Film noir is a popular genre that originated in Hollywood in the 1940s. Simply put, it refers to crime thrillers with a cynical worldview and moral ambiguity of the principal characters. It had certain stylistic conventions that were partly influenced by wartime resource crunch in America, and partly by a German movement called Expressionism. And Hindi cinema, just about a decade old, was heavily influenced by this new ‘style’.
- Kismet (1943)
Before DDLJ, before Sholay, Kismet was the longest running Hindi film ever. It ran for three years non-stop. The first anti-hero, the first blockbuster, first lost-and-found theme, Kismet broke a lot of new ground. Ashok Kumar – the reigning superstar – plays a conman who’s just been released from jail and runs into Rani (Mumtaz Shanti). Our hero is drawn to the girl and decides to swindle the man who wronged her – only to realise the target is his own biological father. It sounds like a hackneyed plot today, but back in 1943 nobody had seen or heard anything like this before. Kismet had a criminal as the protagonist, dark, moody cinematography, shady characters – all characteristics of noir.
- Mahal (1949)
A stormy night. A man in a hat and overcoat stands in front of a sprawling mansion, the vagaries of time wrought large on its facade. In the background, we hear a sombre voice telling us there’s a tragic story buried in the mansion. A creepy old caretaker ushers him in and lights candles in the chandelier one by one, elaborating the story of the lovers. As he pulls the chandelier up with a rope, the face of the man emerges from behind it. Ashok Kumar. Thus begins the Gothic story of a haunted manor. Mahal is heavily reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Rebecca – a sprawling old mansion haunted by its past inhabitant, a beautiful woman – but just like Rebecca, things are not quite as they seem. Even in 2018, 69 years later, Mahal can still surprise you. Noir at its best.
- Sangram (1950)
And we have Ashok Kumar again – and once again he plays the anti-hero, the spoilt Kunwar. Even as a child, young Kunwar (played by little Shashi Kapoor) sneaks his father’s service revolver out and shoots one of his gambling buddies. The doting father turns a blind eye to his son’s transgressions. Tides turn and Kunwar grows up to helm a hotel that moonlights as a gambling den. He spirals into the depths of criminal underworld till inevitably, he lands up in a dark mansion holding his own lady-love at gun point, trying to ward off the cops in a gunfight. Eventually, it’s the father who has to put a bullet in his son in a bid to stop him. Sangram is a precursor to Shakti and Vaastav but way darker. The film presents no justification for its ‘hero’ becoming a criminal. Also, young man called Guru Dutt had assisted Gyan Mukherjee on this film. Which brings us to the next film on our list.
- Baazi (1951)
In 1946, a 23 year-old Dev Anand struck up a friendship with the 21 year-old Guru Dutt, over a laundry misadventure. They famously signed a pact: when Dev Anand turned producer, he’ll let Guru direct a film, and Guru Dutt was to return the favour by letting Dev star in his own film. In five years, Dev kept his promise by launching Guru Dutt as a director under the Navketan banner. The film was Baazi, the most definitive film noir in this list. Baazi had all the makings of good noir: a morally ambiguous protagonist, a femme fatale, shady characters, moody cinematography. And just like a certain British filmmaker active during his time, Guru Dutt played a cameo in all the films where he wasn’t playing the lead. In Baazi, he can be spotted in the opening shot as the car pulls in.
- House No. 44 (1955)
In the 50s and 60s, Dev Anand played grey characters in film after film. It could have been due to the influence of Hollywood, or it may have been his own sensibility. House No. 44 sees him playing a slacker who’s recruited by a goon called Sundar for his crew led by the sinister Kaptaan (K.N, Singh). An encounter with the demure Nimmo (Kalpana Kartik) makes him want to turn a new leaf. Our hero revolts against Kaptaan and his minions and tried his best to earn a living through legal means. But his life of crime won’t let him go that easy. The music by S.D. Burman is sublime.
- C.I.D. (1956)
What’s been missing from the films mentioned so far is a detective. CID fills that gap. Another Guru Dutt-Dev Anand collaboration, the film features Dev as a police detective investigating the murder of a journalist, a potential whistleblower. Our hero lands up in the bad guys’ hideout, and an evil seductress waltzes in (Waheeda Rehman). The killer (Mehmood!) is murdered in prison and Dev is framed for it. The rest of the film concerns itself with how our hero clears his name, not forgetting to serenade his lady-love (Shakila) with melodies like Aankhon Hi Aankhon Mein Ishara Ho Gaya. Another timeless number from the film is Aye dil hai mushkil jeena yahan/ Zara hatke, zara bachke/ Ye hai Bombay meri jaan…
- Apradhi Kaun? (1957)
In a sinister mansion in the countryside, two brothers fight over their father’s inheritance and murder most foul takes place. Private Detective Rajesh (Abhi Bhattacharya – the Alok Nath of the 1950s – plays the sleuth here) entertains a client with an extraordinary request. The attractive but mysterious Shobha (Mala SInha) wants him to come to the mansion and steal something. Rajesh promptly refuses, but soon enough, he’s hired to solve a murder at the very mansion. The film, in all its delicious murder-and-mayhem glory, is available on YouTube. Go watch!
- 12 O’clock (1958)
When one thinks of Guru Dutt, his morbid obsession with melancholy and tragedy comes to mind. But the man clearly had a soft spot for thrillers. In 1958, Pramod Chakravorty, who had assisted Raj Khosla on CID and Milap (Pramod was also married to Geeta Dutt’s sister, Laxmi Roy). He was debuting as a director with a thriller named 12 O’clock. Dev Anand was supposed to star but when he had to step aside, Guru Dutt lapped it up. Waheeda Rehman plays Bani, a girl who’s at the station to receive her sister but ends up being charged for her murder. Her beau Ajay Kumar (Guru Dutt) happens to be a lawyer and it is now up to him to clear his girl’s name and find the ones responsible. This film that sat pretty between Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool featured the iconic stars of those two films, but couldn’t be more different.
- Howrah Bridge (1958)
And we are back to Dadamoni again. This time, it was Shakti Samanta who was making a thriller with Ashok Kumar and Madhubala, his first as a producer-director. Prem (Ashok Kumar) is summoned by his father to their house in Rangoon when his older brother Madan (Chaman Puri) runs away with the family heirloom, a miniature dragon mask (purkhon ki nishaani…Lakshmi ka vardaan). Madan is murdered on the streets of Calcutta and Prem reaches there, following his trail. Even 60 years later, Madhubala lights up the screen every time she makes an appearance.
- China Town (1962)
Another thriller by Shakti Samanta, but this time with Shammi Kapoor. And once again, Samanta explores the criminal underbelly of Big Bad Calcutta and its shady hotels. And Madan Puri, who played the evil John Chang in Howrah Bridge, once again plays an Asian baddie – Joseph Wong. Rohit Shetty’s dad, the illustrious M.B. Shetty also makes an appearance as Ching Lee. A lighter take on noir.