Apparently filming The Deceivers was Ismail Merchant's pet project (read here on the official site). Its story, in short, is that a British officer, the amusingly named William Savage (played by Pierce Brosnan), discovers a Thuggee group in the 1820s (in Gujarat, if I recall correctly) and then infiltrates it in an attempt to stop their crimes. I haven't read John Masters's novel on which the movie is based, nor do I wish to. Documentary books and films about unpleasant topics are one thing, but unspecifically fictionalized accounts are another. Confronting the horrible things we humans have done over the centuries (and continue to do) is one of the most important things art of any form can do, but making up stuff and then slapping on the disclaimer/tantalization "based on true events" tends to confuse the stories and dilute the issues.
Opening the film...
and closing it.
Because it's very unclear which parts of this movie are factual (or even fact-based recreation) and which parts are looser interpretation, infill, or fiction, it's almost impossible to say much about the message or the relevance of what it actually conveys. Which makes me wonder if it's any more accurate or useful to the understanding of historical India (or even modern ideas of historical India) than, say, the monkey-eating Amrish Puri-led gang in Temple of Doom. Those important points aside, its story is a little convoluted, too often filmed in very low light, and full of strange points like a man with a Muslim name stating his adherence to Kali with no contextualizing informaiton.
Just like Karz!
The criminal web that threatens to snare Savage is obvious even to someone as easily fooled and frightened as I. To be blunt: with the exception of solid performances by Brosnan, Shashi as the raja of Savage's district,
and Saeed Jaffrey as Savage's contact in the gang,
it's not a very good movie. It's not as cartoonish as Temple of Doom, but it sacrifices ethnographic exploration of the cult or much psychological investigation of Savage or the cult members for action, which mostly consists of strangling. It has more moments of ewwwww than I expected from a Merchant-Ivory production. A side note on that: I'm still not convinced that Merchant-Ivory films overall are the colonialist tripe that some people find them, and regular readers know I dearly love some of their films. So it was with great interest that I noticed that James Ivory is not at all involved in this project - his name is not in the credits at all. If anyone has read Merchant's book about making the film, Hullabaloo in Old Jeypore: The Making of The Deceivers, I'd love to know what on earth attracted him. There are probably interesting things one could do with a story like this, even a totally made-up one, but The Deceivers is just depressing and obvious. Even worse, Merchant-Ivory's other films that deal with Indian-Anglo relations and stereotypes have always struck me as critiquing both sides' impressions of the other and the way each chooses to interact, but that sort of analysis is missing here. Instead, it's the cringe-y stock types of bad attitudes and lazy fimmaking. Digitally Obsessed has a positive review of the cinematography and character studies; I disagree with the latter compliment but grudgingly admit that whoever did the interiors, costumes, and props usually did a lovely job (with the exception of the Thuggees' loot, which looks almost almost as plastic as something Kader Khan or Jeevan would relish in the 1970s).
Anyway. Picture time! Pierce is at his finest; Shashi is not but still manages to look regal under his copious facial hair. What I cannot capture is The Voice, which is set to stun and sounded so velvety that I had to rewind his first major scene to actually pay attention to the words rather than just the sounds.
Familiar faces Neena Gupta and Dalip Tahil also pop up briefly.
To close, a final eye-roll: I suppose if a pasty Brit has to go undercover in an Indian group, he might be wise to darken his skin, but I wish the movie didn't have to be so stagey about it.
That's not even a normal skin color! He looks greenish! Saeed is given the same treatment, and I swear I saw it on Shashi too.
Enough of that racist non-content! Let's move on to multiple threats of rape!
Noooooo, Shashi, nooooooooooooo! Noooooo, movie, nooooooooooooo!
