I recently went on a Dev Anand binge after hearing the news of his passing last month. This man was an absolute auteur—his films were always ahead of his time. Among my favorite of his films is the 1967 kitsch classic Jewel Thief–an addictive crime thriller centered around the identity of a mysterious jewel thief who wreaks havoc across the nation. I kid you not, I watched this film 4 times in just as many weeks (not recommended).
The first time you watch the film, you might feel overwhelmed by the clash of colours and intentions in the costume and set design, by the flashy effects, and thrilling soundtrack. You ask yourself superficial questions that don’t have real answers–like why on earth is Helen dressed like a chicken? Who seriously keeps a fridge in their living room? And how did Vijayantimala fit into these outfits?
The second time, you can appreciate the rich music direction—from Lata’s lilting swan song in Rulaake Gaye Sapna Mera, to let’s not forget one of Asha’s greatest moments as a seductress in Raat Akeli Hai. Perhaps the greatest strength of Jewel Thief is its evergreen soundtrack—and the exciting dance number Honton Pe Aisi Baat. As you watch this song, you’re almost tempted to believe that Vijayantimala really did dance for Pope Pius XII himself at the Vatican when she was discovered at five years old (true story).
By the third time you see the film, you start to wonder why you’re still doing this instead of studying for exams next week.
But on the fourth pass, it dawns on you that beneath the glitzy exterior, 60s kitsch and melodrama, Dev Anand actually made an extremely sophisticated emulation of the greatest Hitchcock thrillers. The theme of double identities runs rampant in many of Hitchcock’s films—and Jewel Thief take this idea of an average man unwittingly mistaken for a look-alike to a new level. Like Mr. Kaplan of North By Northwest, our hero Vinay is so doggedly mistaken for a mystery man he has never heard of, that he joins the hunt to track down his doppelganger himself. The idea of doubles is cleverly underscored in the film’s mis-en-scene–through mirrors, camera angles, and editing. Dev Anand invites the viewer into a flashy glamorous world of deceit and intrigue–and soon, the reader is forced in the best Hitchcockian style to doubt the credibility of the film’s own hero–after all, has Vinay in turn been tricking the audience all along?
Perhaps then it is not surprising that Jewel Thief carries a deeper message underneath all of Asha Bhonsle’s high notes and crazy strobe lighting. Tanuja, who plays the likeable “modern” girl (and makes some awkwardly forward passes for the 60s), coincidentally only dresses in traditional saris after deciding to stand up for what’s right. And like India herself toying with the colorful lures of a Western way of life, Vinay loses and rediscovers his own identity, fighting to uncover the truth behind a glittering facade.
Bottom line? You need to see Jewel Thief. Forget the political commentary, forget the sublime soundtrack–just go for watching Helen in a chicken costume.