Ashok Kumar, Pran, Navin Nischol, Saira Banu, Anwar Hussain, Ranjeet

Much before Victoria became a woman’s secret, people outside Mumbai knew only one Victoria, the one in Brij’s eponymous comic caper that has withstood the test of time. A complete masala film full of twists and turns many of which went on to become a staple recipe for formula films, it is about a diamond heist where nobody knows where the booty is. The film reminds you of the horse carriages that were once part of the itinerary of every tourist to Mumbai before riding into the sunset.

Writer K.A. Narayan who had ideated films like “Johny Mera Naam” and “Chori Mera Kaam” was adept at bringing multiple strands of plots together. Here at one level it is story of the lustful Seth Durgadas (Anwar Hussain), who could go to any length to retrieve his diamonds. Relationships don’t matter to him as by the end he turns against his own son Kumar (Navin Nischol).

At another it is the story of Rekha (Saira Banu) whose father is implicated in the case and she has to prove him innocent. Leading a life with multiple identities she falls in love with Kumar not realising where he is coming from. But the most vital strand of the plot involves two small time crooks Raja and Rana (Ashok Kumar and Pran), who want to lead a life of dignity but the moment they hear about the diamonds their designs change. It is their camaraderie that keeps the mood alive.

Those were the days when Ashok Kumar’s exaggerated hand gestures had not become worthy of mimicry and the aging actor could still give any young gun a run for his money. Together with Pran he foisted a solid partnership that put the lead pair of the film in the shade. “Victoria No.203” became the film of Raja and Rana and “Do Bechare Bina Sahare” (Kishore Kumar) became the driving force. Imagine at that time Ashok Kumar was in his 60s and Pran had completed golden jubilee.

And it was not that they were trying to be young. They played their age and still made people whistle at their antics putting the young pair in shade. Such was the energy in Ehsaan Rizvi’s dialogues. Yes, the same man who once wrote for Salim and Anarkali in “Mughal-e-Azam”.

This was the time when Pran was in every other film and was paid more than most leading men of the time. In 1972 alone 10 of his films made it to theatres and in each one of them he played a distinct character. He was in the running for the best supporting award for “Victoria no. 203” and “Be-Imaan” and won it for the latter but refused to accept in protest of Ghulam Mohammed (“Pakeezah”) losing out to Shankar-Jaikishan (“Be-Imaan”) in the best composer category. His principled stands have become a matter of industry folklore. Legend has it that Manoj Kumar offered him the role of a pathan in “Shor” but by that time he had said yes to play a similar character in “Zanjeer”. It soured their relations but Pran maintained if he played the same character both the films would have suffered.

When Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan were rising in the Bollywood galaxy, Navin Nischol was also in the fray. A gold medallist from FTII, he was the first protégé of the Institute who knocked at the doors of stardom and “Victoria No. 203” was one of his certified hits to fame. He had a good voice and flawless diction but was a little too polished to depict the raw energy that the era demanded and often relied on strong support cast. Take “Dharma” (1973) where once again Pran overshadowed him completely. (Pran referred to him as “barkhurdar”, which was later to become his trademark, right up to “Sharabi”.) He remained an underrated actor and even became bitter about his Bollywood experience at one point of time.

The svelte Saira Banu casts a spell as the driver of Victoria, who pretends to be male during the day. For long we carried a perception that a heroine’s career is over after her marriage. Here Saira defies it as she is not only central to the theme but also plays a ravishing seductress. The “Thoda Sa Thehro” (Lata Mangeshkar) song where she brings out the worst of Ranjeet is rated among the most remembered songs where the heroine is trying to seduce the villain.

But the film belonged to the two lovable crooks. The characters of Raja and Rana became so popular that after 12 years director Shibu Mitra made a film called “Raja Aur Rana” where Ashok Kumar and Pran reprised their camaraderie but this time box office was not as benevolent.

Years later Brij’s son Kamal Sadanah attempted a remake of the film with Anupam Kher and Om Puri in the roles of Ashok Kumar and Pran, but the film sank without a trace.

Never in the run for the top league, Brij could hide only as much as the story demanded. Take the contraceptive advertisement which cries for attention in the “Dekha Maine Dekha” number. It captures the sign of times when the government wanted to use cinema as a medium of family planning. Brij gave us some taut thrillers in the 70s where guns played a crucial role. And often he would bring his own licenced gun to the sets. Years later the same gun proved fatal as in a fit of rage he first shot down his wife and daughter and then went on to shoot himself. It was a tragic end to a life which gave us many a thrilling ride.

ANUJ KUMAR

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