The impact of rock ‘n roll music and the emerging youth culture of the late fifties on Indian cinema didn’t happen overnight but Junglee (1961) – one of the biggest Bollywood hits of its era – was largely responsible for ushering in the swinging sixties while smashing the formulaic conventions of the traditional romantic drama, a staple of the Bombay film industry. Not only was it filmed in dazzling color, a process usually reserved for costume epics only, but it starred the screen phenomenon known as Shammi Kapoor – India’s answer to Elvis Presley. His wild rendition of “Aai Aai Ya Suku Suku” became the rallying cry for his generation and introduced a new word into the Hindi language (Yahoo!), one that expressed an uninhibited lust for life.
Even the standard plot device of “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back” was treated in a fresh and unusual manner in Junglee, with Kapoor cast as Shekar, a humorless, driven-business executive who rides his employees mercilessly. He’s no less approachable at home where he continues to uphold “the family tradition of not laughing,” a legacy passed down from his dictatorial grandparents. His sister Mala (Shashikala) is the complete opposite – passionate and loving – but she’s hiding a terrible secret from her family; she’s pregnant. How the filmmakers get around this seemingly taboo subplot (which is resolved in the most innocuous manner in the final reel) gives Junglee an unexpected tension that contrasts nicely against the movie’s exuberant musical numbers. But it’s Shekhar’s transformation from a stern, officious businessman to a fun-loving exhibitionist – the result of his love for Rajkumari (Saira Banu), a beautiful doctor’s assistant – that makes Junglee required viewing for fans of Bollywood cinema.
Shammi Kapoor had been working in films as an actor since the early fifties but had little success until he decided to change his screen image. Dropping his signature look of slicked back hair and pencil-thin moustache, Kapoor reinvented himself as a contemporary of James Dean and Elvis Presley (although Kapoor often stated in interviews that he never referenced Elvis as an inspiration). With the help of publicist Bunny Reuben, the actor proclaimed himself “The Rebel Star” and thanks to an image makeover (clean-shaved face, long sideburns and flyaway hair style), challenged the popularity of India’s reigning male stars – the triumvirate of Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand.Beginning with Tumsa Nahin Dekha in 1957, Kapoor steadily amassed a huge following that reached its zenith in Junglee (directed by Subodh Mukherji) where his larger-than-life persona threatened to burst from the screen. Look at his frenetic rendition of “Chahe Koi Mujhe Kahe,” which has Kapoor bodysurfing snow-covered hills, tumbling down icy embankments and performing herky-jerky dance moves against a canvas of natural beauty. It is this musical number alone that solidified Kapoor’s reputation as an untamed screen presence (in the style of Dean and Presley) and set the tone for his future movies. (The actor who died in August 2011 at age 79 once admitted in an interview that his knees still hurt from performing the aforementioned song in Junglee).
Kapoor, like a lot of Indian movie stars, doesn’t do his own singing. For example, the voice you hear on “Chahe Koi Mujhe Kahe,” was none other than Mohammad Rafi’s, probably the most popular “playback” singer in Indian cinema next to Lata Mangeshkar.
For the uninitiated, Junglee is a great place to start if you haven’t sampled any Indian cinema. If you like this, you might want to consider some of his other career highlights such as China Town (1962), Teesri Manzil (1966), Brahmachari (1968) and Andaz (1971).
In addition to Kapoor’s energetic performance, Junglee is equally memorable for the appearance of another Indian superstar – Helen – who appears in the other musical highpoint, a visually stunning production number with sets inspired by the paintings of Monet and Van Gogh. Frolicking among giant paintbrushes and huge globs of acrylic paint, Helen goes head to head with Kapoor in a dancing duel, set to a Spanish-style flamenco accompaniment with rock ‘n roll flourishes.
A great introduction to Helen is the 1973 documentary short by director Anthony Korner, Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls, which provides a delightful profile of the sublime dancer/sex symbol and is featured as an extra on the DVD of the Merchant-Ivory film Bombay Talkie (1970) and also available for viewing on YouTube.
Junglee is still available on DVD and yes, you can view on YouTube, but a Blu-Ray of this would be the preferred way to go.
*This is an updated and revised version of the original article that appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website
Other websites of interest: