The November 29 release Knives Out has been described as a tribute to the whodunit as perfected by the acclaimed British crime writer Agatha Christie. In Rian Johnson’s movie, an octogenarian mystery novelist (Christopher Plummer) is murdered after his 85th birthday, and his eccentric family members are the suspects. Daniel Craig plays the detective. The ensemble cast includes Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Ana de Armas, Laketh Stanfield, and Michael Shannon.
Christie’s novels, short stories and plays have inspired numerous adaptations in different languages over the decades. India has not been far behind in stealing Christie’s ingenious plot twists. Among the films inspired by Christie are Dhund (1973), which is taken from her play The Unexpected Guest, Shubho Mahurat (2003), which lifts The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, and Grandmaster (2012), which blags The A.B.C. Murders.
The most unlikely local adaptation is Raja Nawathe’s Gumnaam (1965), an uncredited Hindi remake of the best-selling novel And Then There Were None. Here is Agatha Christie in an Indian setting with a big-name cast, song sequences and a comedy track supplied by Mehmood (a creation of the filmmakers). Plus, there is Helen.
The source novel has a relentless sense of foreboding, characters with solid backstories, and a pessimistic ending. However, no grey cells appear to have been used by screenwriter Dhruva Chatterjee and dialogue writer Charandas Shokh for the Hindi version. Gumnaam has a flimsy plot, unclear motivations and weak characters, but is a lot of fun thanks to Mehmood and colourful song sequences featuring Helen.
The movie begins with two mysterious killings. Sohanlal is run over by a car at the behest of Khanna, who is immediately killed by an unidentified man. After the opening credits, the song Jaan Pehchaan Ho rolls out, following which we are told that seven people, including Sohanlal’s niece Asha (Nanda), have been invited to an all-expenses-paid trip to a foreign country.
Nothing of consequence is revealed about these characters except that Rakesh (Pran) is a criminal lawyer, Acharya (Madan Puri) is a doctor, and Dharamdas (Dhumal) is a god-fearing man. The rest do not get any professions unlike in Christie’s novel, where each character is armed with a past, present, and personality.
The seven guests get stranded on an island along with mysterious flight attendant Anand (Manoj Kumar). They wander about the woods, and are treated to the title track sung by an unseen woman. Nobody panics despite the song’s sinister tones and cautionary lyrics.
The characters reach an empty mansion in the dead of the night inhabited by a butler (played by Mehmood). It transpires that they have a connection to Sohanlal’s death in some way and must thus face retribution. In both the novel and the film, each guest dies one by one in mysterious circumstances. While the novel explores the inner lives of the characters, the movie sticks with the butler’s antics.
Among the actors in the ensemble cast who stand out are Pran, Madan Puri, and Helen, who plays the flirtatious Kitty.
While the novel made no room for romance, Gumnaam doesn’t waste Manoj Kumar and Nanda. They even get a rain-soaked song – something hard to imagine in the Agatha Christie universe.
The butler is the film’s real hero. Mehmood’s song with Helen, Hum Kaale Hai To Kya Hua Dilwale Hai, is the centrepiece of Gumnaam. The movie goes for an optimistic ending, and the menacing Gumnaam Hai Koi loses its impact when the singer’s identity is revealed. The song that has aged better is Jaan Pehchan Ho, which featured in the opening credits of Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 cult comedy Ghost World.