Vijay Anand was at the peak of his filmmaking craft when he helmed Jewel Thief (1967) for star brother Dev Anand’s banner, Navketan. Loosely taking off from one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best man-on the-run pictures, North by Northwest (1959), Jewel Thief is undoubtedly one of the finest thrillers in mainstream Hindi cinema, one that gets better as time goes by.
Jewel Thief was a big commercial success for the Anand brothers. It is also the second of a trilogy of exceptional thrillers directed by Vijay Anand, the others being Teesri Manzil (1966) and Johny Mera Naam (1970).
The film is centered on a series of daring jewel robberies that totally baffle the police. We are led to believe that the Police Commissioner’s son Vinay (Dev Anand), might have a hand in the thefts. What is even more puzzling is that he is constantly being mistaken for another man, Amar.
Among those who are misled is Shalini (Vyjayanthimala), who claims to be the doppelganger’s fiancé. The suspense builds up and the plot thickens. Who is this lookalike? What is Vinay’s actual role in the overall scheme of things? And of course, who is the notorious jewel thief?
The first Hindi movie to be shot in picturesque Sikkim, Jewel Thief is aided by smart and witty writing. The film’s complex tale is meticulously plotted, as are the various twists and turns that appear credible despite obvious contrivances. Jewel Thief is also extremely well crafted and nicely paced, and keeps the suspense going for a good part of its running length of around three hours. While undoubtedly a technically slick production in the mould of Hollywood, it manages to not seamlessly incorporate and even elevate the necessary elements of Indian mainstream cinema into its narrative flow.
The casting of Ashok Kumar is the film’s masterstroke even if it is not one of the veteran’s more memorable acts. Dev Anand is his usual charming and stylish self, while Vyjayanthimala is fine enough as the damsel-in-distress who has her own baggage to deal with. Helen, Faryal and Anju Mahendru effectively do their bits as molls, adding significantly to the eye candy value. The heist thriller’s undisputed scene-stealer, even in a disappointingly underdeveloped role, is a lively and spunky Tanuja, who also nurtures a soft spot for Vinay.
In one of the film’s best moments, Tanuja playfully attempts to seduce him with the song, Raat Akeli Hai. Sung in her trademark sensuous manner by Asha Bhosle, Raat Akeli Hai sees composer SD Burman showcasing not just the singer’s vocal quality but also her fantastic breath control.
For a man in his early sixties at the time, SD Burman’s score is hip, lively and contemporary for its time. The songs are extremely well composed, be it the haunting Rula Ke Gaya Sapna Mera, the two romantic duets Aasman Ke Neeche and Dil Pukare or the deftly choreographed club song Baithe Hain Kya Uske Paas.
Interestingly, Burman had adapted the robust Colonel Bogey March originally for Guru Dutt’s Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi (1966) before OP Nayyar took over the film’s music. Once Nayyar stepped in, Burman’s song was dropped, so he reused the tune in Jewel Thief as the ever-popular Yeh Dil Na Hota Bechara.
Vijay Anand was known for his song shooting skills, and Jewel Thief sees the director in sublime form. Each of the songs is wonderfully filmed and bears Anand’s individual stamp. Amongst them, the highlight is Hothon Pe Aisi Baat, the show-stopping performance by Vyjayanathimala and other dancers for the crown prince of Sikkim. The sequence is an excuse for a distraction as the jewel thief’s main aim is to steal the prince’s bejewelled crown. Oh yes, by now we also know who the titular character is.
Hothon Pe Aisi Baat is a remarkable achievement for the time, with its long takes involving complex character and camera movements, dynamic tracking and panning shots, and a fine use of the foreground and background space within the frame, all without compromising on the emotional aspect of the narrative.
The editing too picks up the pace of the story most effectively as the shots get shorter and shorter towards the end, thus building up the suspense as we wonder what Vinay will do at the end of it all. Vyjayanthimala comes to life in the song, showing off her formidable dancing skills as she effortlessly glides her way through lengthy and elaborately choreographed dance steps even as she hits each of her marks with razor-sharp accuracy. A special nod must go to director of photography V Ratra for the remarkably fluid camerawork in a challenging situation.