The early 1970s saw a sudden spurt in suspense thrillers, murder mysteries, fast-paced noir films involving the then relatively newer generation of heroes: from the waning superstar Rajesh Khanna to the emerging phenomenon who has dominated the silver screen, Amitabh Bachchan — who in the aftermath of “Zanjeer”, or even otherwise acted in many of them. “Benaam”, though not the best of them, was one of them — a fast-paced murder mystery with all the ingredients of a thriller conceived and scripted by the director (Narender Bedi) together with Jayant Dharmadhikari. It ostensibly drew more than just inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock’s original 1934 film (he remade a vastly different version of it in 1956 with James Stewart and Doris Day) “The Man Who Knew Too Much” starring Leslie Banks, Edna Best and Peter Lorre.
In many ways the Hindi version was somewhat petered down in intensity due to the lacklustre emotional track and forced comic situations. It was somewhat salvaged by intelligent editing (Waman Bhosle/Gurudatt Shirali), a gripping background score (R.D. Burman), punch lined dialogue (Kader Khan) and good cinematography (Kaka Thakur). But despite all these scoring elements it was only a modest success at the box office, thus fuelling the impression that however good, films with no repeat value are seldom money spinners.
It had only three songs with the title one, “Mein benaam ho gaya”, picturised on singer Narender Chanchal himself towards the end, while of the other two “Aaa raat jati hai”, a duet (Mohammed Rafi-Asha Bhosle), was picturised not on the lead pair but during a party sequence involving Amitabh Bachchan and Helen who, indeed, looks ravishingly fresh, and “Ek din hansne” (Lata Mangeshkar). It had a weak emotional track, the compatibility completely lacking between the lead pair. Moushami, in any case, was miscast. The comedy track too was somewhat patchy and unconvincing, though the original screenplay must have provided adequate space for relief in an otherwise intense drama that needed some lighter moments.
Amitabh Bachchan is brilliant as Amit Srivastava, a middle level executive in a multi-national company, in the line of fire for no fault of his and for having taken a stabbed journalist to hospital in his car. Tension starts when he starts getting threatening calls followed by the murder of his dog, and kidnapping of his son that nearly drives him to insanity, more so because of his hysterical wife, Shiela (Moushami Chatterjee). He is at his intense best during the scene where he is supposed to inject cyanide into the unconscious journo. Sadly, but for some of the intense scenes, Kader Khan’s dialogues are passé. Satyen Kappu as Inspector Jadav and Ifteqar simply appear as cogs in a wheel while Shubha Khote as the neighbourhood gossip-mongering Chachi and Dhumal as a constable fail to generate any intended comic relief. Madan Puri as Gopal is wasted.
Action and car chase scenes and speeding trains changing tracks are too long drawn out, and do not really add to any suspenseful moments despite the surprise appearance of the villain — otherwise absent from the narrative. Also, not using the actor’s real voice and replacing it with that of Kader Khan’s does not add intended intrigue, because he does not feature in a single frame, even with back to the camera during telephone conversations. Produced by Ranjit Virk, it was a modest success at the box office giving currency to the popular belief that murder mysteries-suspense dramas fail to draw audiences back for a second look.
Director: Narender Bedi
Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Maushami Chatterjee, Prem Chopra, Madan Puri, Dhumal, Shubha Khote, Ifteqar, Helen
Story, screenplay and dialogue: Narender Bedi, Jayant Dharmadhikari, Kader Khan
Music director: R.D. Burman
Lyricist: Majrooh Sultanpuri
Trivia: In this film Amitabh Bachchan uses his real family name which is Shrivastav. Bachchan was adopted by his poet father Harivansh Rai as his pen name.