Starring Raaj Kumar, Sunil Dutt, Mala Sinha, Parveen Babi, Danny, Ranjeet, Vijay Arora, Sonia Sahni, Deven Varma, Iftekhar

It is amazing to observe how many of Indian cinema’s self-taught, learning-on-the-job technicians produced such amazing results, especially cinematographers. The opening shot of this film — depicting a woman driving a car on a dark road with the focus only on her eyes — is in keeping with the best tradition of a suspense thriller in the black and white era. So strong is the impact of that opening shot, and in many other situations, achieved by the late Dharam Chopra, the operative cameraman for his better known brother, B R. Chopra. “36 Ghante” was an Indianised version of one of the finest Hollywood noir films of the 1950s, “The Desperate Hours” which was based on a real-life incident that took place in New York City in 1953.

Scripted and adapted from his own successful novel and its stage versions by Joseph Hayes and directed by William Wyler, it starred Humphrey Bogart, Fredric March and Arthur Kennedy. It was re-made by Michael Cimino with Mickey Rowke, Anthony Hopkins, Mimi Rogers in 1990. Both versions made an impact at the box office.

Akhtar-ul-Imam’s version was produced and directed by Raj Tilak (son-in-law of the legendary B R Chopra who passed away last month). It had stylised Hindi stars Raaj Kumar and Sunil Dutt — the hostage and the fugitive — who seemed pale shadows essaying the roles that March and Bogart performed in the original.

Three hardcore armed criminals, Himmat (Sunil Dutt), his brother Ajit (Ranjeet) and the dreadful looking Dilawar Khan (Danny Dengozappa) are caught after a bank heist (after depositing the loot in a red bag driven away by the senior’s love interest, Kamini (Sonia Sahni). On the run after breaking out of prison and shooting the guard, they take refuge in the house of a newspaper editor, Ashok Rai (Raaj Kumar), his wife Deepa (Mala Sinha), eight-year-old son Raju (Master Alankar) and young sister Naina (Parveen Babi) until their accomplice returns with the loot. A perfect setting for a noir film.

But thanks to star egos and greed for greater screen space, as well as a first-time director, the narrative, at times, slips, unable to maintain the tension inherent in the original, though veteran editor Pran Mehra does a fine job in retaining a semblance of tension and pace, with the cinematographer shifting lenses and focus to keep the movement alive as the family goes through the daily routine. Sharp intercuts, especially during outdoor sequences, and the night sequences add lustre to the narrative. The family occasionally tries to transfer the tension between the three to outwit them but that happens only during the pre-climax moments.

Ultimately, it is Danny as the ruthless, sneering Dilawar Khan who, despite limited exposure, steals the show while Ranjeet as Himmat’s soft-hearted brother Ajit does look out of sorts without his menacing look. He is the first to get killed as he leaves, unable to bear the torture being meted out to the hostage family.

Dilawar is the next to succumb to police bullets. Sunil Dutt, getting the maximum footage, dialogue and confrontation scenes, tries to steal the thunder through heavy throated dialogue delivery but lacks the necessary expressions. And Raaj Kumar goes through his lines in his inimitable style without betraying too many expressions despite the range the script provides. However, the crafty actor grips his moment with both hands when he successfully befools Himmat with an empty gun before becoming a victim of police fire. Mala Sinha is her usual self. Parveen Babi elegant while Vijay Arora (Vijay) walks in-and-out of the frame at regular intervals as Naina’s boyfriend.

Forced song situations render Sahir’s lyrics inconsequential despite a valiant attempt by relative newcomer composer, Sapan Chakravarty, particularly the Mukesh-rendered “Yahan bandhu aate ko hai jaana”, and the bhajan “Teen lok par raj thehara”. Others included “Chup ho aaj kaho kya hai baat” and “Jaane aaj kya hua”. It was listed in 25th position amongst the year’s top earners at the box office.