Like many great masala films, Namak halaal ("Loyalty") is not easy to describe. Its characters are broadly drawn archetypes and the plot makes little sense. But none of that matters, because Namak halaal has but one ambition: to entertain its audience. And that it does, charmingly.
It's almost pointless to attempt to summarize the story, but I will do so anyhow, if only to introduce the characters and the cast. Arjun Singh (Amitabh Bachchan) is a village bumpkin raised by his grandfather (Om Prakash), who sends Arjun to Bombay to make a name for himself. There, Arjun finds work in a swanky hotel owned by Raja (Shashi Kapoor). A shadowy cadre of bad guys led by a rich eccentric mastermind is trying to kill Raja. They have manipulated the circumstances to make Raja believe that the attempts on his life originate with his foster mother Savitri (Waheeda Rehman), who (unbeknownst to everyone, including herself) is also Arjun Singh's birth mother. Arjun Singh smells a rat; he either doesn't believe a woman would scheme to assassinate her own foster son, or he detects some preternatural connection to Savitri - the film isn't clear which - and pledges his loyalty to both Savitri and Raja to suss out who is behind the attacks. Arjun also has fallen in love with one of the hotel's employees, Poonam (Smita Patil), and won her heart by defending her honor against the advances of an aggressive hotel guest. Meanwhile, the shadowy bad guys hire a cabaret singer Nisha (Parveen Babi) to get close to Raja and execute him, but she ends up falling in love with him instead.
The density of Bollywood cliches and time-worn tropes - families separated and reunited, criminals softened by the power of love, epic struggles of good against evil, the triumph of virtue, the value of loyalty, and on and on - is as high in Namak halaal as in any film. With a generous dose of good humor, though, Namak halaal keeps it all in good fun. One review likened this film to an acid trip, and though I don't have direct experience of my own I appreciate the analogy; it's best not to think too hard while watching, or the whole thing will bounce off the rails in short order. A viewer who relaxes and surrenders to the experience will be rewarded with some very entertaining musical set pieces and some truly funny comedy sequences. In one hysterical scene, as Arjun fakes his way through a demonstration of English proficiency, he spits out a lengthy soliloquy of nonsense. This almost puts to shame Amitabh's occasional bursts of gibberish in "My Name is Anthony Gonsalves" from Amar Akbar Anthony. In another very funny scene, Amitabh throws his gangly frame and long, long limbs into a masterful exhibition of physical comedy when Arjun loses his slipper in the hotel ballroom's elaborate water-feature. These moments are ample enough to be well worth enduring the relatively minor pain of trying to follow the story.
I am lately fascinated by the masala turns taken by actors that I think of as giants of the art-house - National Film Awards are nice but hard-hitting social dramas are not the surest way to keep body and soul together - so Smita Patil's role in Namak Halaal is a particularly nice treat. I am accustomed to her work in smoldering, distraught roles; watching her spin about in a cheeky, sexy wet sari number with Amitabh induces a very pleasant cognitive dissonance. Indeed, all the music was great fun - in addition to Amit and Smita's steamy rain dance, the film features Amitabh at his grandest in the wild disco qawwali "Pagh ghungroo". There's also a trippy disco number, "Jawaane jaan-e-mann," in which Parveen Babi dances while odd, ghostly duplicates of her flit and twirl across the screen.
Update: here are a couple of bonus screencaps to better convey the trippiness of the Namak halaal experience (click on the images for slightly larger versions).
Arjun showing Poonam that she resides in his heart. I've since been told that this startling imagery is a direct allusion to the Ramayan, in which Hanumaan demonstrates that Sita and Ram reside in his heart by ripping it open for all to see:
I suspect that there are many more Ramayan references in Namak halaal; I wish I knew enough to recognize them.