapore, I suspect that its rompiness would be clear from the start. Suspense movies traditionally wait more than ten minutes to tell you who the baddies are and what they’re trying to accomplish. My advice for the new viewer would be to read Madhu’s summary up through the phone conversation, then watch the 158-minute version with one’s appetite whetted for entertaining but essentially non-mysterious shenanigans.
Apart from probably unintentional genre confusion, my major complaint is that the music is just not as good as it ought to have been. To be fair, the nightlife scenes—which are numerous—offer some surprisingly hot ambient jazz. It’s the Shankar-Jaikishan songs themselves that are weirdly lackluster. The only one I really loved was “Aane Laga Jeene.” Perhaps not incidentally, its mixture of filmi melody with Latin swing rhythms brings it closest out of all the songs to that fun, urbane club sound threaded through the dialogue scenes. It also gives Padmini the best opportunity to showcase her dancing skills, which are otherwise underexploited. I enjoyed her “Tum Lakh Chhupana,” too; I still don’t think it shows off her dancing to the best effect it might have, but she’s certainly cute as a dumpling in it. Shammi gets one sweet dance (“Hat Jaao Deewane Aaye”) and one wild one (“Dhokha Khayegi Naa”). Helen pops by for a visit as a village girl in “Rassa Sayung Re.” Even though the music is underwhelming, I found many of the songs delightful to watch for the details of their settings. The two that weave through streets and shops have a charmingly guerilla quality, with the folks in the background variously looking weirded out, fascinated, or embarrassed to be thus danced at.
Similarly, the actors are fine to look at even when they aren’t doing much of import. I think that those mangled opening titles claimed to be “introducing Maria Menado of Malaya.” (Said introduction was to the Hindi audience, as she had been working in Malay-language productions going back at least to 1952.) Sadly, she becomes less visible in the second half of the film, but while there, is a delight. She speaks accented but expressive Hindi; I thought she sold her song “Dekho Ji Dekho” admirably. Her smile is brilliant, her wardrobe enviable. Alas—and Cha Chu agrees with me on this point—I think Maria Menado sparks off Shammi more effectively than Padmini does as our proper first heroine. Shammi has an extensive disguise sequence the exuberance of which saved the shambling second half from being the slog it easily might have been. (An exasperated bystander calls him, aptly, “tum daadhiwalle cartoon.”) Shammi gets some fun opportunities for lighter comedy before interval, too, as Shyam attempts to avoid being sidetracked by Maria and Cha Chu. The collars of his weirdly geometrical polos are permanently popped. I also appreciated whomever portrayed the flight attendant and her grimly determined customer service voice during this exchange:
HOSTESS: Excuse me, would you like to have a drink, madam?
MARIA: Yes, something hot, please.
HOSTESS: Do you mean a coffee? Or a tea?
MARIA: Scotch and soda.
HOSTESS: . . .scotch and soda.
In the mini-genre “Orientalist-inflected Shammi movies by Shakti Samanta,” China Town remains my favorite. For one, it actually is a suspense movie in that inimitable early-’60s style; it also has a lot more Helen in it. Yet I think I may revisit Singapore with my genre expectations more carefully calibrated. It is certainly beautiful to look at, especially the street scenes. I want every dress that Maria wears in my closet and the flight attendant’s soda dispenser in my kitchen. And, even though I don’t love Agha, I’m glad he got the chance to visit the Go-Happiness Car Racing Yard:
1 My notes have “Chow,” “Chang,” and “Chong.” Shyam simply calls him “China sahab” at one point.
2 Explanation, with grumbling and SPOILERS. The one thing I distinctly recalled from my first viewing of this film was a weird, wonderful gadget: a fake Vat 69 bottle that, when opened, reveals a bunch of cigarettes radiating like the branches of a catalpa tree. When this item had not appeared almost an hour in, I began to fear that I was thinking of a different film entirely. Then it did pop up—late, weirdly contextualized, and emitting an unnecessarily fast comb-and-cylinder rendition of “Für Elise.” This all seemed incorrect. Afterwards, I looked up summaries to try and suss out if something was missing. The one linked above was the most extensive, but I also picked up useful details from Heather and Greta. All three seem to be in agreement about the broad strokes, including that Ramesh is actually seen getting snatched by goondas after having stashed the treasure map in said whiskey bottle/cigarette holder/music box. Here’s what appears to be missing from those first few scenes in the Netflix version:
- Shivdas is shown to be able to hear Ramesh-Lata’s conversation from his cabin. We do not, however, see China sahab and his comrade in crime place the lampshade bug via which Shivdas is listening. It therefore remains unclear until much later that these goondas are working for/with Shivdas.
- Something is obviously lost at the beginning of the section where Ramesh and Lata stand up to dance.
- Ramesh never says anything about the existence of a treasure map to Shyam. In fact, the only person who mentions treasure on the phone call is Shyam himself, who does so jokingly in a why-are-you-making-it-so-hard-for-me-to-sell-this-rubber-estate-that-I-don’t-want kind of way. I presume that Ramesh originally followed up with some clarification.
- The biggest missing chunk is immediately after that, excising the presence of intruders, the hiding of the map, Ramesh being kidnapped, and Lo Mein (!) placing the phone back on the hook. Instead, it appears that the call simply drops right after the mention of treasure.
Since I have such a blazing clear memory of that marvelous bottle, I presume that the VCD I saw way back when was the same one mentioned by Greta. Similarity of descriptions suggest that said VCD offered a print close or identical to those seen in unspecified formats by Madhu and Heather. All three complain about choppiness, with Greta in particular inferring that significant elements were missing from the print. That suggests to me that the 135-minute version—the length mentioned on IMDB, Wikipedia, etc.—was making the rounds back then. It seems possible that assorted bits and bobs are lacking from the Netflix version after the nine-minute mark, but it is certainly nothing so overt as Ramesh and Lata’s dance conversation beginning in the middle of a sentence.