PPCC's post outlines Chor Machaye Shor's problems, and they are plentiful. Vijay (Shashi) is framed for raping a woman in an atrocious wig and no pants
by his girlfriend Rekha (Mumtaz)'s father (Kamal Kapoor),
Garish bedroom alert! Amrish is the only Puri brother not in this, so Kamal Kapoor takes over the eye-bugging.
who doesn't want her daughter to marry him and figures getting him tossed in jail is the best way to stop them. Vijay doens't realize Rekha wasn't involved in the scheme, so when he gets out of jail, he goes to take his revenge (first picture). In the context of this particular film, I guess I'm glad at her response, which is to throw his vile behavior back in his face. "Has jail turned you into a beast? What have you turned out to be? And today you come to rape me? Is this your love, your faith in me? Why do you look away? Go on, bring me to disgrace!" she yells. He is quickly abashed and apologizes.
AND SHE LETS HIM.
You don't have to rekindle a relationship with someone who accuses you of framing him for rape then threatens to rape and kill you. What is this exchange supposed to prove? That this sunny, breezy man can become super-violent when pushed? That he's capable of great swings of emotional (in)stability? That true love surpasses threats of extreme physical, personal violence and utter dehumanization? As if that weren't enough, Vijay's cellmate Raju (Danny Denzongpa) also tries to rape his love interest, Chandramukhi (Meena T)
The camera doesn't treat her with any more respect than Raju does.
and is none too pleased when Vijay interferes. And then in the climactic brawl, poor Rekha is threatened with rape again, this time by a dacoit who's been ordered to do so by an evil politician (à la horrendous 90s staple revenge rape, here levied against Vijay, the leader of the heroic group fighting the politician).
See all those people standing around? They do nothing.
I had a hard time getting past the Vijay/Rekha scene, and I was flabbergasted to see rape come up twice more.
Chor Machaye Shor does serve as a frightening cautionary tale of what can happen when the cosmic masala order is upset: our hero is a very Angry Young Man named Vijay...played by Shashi. Nothing good can come of this. Nothing good apart from Shashilicous curls, that is.
Hai hai mirchi!
And maybe a parade of scarves - not as many as Dostana, but they'll do nicely in a very 70s way.*
I agree with PPCC that this film can really only be recommended for Shashi-lovers. And maaaaybe for Danny Denzongpa lovers, because he's creepy for awhile but then comes around to the right side and rocks his tight, flared corduroy trousers (à la Vinod). Shashi is the best thing in the movie, even when he overacts the bejeezus out of some of his more intense lines.
Arms are clenched in stick-it-to-the-man revolutionary spirit!
Given that the film opens with courtroom drama and Vijay yelling one of my favorite multi-purpose bits of dialogue - "Yeh jhoot hai! Jhoot!" - this should not come as a surprise.
In addition to anger and rage, he also gets to strut around as a self-satisfied engineer.
Apparently he's in agricultural engineering, but equally apparently he had a very well-rounded curriculum in school and is able to strut right into a civil engineering project with great success.
This general pose and attitude are perfected years later in Kaalaa Patthar.
He also spends a lot of time smiling and/or leaning on things, wearing tight trousers and unbuttoned shirts and looking very pleased with himself and his surroundings, which is a Beth Loves Bollywood-approved default mode for 60s and 70s Shashi.
He and Mumtaz have some nice romancing,
though "Ek Daal Par Tota Bole" seemed less like a cute moment of young love and more like a stereotype: mist, slow-motion, the couple running towards each other, lots of trees to romp around, etc.
Plus unexplained parrots. Other than their canoodling, this is not an affectionate story, and it had almost zero emotional pull for me. Dil fail, to be blunt.
Honestly, Shashi looking assured and handsome is my dominant impression of this movie. It also features:
- the excellent flailing of "Le Jayenge"
- some fun outfits and wigs for Mumtazaz
Her skirt has the Taj Mahal on it!
- that swimming pool that pops up in all 70s films (where is this? We must go there and have a super-groovy party!)
- weird dolls in the afore-mentioned garish bedroom
- and evidence for why Shashi should not be behind the wheel.
* Also curiously Dostana-like: manpris!